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Can a company’s culture make or break agile adoption?

Sarah Schuster
Atlassian Team
Atlassian Team members are employees working across the company in a wide variety of roles.
Mar 28, 2018

Can a new-to-agile team survive and thrive in a non-agile culture? If so, what advice would you give to those trying to be agile in a non-agile culture? What's the key(s) to success? Share your thoughts, advice, and experience below.



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Meg Holbrook
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Mar 28, 2018

I feel compelled to speak to this because my team of eight is the lone-agile-wolf at our company of over 1300 employees. 

The first thing I will say is that this journey has been looooooooong. Rewarding for sure, but also the most Sisyphus-esque journey we've ever taken. Every time we make a gain, it seems like we start over again the next day. 

There are moments when it feels like we're trying to influence a culture that just does not want to budge, and then there are the good days where we keep accumulating those little wins and show the rest of the organization that yes, this CAN work across other teams. 

I feel like, within our team, we are solid. Our communication is wonderful, our processes are strong, our people are smart. We get things done. We do those things well. 

The biggest problem that I see is convincing other teams that all of the 'wasted' upfront work that we apply to planning, analysis, and communication really make huge amounts of difference when you get to the end of the road.

I try to explain it this way:

You're on a ship in the ocean and someone makes a 1 degree miscalculation and you end up in Canada instead of Hawaii. Neither place is bad, but it's just not where you wanted to end up. 


My best piece of advice for other teams is:


Seriously. There will never be change if you don't exemplify the best possible outcomes. 


No one will know about your accomplishments if you don't talk about them. You are the champion in your organization. 


Agile teams should always be focused on flexibility. Sometimes being flexible means (for the sake of the project) incorporating your non-agile partner's way of doing things. This helps them broker trust that your team is an expert and capable of handling anything. Win them over with the expertise and understanding your team provides. 

The point about a 1 degree change in course leading to the wrong destination, is spot on!

This perspective is often completely overlooked with no requirements gathering, feasability analysis etc. in IT/dev projects. Sadly a trend that is often taken for "agile" and "flexibility" in the world of agile transformation.


I would like to add that a culture of "do before think" often takes "Agile transformation" as support for continuing on a path of no planning or being proactive.

This is my new challenge!!! I am sure it will be long but I know this will be worth it> Awesome advice ;)

@Meg HolbrookI commend you for your positive attitude and I think having an attitude like this is an essential ingredient. I really hope it works for you.

Having said that, I consult with companies every day and I have seen the wrong Company culture just kill any Agile adoption. In one company they have been saying they were Agile since 2006 but once you got in the company you clearly saw that they had a mirage of Agile but were no where near Agile.

When I tried discussing with upper management if they wanted to truly become Agile (and I presented a plan on how to do it) they said "We say we are Agile but we cannot be Agile. We just need to be able to plan our releases months in advance and we can't understand how we can do that in Agile". Despite my best efforts to explain and show, their company culture was just too ingrained. All of upper management had been there for over 20 years.

This is one example but many companies are like this.

In another organization I worked with we had the CTO who was a huge proponent of Agile and we literally transformed that organization from a non existent sort of waterfall process to having true Agile teams and even doing DevOPS within 2 years. Over 15 teams. Everything was moving but then the CEO changed and with that change came the change in CTO and it all went right back to how they were working 2 years prior.

So the culture in my experience has a huge role to play and if you don't have support and understanding from all the C level downward, then you are fighting an uphill battle. Culture can not only influences Agile adoption but can choke any hope of ever becoming truly Agile.

Meg Holbrook
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Mar 29, 2018

Thanks, Maurizio,

It's definitely been an incremental process for us, going two years strong at this point!

If there had been no progress for us, it would have been easy to give up. Since we have the strongest process, it's easy for other teams to fall into step even if they don't adopt agile into their own workflows. 

Can a new-to-agile team survive and thrive in a non-agile culture?

I'd say this depends.I can imagine an outcome with documented progress in each retrospective but also frustration, then break and perhaps not even a Post Mortem.


Per-se there is no inherit incompatibility of agile with non-agile.

I've done a good bit of research on this topic for my book and podcast within the context of adopting Agile for marketing teams. Here's a link to part of a presentation where I talk about adoption statistics within enterprises.

Long story short, the biggest influence on the success of an Agile transformation is executive buy-in. There are examples of mid-level managers driving Agile into and across companies but success rates are less than 20%.

Like Matt Doar likes this
Meg Holbrook
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Apr 12, 2018

Hey Roland, I was able to watch a portion of your presentation, really excellent information. Thanks for sharing!

Thanks for checking it out, glad it was useful :-)

It can be significant challenge, for sure, especially if the company is large.  I will second @Meg Holbrook's comment about agile = flexible.  If the rest of the company is very rigid in process, it can be very difficult to make progress because you can run into barriers to your own team's flexibility from these external forces.  But I also think that it is unrealistic to think that an entire company can instantaneously transform to a new way of doing business.  Seek C-level support, continually show how efficiency and prioritization are affecting the "bottom-line", and if you can, find a company with similarities to your own (size, domain, etc.) that is effectively working in an agile way, and use it as an example "that it can be done and is worth it".

Good Luck!

Agile is often regarded as some kind of a magic way to make things in a faster more fun way, but the truth is being agile is hard, newbie or not. 

Like every change, the more people are infected by the agile transition the more chances you got it will happen. And like every change - people are anxious.

Start with simple things which will lead to anxiety reduction and make people feel safer. Explain how do you want to work, talk about roles and responsibilities, show the processes - and let people play with them. Organise a workshop showing how scrum/kanban etc works, try to use a game, like Scrumble, XP game, Agile airplane, Kanban pizza game. Learning through fun!

