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Agile Transformation: Culture, Strategy, and Tactics

All the large organizations in Canada and the US are either considering or in the midst of an "Agile Transformation" Is this a true transformation, an adoption of practices, or something else? That is another topic.

These large-scale initiatives to take on an agile approach is becoming not only sexy but necessary to keep up with this every changing and ever disruptive climate that companies must navigate.

But how does a leader (or group of leaders) successfully navigate this agile transformation? Well, there are many facets to think so and many aspects to work through. However, there are three major areas to pay attention to no matter the circumstance or industry. They are tactics, strategy, and culture. Without looking at all three of these major areas, your agile transformation is likely to fail.

Agile Transformation Area #1: Culture

Why start with the culture of a company? I love this quote: "Culture eats strategy for breakfast". And it is true. No matter how effective, well-thought out, or clever your strategy is, it won't be able to withstand the actual culture of an organization.

What do I mean by culture?

Culture is what you can observe in each of the employees and contractors every single day. It is the actions and behaviours that demonstrated. Culture is not the set of values described by senior management nor is it a policy that is enforced by human resources. The simplest way to uncover a company's culture is to observe interactions and decision-making meetings that are controversial and emotionally difficult. When things get hard, this is when you truly see the culture.

How do I determine the culture that we have and then how can I shift it to something healthier and more effective?

Over the past few years, I have been lucky to have worked with organizations that are willing to look at their organizational behaviours. One of my experiences was with CBC with my fellow change agent, Michael Sahota. We learned a ton about culture and leadership behaviours. A more recent experience was at Scotiabank where I led an intense study of a 500-person group to determine its current culture and the desires of that group to shift to a more healthy and joyful set of behaviours. In both cases, using a simple framework to shift the culture was necessary. We used the Influencer Model from the book "Influencer: The Power to Change Anything". Basically, you look at Six Sources of Influence and then determine what are the vital behaviours that will support your new culture.

How does my culture connect to my agile transformation?

Let's go back to the quote: "Culture eats strategy for breakfast".

Most agile transformation initiatives that I have worked on over the past 11 years focus on the strategy of adopting agile practices, roles, and processes. Little attention is given to the organizational culture -- how the company staff behave and how that impacts their current reality. Without becoming aware of the culture, without addressing that culture, and without shifting that culture an agile transformation will make little impact.

Agile Transformation Area #2: Strategy

Now that you have given thought about your organizational culture and have taken steps to ensure that it won't negatively impact your agile transformation efforts, it is time to turn your attention to your strategy.

What do I mean by strategy?

Strategy is the goal and contains complex elements to achieve to accomplish that goal. Strategy includes your vision. Strategy includes policies, rules, and agreements. Strategy is the direction that you want to pursue. Organizations that are large spend plenty of time in strategy, especially at the senior management level.

How do I determine the strategy that we have and then how can I create one that will be effective?

This area is simpler that culture. However, it can still be done poorly. To determine your strategy just review senior management edicts, attend town hall meetings, and read your company's policies and external facing marketing documents. Then to decide if your company's strategy (or strategies) are effective, it is important to ask questions of all groups in the company, to listen to complaints, to seek out pain points, and to uncover the wishes and dreams of the people working in your company. Without large-percentage buy-in for the strategy it won't produce valuable results that are long-lasting.

How does my strategy connect to my agile transformation?

To effectively move through an agile transformation, you need a strategy that will support this shift in working and thinking. It is critical to have individuals are the senior level and, on the ground, that diverse in experience, background, and skill-set across departments to support and lead that transformation. This will allow for continuous improvement of the transformation, continuous adjustment of the strategy to match the results and findings of the transformation, and continuous learning by those involves shifting their own thinking and behaviours.

Agile Transformation Area #3: Tactics

Tactics is the most basic of the three major areas of a large change. However, it must not be overlooked. 

What do I mean by tactics?

Tactics make up much of the day to day operations and actions of the group. Tactics include elements such as meetings, decisions, development of the product, governance, review of the work, physical space, human structures, and many others.

How do I determine the tactics that we have and then how can I create many that will be helpful?

First, observe and ask questions. Tactics are the easiest of the three major areas of a change to discover. How people decide if to go to a meeting or not is a tactic. Deciding on which piece of work to do first is a tactic. Once you learn about your tactics, then you can adjust them to make them helpful and effective by aligning them to your strategy and culture.

For example, let's imagine that your goal for the company is to be the best hotel provider in the world. Well, you would need to have a culture that values and behaves in ways that shows that customer that they are important during the entirety of the relationship. Then you would need a strategy that helps your staff and management to enact and measure those behaviours and actions to determine how you are accomplishing those goals. And finally, you would need on-the-ground tactics to support your goal, culture and strategy that are simple to follow and easy to accomplish every day.

How do my tactics connect to my agile transformation?

Without alignment of your tactics (those actions) to your agile transformation, it won't become a reality. If you want to adopt Scrum as your agile framework strategy then you need to have actions (tactics) that support this strategy such as creating agile teams, holding daily Scrum meetings, and working through a prioritized list of work.

Some Closing Remarks on Agile Transformations

Many organizations fail in completing agile transformations. Why? For the simple reason of thinking that it is easy. It is hard. Again, agile transformations are hard. They are hard because you are trying something into something else. Think about how a child transforms from a baby into an adult. This is difficult work and requires so many people and structures to support these individuals over many years of change.

This is similar for organizations. The current systems that are present in your company are there because of its culture, strategy and tactics. So, it is in your best interest to understand all of these areas and then determine how you will (with many others) shift and address the ones that don't support your transformation goals.

What do you think? Have you experienced a successful agile transformation? Were all three of the major areas of change addressed?

I hope that each of you continue to bring light and love to those around as I continue to strive in doing this each day through my interactions and learning with many people across all walks of life.


Published at with the consent of the author

Paul Heidema Heidema

About author

CEO at SparkActa | Organizational Gardener | Agile Coach

Paul J. Heidema consults, coaches and guides senior management and staff to look for possibilities to improve their results and improve their organization. He leads large-scale organizational transformations to achieve lasting results in: building a culture that supports trust and growth, leadership coaching to mentor others, organizational effectiveness in processes, and systems thinking.
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