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Agile Culture and why it matters

Philip Alexander
culture

Organisational culture is what drives the behaviours that make an organisation successful. In a recent international study[1] of more than 500 business leaders, 53 percent said that cultural fit sets great employees apart, more than employees’ skills at 39 percent. Contributor Philip Alexander, Director – Agile Business Consortium.

For more than half the leaders, cultural fit was an influencer of excellence in employees. Organisational culture can be defined as the way things are done around here and it pays us to get it right. HR is arguably the most influential function when it comes to culture and cultural fit. Driving culture has become a major priority for HR functions, and culture now sits at the heart of strategy for today’s businesses.

What is Organisational Culture?
A team of HR and Agile specialists at the Agile Business Consortium have been undertaking extensive research into Agile culture and what it could mean for your organisation. Agility within an organisation is increasingly recognised as being critical for the survival and growth of a business in an environment where fast-moving change is the norm, and significant disruption is not only to be expected but embraced. They have explored the impact of communication, commitment and collaboration on leadership, and the symbiotic relationship between culture and leadership and how it shapes and influences change within organisations.

Their research has identified seven aspects of Agile culture DNA:

Unleashed purpose and meaningful results
Does everyone understand and share the why of your organisation? When employees feel they are making a contribution that really matters, performance and productivity have been shown to improve. The book Firms of Endearment showcases businesses that focus on passion, purpose and furthering stakeholder group interests, and demonstrates that these outperformed S&P 500 companies by a factor of 14 over the period 1998 – 2013[2]

Agile leadership
Emerging insights from neuroscience have shown that our brains feel social hurt just the same as physical hurt. When we feel threatened, we become less capable of analytical and creative thought. Our thinking brain shuts down in this fight or flight mode, leaving us feeling emotional and incapable of rational analysis. Supportive leadership helps protect performance, keeping people productive and able to make sound judgements in the face of change. A directive, command and control style of leadership is less effective where being responsive is more important than following an established process.

Well-being and fulfilment
Happy, healthy and fulfilled employees are no longer a ‘nice to have’. In the UK, 12.5 million working days were lost due to work-related stress, depression or anxiety in 2016/17. Gallup has been measuring employee engagement in the US for nearly two decades and has highlighted that only 30 percent of people are engaged at work.[3]  That means two thirds of potential is being quashed.

Collaborative communities and distributed authority
When change is all around us and sometimes coming from unexpected places, we cannot pretend that any one person has all the answers. Collaboration is critical amidst disruption, so that different points of view and experiences can be combined to create new routes forward. By distributing authority, we empower employees to make the decisions appropriate to their skillset, improving responsiveness by reducing the time it takes to refer to others for authority to proceed.

Trust and Transparency
If an organisation’s culture offers psychological safety, avoiding blame and supporting employees to grow beyond their mistakes, then transparent working becomes possible. Working in a protective and concealed way is time consuming and negative. Collaboration becomes more effective when people share what they know, and don’t know, openly. When trust and transparency guides progress, it becomes safe to ask for support so that potential can be stretched both for the individual and the organisation.

In a transparent environment, less meetings are needed as progress information is shared openly, visible to anyone with the interest to look. Overly frequent meetings get in the way of productivity.

Adaptability to change
Where fast-moving change is endemic, Agile organisations will rely on a strong core that provides stabiity whilst having the flexibility to adapt and change – bending without breaking. This strong core needs to be at an organisational culture level and also at an individual level, so that employees are supported to be resilient to day-to-day pressures.

Innovation, learning and personal mastery
Business agility relies on a culture of growth and development. Individuals and organisations need to embrace a growth mindset, looking out for learning opportunities and being prepared to take an iterative, learning as you go, Agile approach. Innovation results from the freedom to experiment and create fresh thinking and new ways of doing things. Some organisations have created this learning culture by setting time aside for employees to work on their own ideas.

Google founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin highlighted this in their 2004 Initial Public Offering (IPO) letter: ‘We encourage our employees, in addition to their regular projects, to spend 20 percent of their time working on what they think will most benefit Google,” they wrote. “This empowers them to be more creative and innovative. Many of our significant advances have happened in this manner.’

When employees feel that they matter, that their ideas are going to be heard and they have real ownership of their work, improved performance frequently results.

HR, Agile and Culture
Culture starts and ends with the behaviour of each and every employee. HR sits at the heart of cultural transformation, in being the function that is most naturally horizontal, communicating across all departments and business units. When employees are fully engaged, performance soars. When teams look for solutions that will delight the customer, without being held back by fear of failure, innovation results. When leaders ask questions that coach and mentor professionals to find answers for themselves, people grow and develop the organisation’s talent base.

An Agile approach offers the framework and HR can make it happen.

www.agilebusiness.org

[1] https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2017/08/why-personality-and-not-skill-makes-you-a-great-employee

[2] www.firmsofendearment.com

[3] http://news.gallup.com/businessjournal/188033/worldwide-employee-engagement-crisis.aspx


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