The Power Index: Why a Transition to Agile Is a Cultural Issue, Too

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As I work with more organizations and across more cultures, I’ve been realizing that agile exposes a huge piece of the power in an organization that many people may not want exposed. Malcolm Gladwell offers a good explanation in his book Outliers: The Story of Success when he talks about Hofstede’s power distance index, which compares the extent of unequal power distribution across countries.

Part of the index measures the ability of less powerful people in a situation to talk to the more powerful people in the situation. Where do we hear about successful agile transitions? Israel, Denmark, Sweden, New Zealand, Norway, Finland—countries and, by extension, organizations that we assume have low power indices. (This is the perception. Of course there are organizations in these countries that do not have low power indices.)

The countries and organizations that have had more trouble with their agile transitions have had higher power indices. That’s because it’s more difficult in these environments for people in less powerful positions to talk to people in more powerful positions. Agile exposes the power differential, which can be uncomfortable or intimidating.

This reality has implications for geographically distributed teams, project managers, program managers, and anyone—not just the agile teams—working across the organization to accomplish work.

However, there are some ways you can try to improve the imbalance of power that will help everyone work together.

  1. Acknowledge it. Recognize that some people are intimidated by others and their titles in the organization.
  2. If you have to work with people who revel in their titular power, acknowledge their power because it makes them feel good. Then, move on. Know what you want, and help them acknowledge that what you want is also necessary for the organization to succeed.
  3. Stay positive. Sometimes the other person needs to put you down because he has no other way of dealing with other people. Try to help the conversation progress.
  4. Look for joint objectives. Finding a cause that will make you both happy often puts you on the same power plane.
  5. Keep your integrity. Avoid gossiping, and don’t make promises you can’t keep. Don’t let someone blame your team, project, or program for that person's emergencies or failings, and don't blame someone else's team for those reasons, either.

When you have these conversations, you are changing a person's perception about culture, which isn't easy. Sometimes it takes, and sometimes it doesn’t.

The hardest part of transitioning to agile in these cases is getting the workers to keep with agile practices. Organizations with a high power differential often end up falling back to command-and-control approaches because the power differential is so ingrained in their cultures. This is why a transition to agile is not just a technical issue, but a cultural issue too.

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Johanna Rothman

Johanna Rothman, known as the “Pragmatic Manager,” helps organizational leaders see problems and risks in their product development. She helps them recognize potential “gotchas,” seize opportunities, and remove impediments. She is working on a book about agile program management. She writes columns for Stickyminds.com and Gantthead.com, and writes two blogs on her web site, jrothman.com, as well as a blog on createadaptablelife.com.