Why Agile’s Cultural Impact Can No Longer Be Overlooked

When Yahoo’s new CEO Marissa Mayer made the announcement that she was eliminating the company’s work-from-home option and requiring all employees to begin working onsite in June, many were left shaking their heads and asking why.

In this day and age—with Skype, GoToMeeting, and VPN capabilities—why would Mayer require this of hundreds, if not thousands, of Yahoo employees? While she states that those working from the comfort of their own homes were sacrificing “speed and quality,” I believe the policy shift has more to do with trying to improve the culture of Yahoo’s workplace. Many have voiced their opinion of Mayer’s unpopular move, but the CEO obviously saw something amiss at Yahoo’s offices, and it’s something amiss at many offices, especially those practicing agile development.

Why do “people” and “culture” continue to top the list of blames for agile’s (occasional) failure? For one, changing an existing culture is very difficult. People, by their very nature, tend to resist change, and early attempts at agile are some of the biggest changes developers and testers may have ever made in their professional lives.

I recently discussed with author and agile expert Ade Shokoya how to go about tackling the culture shock that agile can sometimes bring. Ade stated that using a more inclusive tone with non-agile team members is a great place to start:

One way to get team/workplace buy-in to agile transition is to engage them in the process wherever possible. For example, draw on their experiences of what doesn't work in the existing approach and demonstrate how the chosen agile methodology might help address those issues.To ensure they feel valued and listened to, present them with the proposed (rather than "mandated") new agile framework, and where appropriate, allow them to contribute to its implementation, making sure to incorporate their ideas and feedback into its evolution.

Another area needing improvement is a more universally accepted understanding of what “agile” even means. Often referred to as a practice, methodology, belief, or any number of combinations of the three, agile is ultimately a culture all its own.

MIT professor Edgar Schein was quoted as saying, “If you do not manage culture, it manages you, and you may not even be aware of the extent to which this is happening.” Thus, if you’re not managing culture, you’re not managing agile, and your project has very little chance to succeed.

Until agile teams leaders stop assigning a level of importance to culture and start looking at all of agile’s practices as a culture, we may not see the term shed the dubious distinction of being the number one source of blame any time soon.

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