Analyse where is the problem. Maybe the organisation feels that agile means no estimation, no control. Find that kind of statements and deal with them.

Sometimes is good to show "the numbers" as everything comes down to money. Did you team got better after going agile? Less bugs, faster delivery, happier stakeholders - show the change. 


Your happy agile team will be the best apostle. And news spread quickly.


And last, keep trying. Rome wasn't built in a day!

I think agile adoption would have to be at the heart of the business to ensure the adoption. Our entire business are enveloped in agile with the exception of my own team who are more ITIL aligned. I find agile does not suit me or my team very well and the ITIL framework is much more of a fit for us

Meg Holbrook
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Apr 13, 2018

Do you ever feel like your organization has pressured your team to adopt agile practices? ITIL is very regimented comparatively, so I can see those teams trying to shake you guys up a bit. 

I see a lot within my organization that teams who may be used to doing things one way tend to cross-pollinate when more than one methodology is being used. We find ourselves using modified agile or modified ITIL practices depending on who is involved in a project. (Not a bad thing, just fun to watch unfold).  

We've never been preassured to move to a agile, we get a lot of questions as to why we don't use agile but it never amounts to anything. We've attempted it in the past but it just doesn;t work for us.

The Obvious Answer is Yes, A Company's Culture Can Breed Or Impede Agility

Here's a couple questions I would like to follow this idea up with..

  1. Does that Really Matter?
  2. Is it wrong to set a slower more methodical pace?

I believe in today's market place you see a lot of startups getting caught up in these hot topic keywords and they focus on them more than they do their own work. If your margins are right, the trustees, if you've gotten that far, are happy and you're a one trick pony, then no it doesn't matter at all.

Some companies would do better if they implemented a slower more methodical pace. My grandmother, before she passed, used to tell me all the time, "Haste Makes Waste". She's right.  Quickly jumping into other untested waters could easily get you away from the blue ocean stratedgy.

Find what works and work it until it's gone.

If it doesn't Make Dollars then it doesn't Make Sense.

I have to agree with what many have said, culture plays a vital role.  

The stumbling blocks I have seen:

  • Companies tries to fit 18 months of work into 6 months (because Agile makes you go faster)
  • Too much focus on tools and process and not enough on Team Building

In my opinion, you need to invest in building a team and top down there needs to be support so that teams are trusted and empowered.  Most teams that start on their agile journey have a lot to learn (Planning, estimation, ceremonies, who the heck are these new people!?!?) so when the culture in the company is demanding immediate results with precise velocity from day 1 and no room for error, teams struggle.

Where I have found success.  Focus on building the team (Atlassian Team Playbook is such a great resource).

  • Trust that the team will work as hard as they can
  • Maintain a safe circle to be open and honest with each other and learn from mistakes
  • Empower the team to make decisions to enable their agile maturation

I have coached teams where its taken 3-4 iterations before they started to understand their velocity and get comfortable with the value of the ceremonies.  But they "stayed the course" and start to yield the value of the change.

Thomas Deiler
Community Leader
Community Leader
Community Leaders are connectors, ambassadors, and mentors. On the online community, they serve as thought leaders, product experts, and moderators.
Apr 26, 2018

Dear @Sarah Schuster,

Can a new-to-agile team survive and thrive in a non-agile culture?

If they already managed to adapt the agile mindset and do not like to give up the new 'world', then they will quit. Of cause this will depend on the personal situation of each employee and how long she/he is part of the company. Age is an important parameter. The younger, the quicker the adaption in both direction can happen. I have heard many sentences like this: "I am for 15 years in this companies and I have seen so many re-organisations, so this one will be over, soon."

Second it will depend on the "aggressiveness" of the new culture. Probably they can continue as before. But if key supporters start to leave, there is only little hope for survival.

So long


Community Leader
Community Leader
Community Leaders are connectors, ambassadors, and mentors. On the online community, they serve as thought leaders, product experts, and moderators.
May 22, 2018

Dear @Sarah Schuster,

Yes, It is true that a company culture can make or break agile adoption.

In my company, first we top level managers, project managers got educated for Agile and did certifications which helped us to convince our team members for the adoption of agile. 

We organized few workshops, training and open discussion session regarding the issues which we had at that time and how could Agile fix those issues like transparency within the team and with the clients, change adaption, fast and quality delivery etc. After having few round of learning sessions, we started to apply it with a new project. Initially it was not convincing for us and client both because we were not able to deliver feasible features for 1-2 sprints but after that we all were able to see impeccable growth in our delivery and in fact quality delivery.


It's very essential that agile implementation team has full support of company management while they are helping the team to take decisions and to be responsible for those decisions as well.

A team can start adopting agile step by step. Every team members must be agreed upon giving full effort for trying it at least. 

Amit Dabli
Marketplace Partner
Marketplace Partners provide apps and integrations available on the Atlassian Marketplace that extend the power of Atlassian products.
Mar 29, 2019

Yes, the company culture does play a key role in determining if Agile will be successful in the organization. While adopting Agile methodology can offer several benefits to an organization, the company culture plays a key role to make Agile a success.

For the success of Agile, you need to have a work culture that supports and encourages continuous innovation and everything that’s required to achieve it. So, a company culture should ideally be conducive to change, experimentation and effective cross-functional communication, in order to make Agile work successfully.

It is also important to ensure that the project managers are certified in Agile, so that they don’t have a hard time convincing the management about its benefits. In order to make Agile a success in an organization, everyone should be well aware about how successful implementation of Agile can make a difference and help them overcome challenges.

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