Podcast Ep. 93: Factoring Culture into Your Agile Transformation with Quincy Jordan

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Episode Description:

In today’s episode of the Agile Coaches’ Corner podcast, Dan Neumann is joined by AgileThought colleague and frequent guest of the show, Quincy Jordan. Quincy has been with AgileThought for just over two years as a transformation consultant and agile competency lead.

In their discussion today, Dan and Quincy explore the topic of culture as it relates to agile transformations. They define what culture is, why it is important, how it factors into agile transformations, and how to begin addressing it as an organization. Quincy also shares how to become more intentional about addressing culture early on as the company is moving toward a more agile way of working, the outcomes of being unintentional about addressing culture challenges, and additional tips and takeaways that are critical to keeping in mind when addressing culture.

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Key Takeaways

  • What does “culture” refer to?
    • A combination of the values, habits, and norms within a group or organization
    • The values that are present in everything that your organization does
    • It applies to any organization (whether it’s a religious institution, your family unit, company, etc.)
    • Can be characterized as “The way things happen around here” or “How we do things around here”
  • Quincy’s advice regarding how culture factors into agile transformations:
    • Culture cannot come last; if you want the “machine to run well” and address the culture after, you have created a culture that says, “The machine is more important than the culture”
    • If a specific habit, such as courage, is not encouraged, then you are building cultural debt; i.e., it will become more and more difficult for courage to be expressed
    • It is important to be intentional about culture upfront and incorporate it into your transformation as part of your strategy
    • If you don’t want certain habits to be a part of the culture, you have to intentionally set a new structure for everyone to transition to (otherwise it will continue to be pervasive)
  • Outcomes of being unintentional about addressing culture challenges:
    • If you’re not intentional about the culture and you develop a culture by default, it is likely to be riddled with cultural debt
    • If you don’t address having the proper culture that you want up front, you are going to have a mismatch of what you currently have and what it is that you really want
    • If the team/s are checklist-driven, then they won’t have the opportunity to help the culture be values-driven
  • How to be more intentional about addressing culture early on as the company is moving toward a more agile way of working:
    • Ask: “Are we involving the teams in the actual planning or are they being given plans and milestones that they’re expected to hit without participating in the creation of those plans?”
    • Ask: “Is our culture checklist-driven rather than values-driven?” 
    • The team/s should be involved in understanding what’s drawing value so they can better help accomplish the work that needs to be done for the values to be there
    • Set the culture upfront
    • Figure out the things that you are and are not aligned to as an organization
    • Decide on where the values lie and what they would be (ask individuals and teams: “What are the things that we value?”)
    • Have teams and individuals fill in the blank: “It really agitates me when _________.” It helps make clear what things affect their value system
    • Do a team working agreement where you establish what the values are
    • Once you establish what the values are, ask: “How can we act on these values?” and “What are the things that we can do, day-in and day-out, to express that those are our values?”
    • for example, if the value is: “Everyone has a voice,” then you need to provide opportunities for individuals to have their voice heard
  • Additional culture tips and takeaways:
    • You need to be intentional and know what your values are so that you can drive towards them (and be intentional about not allowing those values to be encroached upon)
    • If you address culture upfront, then you’re putting the organization in a position where you’re helping to impact the decision-making
    • Addressing the culture upfront helps the organization work towards their overall vision
    • It is important to have people within the organization that are carrying the culture forward so that when others are unsure/confused, they can look to those people

About Quincy Jordan: Prior to AgileThought, Quincy was the transformation lead for Pivotal’s Atlanta Office, where he consulted with clients to help them reach enterprise scale. He has also served as a principal consultant and agile coach at SCRUMstudy.com for over six years.

Mentioned in this Episode

Transcription [This transcription is auto-generated and may not be completely accurate in its depiction of the English language or rules of grammar.]

Intro: [00:03] Welcome to Agile Coaches’ Corner by AgileThought. The podcast for practitioners and leaders seeking advice to refine the way they work and pave the path to better outcomes. Now here’s your host, coach and agile expert, Dan Neumann.

Dan Neumann: [00:16] Welcome to this episode of the Agile Coaches’ Corner. I’m your host, Dan Neumann, and happy to be joined by Quincy Jordan again, and we’re going to be exploring culture as part of this podcast. So wonderful to have you here again, Quincy. Thanks.

