Culture and People and Systems…Oh My!

I received my copy of The Re-Engineering Alternative by William Schneider a couple days ago.  I’ve always been fascinated with culture and people (particularly MBTI) and how, IMO, they impact how effective you can be with Agile.

Michael Sahota has written some fantastic posts about organization culture and I’m excited to read this book to expand my knowledge about culture.

What I’m more interested is how those cultures develop, after all, it’s the people in your organization that create your culture. Schneider describes 4 major culture types (Collaboration, Cultivation, Control and Competence):

To describe this digram, Cultivation culture focuses on forward-thinking and being more people focused whereas Control cultures focus on here and now and are more process oriented.  Michael’s post goes into more depth about explaining those cultures than I will in this post.

Taking a very simple systems example, you can have an organization with a Control culture and have teams within that system that have a Collaboration culture:

I was working for a large organization that exhibited the symptoms typical in a Control culture, however the team I was working on fit into the description of a Collaborative culture.   An organization or team’s culture is not absolute, that is, if your organization is a control culture that doesn’t mean it can’t exhibit attributes of another culture type.

I have a theory that cultures are developed based on the types and temperament (and obviously other factors) of the people in those cultures.  Here’s an example, the MBTI temperament “SJ” (sensing/judging) has preferences that fit well into a control culture.  ”SJ’s” don’t like change, they like process, control and predictability, in particular the ESTJ type.  As leaders, “SJ’s” like to be in control.  My theory is that if you have leaders with an “SJ” temperament you are more likely to develop a control culture and the harder it will be to adopt Agile.

Similar to cultures, a person’s MBTI preferences are just that.  Preferences.  It doesn’t mean an SJ isn’t able to collaborate, it means that an “SJ’s” natural preference is order, control and process.  ”SJ’s” are also very hard workers who expect a great deal of themselves and therefore the people that work under them which can further strengthen the control culture.  SJ’s rely on past experience for decision making and generally are not forward, or “out of the box” thinkers.  You can read more about SJ temperaments here.

Assuming there’s some merit to this theory and an organization identifies as control culture and the leaders are “SJ’s” with a strong “J” preference (that is, they exhibit control freak type behaviour), Agile is most likely going to be seen as a set of processes and tools.  That means your approach to Agile is likely going to be more about “adoption” and less about “transformation”.  If you’ve heard from a manager that “we can’t do that because our process says we can’t” you’ve likely got an SJ on your hands!

In this scenario, values and principles and building learning cultures are more likely to be resisted and some processes, such as Scrum, won’t fit into that culture.  Scrum is what I like to call a “black box” methodology.  ”The business” puts some stuff in one end (ok, the team pulls it in…) and some stuff happens and then some software comes out the back end.   What goes on in that black box isn’t generally known from the outside.  Cultivation and Collaboration cultures would “get the spirit” of Scrum and it  may  have a better chance to deliver successful results whereas Control cultures wouldn’t be able to manage the disruption it causes.

Even worse if, in this scenario, you are using Scrum and NOT seeing disruption, you’ve simply adapted an iterative based process that you’ve labelled Scrum.  This is what us folks in the community call “you don’t get it” syndrome.  That doesn’t mean you’re bad, it simply means your approach to Agile will be different.  You may be better off not using the “A” word at all.

I wanted to write this post for a couple of reasons. One, to put a stamp in time with my thoughts before reading the book so I can come back to this post and compare my assumptions with what I learned from the book, and two to prove to myself how smart I am if it turns out there is something that relates cultures and MBTI!  I’m not aware of any material that has tried to link the two of them.

In my next post, I’m going to talk about the opposite scenario which would be Cultivation culture and “SP” temperament.    The biggest difference between SJ and SP when it comes to Agile is the J vs P preference.  J’s are the planners that like control and process.  P’s (which I am a strong one) are open-minded, free-spirited, creative, love change (because it’s exciting), like to keep busy and are action oriented.  Whereas J’s want to plan and have defined processes for everything, P’s want to try shit out and adapt.  The latter is more conducive to “transformation”.

I’m still developing my thoughts about this and would love to hear your thoughts.  Understanding your organizations culture and the temperaments of the people on your team or department can give you a significant advantage to being successful with Agile.  Once you understand where you are, you’ll be in better shape to create a more effective path to adopting or transforming to Agile.

Look for another post next week.