Cultural change on the way to an agile organization

Executives are currently feeling the changes in markets, society and technologies and are trying to adapt their organization. They often reflexively prescribe the introduction of agile methods and think that they are taking a step in the right direction. All too often, however, negative side-effects occur, either among employees who do not really keep up or among middle management, who resist the changes by fearing a loss of power.

The organization is not prepared for the changes and directly or indirectly shows defensive reactions. This may seem harmful to top management, but that is exactly what makes a “strong organization”. People join an organization because they believe in the “big story”, share common values and beliefs, conform to a certain set of rules and regulations and want to achieve something collectively. This “culture” is an asset that must be preserved and cultivated, especially in times of increasing uncertainty and global insecurity. In this respect, the change of an organization towards more agility is to be understood primarily under the aspect of culture.

Now one often reads that managers should “form” the culture of an organization in a certain direction and thus be able to better achieve their goals. To be honest, I don’t believe in this at all. For me, culture is created through many activities in the organization, through projects, interventions and crises that bring people together (as we are currently experiencing with the example of Covit-19) or also through leading figures who have a high level of influence. With the appropriate initiative in the sense of agile work, with the right employees, suitable framework conditions as well as the courage of the management to simply let the agilization take its course, a new culture will emerge as if by magic.

Things only change if the motivation of the individual or the team can be unleashed. They need room for manoeuvre from management and not “micro management”. It also requires the courage to experiment instead of a “zero-defect culture”, something that is difficult to accept in industrial companies traditionally trimmed to high quality or perfection. Agile work also requires the opening of specialized “silos” to cross-disciplinary, multicultural and cross-border cooperation. May I share my knowledge with external suppliers? What do I tell the customer about the progress of my new development or how do I handle the data? Everything must be rethought, cultural imprints change step by step, through experiments and the conscious or unconscious breaching of boundaries. “We’ve never done this before” becomes antipode, trying something new becomes attractive. Something is moving in the organization. But only as long as there is room for it.

It is clear that the change towards an agile organization takes time, patience and the provision of resources – something that top management is unfortunately all too often not prepared to do. Everything should be done quickly, should not cost much and the results must be measured against the proven Key Performance Indicators (KPIs). If the desired effects do not occur immediately, then “heads will roll”, employees will be retrained, a new consultant will be hired or the initiative for agilization will be quickly terminated. Of course, exactly the opposite is necessary to make progress. Selecting the right employees to try out something new, giving them the freedom, time and resources to try things out. Then gradually, based on the results, starting new projects in the organization to consolidate what has been achieved and to achieve a sustainable anchor. The aim of projects and activities is therefore not only to achieve results within a tight time and cost framework, but also to intentionally influence cultural development within the organisation.

A recent study by the Bertelsmann Foundation highlights the advantages of diverse cultures in companies. This diversity is not only a source of inspiration in project work, but also points the way forward for change in the company. The joint struggle to find the “right” values, competencies and working methods, measured against what is possible in the marketplace, in view of social or technological changes, and what is desired by employees, helps to develop.

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Author: Reinhard Wagner, CEO of Tiba Managementberatung



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