Quincy Jordan: [00:30] Hey, thanks for having me again, Dan, always happy to be on Agile Coaches’ Corner. Yes.

Dan Neumann: [00:35] Same happy to have you all the time culture gets talked about, I think a lot, you know, agile culture, waterfall culture, culture, culture, culture, right. It comes up and it’s talked about pretty pretty nebulously. Um, and so before maybe we get into culture related to agile transformations or agile journeys. Maybe we can, uh, just come up with a working definition that we’re going to use as part of our conversation here for the next little while.

Quincy Jordan: [01:08] Yeah, sure. I’m always game for a team working agreements.

Dan Neumann: [01:14] So what, what comes to mind for you for culture? How do you, how do you tend to think of what culture is?

Quincy Jordan: [01:20] Sure. Yeah, so I really see culture as being that combination, uh, the, the values, uh, and habits and norms that really drive the behavior within the organization. Um, doesn’t matter if that organization is, uh, a Scrum team, it doesn’t matter if that is the larger enterprise, it could be a home, it could be, you know, someone’s family, it could be a group of friends, you know, no matter what that is, when no matter what group it is, it’s still those, you know, habits and values, you know, combined and how it draws to behavior, uh, not just the individual, but really that group or that organization.

Dan Neumann: [02:04] Right. And as you’re saying, it applies to any organization, whether it’s a religious institution of some kind your, your family unit, whether the micro family or the macro family. Yup. Culture, um, different parts of the countries, individual countries, they tend to have things, they, they value the, the norms, the habits, the behaviors. So yeah, I read a book called the re-engineering alternative at one point, and I believe it was in that book where, um, they talked about culture and the, the summary was it’s the way things, the way things happen around here, I think was the way that they characterize that. So it’s, or how we do things around here, the values that are present behind everything we do. Okay. Yeah. And then where do you see the, the culture factoring in as your you’re doing work as a transformation consultant, then how do you, how do you see culture manifesting, uh, either, um, helping agile transitions or maybe hindering them in different ways? Just to give a couple examples?

Quincy Jordan: [03:07] Sure. So I think it one, I think it depends on the perspective. There are a couple of different schools of thought out there. Um, so there’s the one school of thought that says, you know what, we need to get a well running machine going. And, uh, we’ll deal with culture later. We just want, you know, the machine working. Uh, and, and I do understand that objective and that point, you do want to, uh, have those habits built. You want things to, to get to a point to some degree where there’s a certain sense of muscle memory with how teams are, uh, you know, choosing to do the things that they do or, or how they’re operating. Uh, and then there’s another school of thought that says, well, no, you have to address culture, uh, upfront. And then you can deal with the mechanics later, once you have everyone align on those values, uh, and you know, habits and so forth. And I think they both have merit. Uh, however, what I think happens more often than not is that you cannot actually have culture to become last. You can’t have culture to come second. And what I mean by that is by default, if you go into an organization and you say, well, we’re going to build habits first, we’re going to get the teams running well in half the machine going, uh, first, and then we’ll deal with culture later. Well guess what, that’s the culture that you just created? You just created a culture that says the machine is more important, um, or not necessarily more well, it’s more important at this time, uh, than the culture. And that’s the culture that you will create. And if you have ever noticed or heard where there are teams that say, well, you know what? We’re doing Scrum sort of, but I really feel like we’re just doing waterfall in an agile way, because we’re just kind of going through the motions of the mechanics. And that is the culture that would have just been created.

Dan Neumann: [05:25] Yeah. That’s similar to what came to mind for me. So in a reality where somebody says, you know, we’re going to teach you how to do the sprint planning event and okay. You know, the product owner, you’re going to give us an overview of maybe your goals for the Sprint, a potential sprint goal and some backlog items, et cetera. And then team you’re going to break it down and estimate, et cetera. And it doesn’t really talk about the purpose or the values of Scrum, of openness, the values of courage. Uh, they’re not talking about the why for time boxes and, and really not emphasizing those underlying values and, and, and trying to then bring those more to the forefront in organizations where maybe courage isn’t really valued up til now, and transparency is scary and those types of things.

