The death of Agile is the twin evils of Chaos and Bureaucracy. Either evil, by itself, will spell the end. The ideal is to strike a balance between the two which provides just enough bureaucracy so as to avoid a headlong fall into chaos. Henrik Kniberg provided a great presentation on the Agile Enterprise culture at Spotify, showing how they manage the balance.


There are a couple of critical questions to answer in maintaining the culture balance:

  •        Who is responsible for change?
  •        How do you deal with failure?
  •        What are individuals and teams rewarded for?
  •        How are best practices communicated?

Answering each of these questions will help you to understand how your culture is balanced and perhaps show you opportunities for improvement.

Who is responsible for change? Henrik has a great quote saying that culture (or change) is “driven from the bottom, supported from the top.” I’ve seen organizations who emphasize too much on either of these areas and they all eventually fail in their attempt. Those who focus on culture being driven from the bottom (grassroots) end up chaos. Slow, uncoordinated change efforts that leave employees disenchanted when changes aren’t supported/sustained. On the flip side, organizations that put too much emphasis on leading/supporting change will develop policies and practices that are inflexible and don’t really help teams to accomplish their overall goals. The best solution is servant leaders who encourage and support their people in creating and adopting changes that make sense.

How do you deal with failure? If failure is severely punished then innovation will die as employees attempt to always implement the safest solution. However, when failure is not investigated and addressed teams will inevitably fall into the same issues time and again. Failure must be celebrated as an opportunity to learn and improve. Daniel Ek said “We aim to make mistakes faster than anyone else.” Quick, corrected mistakes will result in a better result in the long term.

What are individuals and teams rewarded for? It is extremely common to reward individuals and teams for superhero worthy activities. Getting work done over the weekend. Putting out the fire in record time. Cleaning up someone else’s mess. Haven’t you seen how much destruction superheroes cause? Seriously… how many times has New York/Gotham been half destroyed by aliens, supervillains, or natural disasters? We should actually be rewarding those who never had to work over the weekend, didn’t have the fire in the first place, or didn’t leave messes. These are the true heroes of your organization.

I have seen where rewarding individual efforts in a team environment breaks the team by encouraging individual efforts and not fairly recognizing the contributions of the team. It also introduces potentially conflicting individual and team goals.

How are best practices communicated? Processes communicated through complicated policy documents will likely become obsolete as soon as they are documented. Without strong communication practices, those in most need of the best practice won’t even know about the helpful resource until it’s too late. Even with good communication practices, documentation without accompanying coaching will result in book smarts but limited ability to actually implement the best practice correctly. Continuous education, communities of practice and coaching are all necessary pieces to make sure that the whole organization can capitalize on learning from different teams.

There is no such thing as a silver bullet in shifting to an Agile environment. It takes a combination of behaviors and practices all working together as a system to maintain the balance between chaos and bureaucracy. How is your organization at changing or maintaining your culture?