Quincy Jordan: [06:19] Absolutely. Yes. And that also brings up another point. So there is a, a concept or, um, or a phrase, I guess I would say, um, that I’ve coined before, uh, preferring to cultural debt. And so let’s say you take that example that you just gave where courage has not been a value within the team, but they are doing the mechanics. They are, uh, having their Scrum events. They’re doing all those things, but courage, isn’t something that is being displayed or being encouraged well, what’s happening is that culture you’re actually building that cultural debt at that time. So because courage would not have been encouraged and it would, and it wasn’t expressed as a value that the team should use to help drive some of their behaviors. Then as time goes, it’s going to become more and more difficult for courage to actually be expressed because people are now accustomed to sitting back not saying anything, not being able to be transparent, not, uh, not feeling as though they have a voice that they can share. So it doesn’t mean that it’s, that we permanently as I just expressed is cultural debt, which means you can pay it. You can pay it down, you can pay it off, uh, but just know that that’s what you’ll have to do. So it comes down in my mind to kind of two different paths. One is you are intentional about culture upfront and you incorporate it into your transformation, uh, and it is part of your strategy. And the other is you’re not intentional about it. Uh, you derive or develop a culture by default. And that culture that you develop by default is likely to be riddled with cultural debt, that you can do something about later, but you do have to pay that debt down and pay it off. Um, as time goes and you have to recognize what debt have we actually incurred in our culture.

Dan Neumann: [08:37] The scenario that comes to mind for me, as you were talking through that, and again, using the Scrum Framework and organizations adopting Scrum as part of their agile journey is, I don’t know if I’ve ever gone into an organization that doesn’t have some kind of status report that’s done in a PowerPoint in a carefully orchestrated report, up to senior management. And those messages get refined more and more as they go up. And one of my, um, they call them learning opportunities, but unfortunately they usually hurt, right? It was in my early Scrum days and the team had a status report at the Scrum level. And we’re like, this, this thing’s red. There’s no way the date’s going to get missed. And then the next level was like, well, it’s not really red. It’s more like a yellow because we think we can address all that.

Dan Neumann: [09:24]
And then that layer said, well, if those things are yellow, we can deal with them. So it’s really green up. So CEOs see in green status reports til the dates missed right in an organization that was trying to be, be agile. And I think that’s an example of some of that. Um, intentional, it probably was a miss on some of the intentionality of removing some of those old artifacts, those old, um, out of those touchstones. So we have to put together a PowerPoint. We have to report up, we have to craft the message, which is quite the opposite of no, we’re doing Scrum. Now we have Sprint reviews and that’s where you have a lot of openness we’re sharing the good, the bad and the ugly with our stakeholders. We’re getting feedback on timelines and forecasts and iterating on what people want based on our actual progress. Um, and not paying off that debt in that scenario or not addressing that debt really early on in that scenario caused great pain for many people.

Quincy Jordan: [10:28] Yeah, yeah. And that kind of brings up an interesting point because, so you think about the culture of, uh, what I call it kind of traffic light reporting. Um, so the red car, red, yellow, green. So if that is not the, if you don’t want those habits to be part of the culture, the culture of, well, this is how we do reporting, then you won’t have to intentionally, uh, go in and have a new reporting structure that you’re going to transition. Um, everyone to, if you don’t, then that culture is gonna continue to be pervasive, that red means bad. Yellow means we don’t really know what’s happening. Exactly. Uh, and green is good. Alright. But as many people have found out, you can have a Scrum team that is actually performing pretty well, but that project, um, so to speak is in red almost the entire time, but they’re actually making good progress. So if you don’t address having the proper culture that you want upfront, you are, you’re going to have really a mix match of what you currently have and what it is that you really want, that causes confusion and frustration.

Dan Neumann: [12:01] Is there a, an example maybe to help people wrap their mind around, um, uh, a scenario where a Scrum team might be delivering doing well? And I, I forget the exact phrase used, but the status thing is, is red at that point. Could you, can you maybe, um, kind of solidify that?

Quincy Jordan: [12:19] So let’s say you, you have a team that is, uh, essentially being measured against, uh, a checklist, a checklist that someone has come up with, uh, maybe at the portfolio level that does not actually reflect the progress of work that can be done. So until a certain milestone is hit, everything’s red and it’s just red. Uh, but sprint after sprint, these teams are actually making good progress. But if someone looks at it from maybe the program level view, uh, or, you know, even if it’s considered a project or not product oriented, uh, because they have not hit that milestone, it’s still red, it’s still red, but they’re actually making progress. The progress they’re making should actually be green, but it’s not. So here’s another way to look at it. If you’re looking at a burn down chart and on that burn down chart, you see that flat horizontal line going across. All right. So that flat, horizontal line suggest work is not being done. There’s no progress that’s happening when in fact it could just be that the stories are too large. And if the stories are so large and you don’t really see that progress happening. So it’s kind of a very similar thing in comparison to, you know, being in red, but in actuality progress is really happy.

Dan Neumann: [13:47] Yeah. And some of the facets of a culture that could lead to that is, are we, are we involving the teams in the actual planning or are they being given plans and milestones that they’re expected to hit without participating in the creation of those plans? That’s, that’s a cultural facet to me that seems like it could contribute to that type of scenario emerging.

Quincy Jordan: [14:10] I agree. And I also think that in addition to that, um, or maybe complimentary to that, the culture that is checklist driven versus value driven. So, you know, if we say, well, you know, product oriented versus project oriented, uh, if the culture that is pervasive, there is not that of what’s going to truly drive value. Uh, and the team is able to be involved in understanding what’s driving value, maybe not making the decisions about what drives value, but at least understanding what’s driving value, then they can help to accomplish the work that needs to be done for the value to be there. But if they don’t have that and they are checklist driven, then they’ll lose that. They won’t, they won’t have that opportunity to really help evaluate.

Dan Neumann: [15:12] So Quincy we’ve talked about, we started with a basic definition of culture, and then we talked about some of the outcomes, the fallout, if you will, of being, uh, unintentional about addressing some culture challenges and resulting in cultural debt. And I thought it would be helpful to maybe give some examples of ways to be more intentional about addressing culture earlier on, as companies are moving towards a more agile way of working.

Quincy Jordan: [15:54] Sure. So one of the first things would be, you really have to decide on where the values lie, you know, what, what those values would be. Let’s say, even if it’s at the team level, if it’s across a program, if it’s across an entire organization, you know, one of the things that we value. So there’s a few different ways that you can do that. I mean, you can literally have a working session and bring folks together and get input from different individuals to say, okay, well, you know, what’s valuable to you. What means value to you? What types of things are important to you? What, you know, one of the questions that I like to ask sometimes for, or suggestions to, you know, different teams, regardless of whether it’s a Scrum team or portfolio team or senior leadership team, but to answer the question or finish the sentence, rather, it really agitates me when, all right. So when they answered that question, you know, they’re letting you know, these are some of the things that affect my value system. All right? So those are some hands on ways that you can gather that information, you know, do a teamwork and agreement where you establish what those values are. So once you establish what those values are, now, we want to say, well, how can we act on those values? What are the things day in day out or on a cadence basis? What are the things that we can do to express that those are our values? So let’s say if a value is everyone has a voice, alright. So the value is that everyone has a voice or all voices important or something to that effect. Then in a hands on way, you need to provide opportunities for people to express that voice. So that may mean that during retrospectives, that people will have the opportunity to voice their opinion. It means that not necessarily even Scrum events, but just in other meetings that you may say, okay, well, we’re all virtual now. So if there’s a question, use the, raise your hand function in whatever video conferencing tool that you’re using. Or if you say, well, you know, we all have our cameras on. So just show a thumbs up. If you want to share something. Now that may seem like, Oh, well, those are just little simple things to do. I mean, that doesn’t really, exactly have much to do a culture, but absolutely it does. It has to do with the habits that are driving people’s behaviors. So it’s a way for people to show, respect to one another, which could be a value that someone has. It’s a way for someone to be transparent, which could be another value expressed as well. So there are plenty of hands on ways to help guide the culture help set the culture upfront in the organization. You just have to be very intentional about it. And again, you have to know what your values are. Otherwise, you don’t know what behaviors that you want to drive towards.

Dan Neumann: [19:36] In one of the earlier podcasts. Of course, I guess it could only be an earlier podcast. Couldn’t be a later podcast. So anyway, in one of the podcasts that was released, I think it probably the better part of a year ago now, uh, there was the, the comment, what you tolerate you support. And so that is another way of saying, okay, even as you have used your, um, your, your gut reaction, Hey, you know, it really irritates me when this happens. Okay. That’s a signal that a value’s been violated now let’s explore that. Let’s see what we value there. And then really being intentional about not allowing those values to be encroached upon, even with what can seem like minor things, because they are gradually can eat away at what you actually value, and you can let those things slip. And if they really are valuable, if they really are your values, uh, it’s, it’s inappropriate to let them get, get eaten, eaten away over time.

Quincy Jordan: [20:39]
Absolutely. Yeah. And aligning on those values is, I mean, it’s incredibly important to setting that culture. I can’t stress that enough because sometimes you just don’t even realize how different people have different perspectives on values and then how similar, you know, at the same time. So it’s figuring out what are the things that we are aligned to. And then what are the things that we aren’t aligned to, that we need to get aligned to and get on the same page about?

Dan Neumann: [21:15] The other piece of, of the way you were describing that earlier is there are specific actions, or we want to be able to observe actions that are either in line with, or not in line with our value. So if our value is we respect each other’s time, or we respect each other, you know, what have, have the cameras on, don’t be multitasking. If something needs to be said, you say you don’t back channel, chat it to somebody else in the meeting. Like, let’s make sure we’re all, uh, really sharing what, what we should. And so giving examples of, you know, this behavior, not that behavior, these things are in line with our values, these things aren’t. We’re coming towards kind of the back end of the podcast here. What else, what else about, um, about culture kind of comes to mind either, um, reasons to address it upfront versus letting it happen by default, or maybe some, some little nuggets here.

Quincy Jordan: [22:15] So if you address it up front, then you’re, you’re putting the organization in a position where you’re helping to impact the decision making. Now you’re not trying to control the decision making, but you are trying to influence the decision, making such that when team members are making decisions, they’re making decisions in line with the culture and values of the organization. So by addressing it upfront in an intentional way, and not by default, you can help guide those things towards really the overall mission of that organization or role, I’m sorry, not mission, but the overall vision of that organization. And, you know, the last thing that you really want is to have several employees at an organization that are making decisions that are well outside the vision. So if you have the culture design properly or headed in the direction that compliments that vision, then those decisions that people make on every day to day basis will tend to be decisions that are in line with helping to create the vision that is set forth before that company.

Dan Neumann: [23:38]
All right. So what you were describing there then is, is really addressing culture upfront, helping you guys, helping an organization really work towards their overall vision and avoiding those scenarios where you get people who are making decisions well outside of the norm or outside of the desired culture, and really making sure that doesn’t happen because that that’d be an impediment then.

Quincy Jordan: [24:05] Absolutely. Yeah. And you really want to help, you know, those who are early adopters, you know, with that culture too, to help things to drive towards where you really want them to go and not where you don’t want them to go.

Dan Neumann: [24:18]
Yeah. I think the, I, it comes to mind the cultural standard bearers, or I guess, I don’t know, that’s probably a war metaphor, right? Where people are carrying the flag out in front and, you know, whatever, but you want people who are carrying your culture. They’re carrying the flag of the culture. So that when people aren’t sure what the rules of the game are, they can look to some of those other people or those other people can proactively reinforce restate, Hey, remember, this is our value. This is why we don’t say things are good in the Sprint review when they’re not actually good. And this is why we don’t hide bad news, et cetera, et cetera. Okay. Wonderful. Good. Well, thank you for the exploration of culture on today’s podcast. Quincy enjoy it.

Quincy Jordan: [25:00] Absolutely. Yeah. It’s my pleasure.

Dan Neumann: [25:02] Are you reading anything interesting these days? It’s got you inspired.

Quincy Jordan: [25:06] I am still reading measure what matters. So that’s still happening right now. Just having been able to spend as much time with it as I thought that I would.

Dan Neumann: [25:15] Understood. Have you found, have you found something you want to measure?

Quincy Jordan: [25:20] There are so many things, uh, you know, so many clients, so many different things to measure, uh, like who doesn’t want everything measured these days.

Dan Neumann: [25:30] That’s awesome. That’s good. Uh, for me, I’ve taken on a, it was, it was my birthday. Yay. Happy birthday to me. My wife got me a book called the science of running, analyze your technique, prevent injury and revolutionize your training. Um,

Quincy Jordan: [25:48] Counting your steps now?

Dan Neumann: [25:49] I haven’t counted steps, but I do count a lot of miles. Um, and I think what, what from it much like with agile teams, you don’t just want to do the software thing. You want to stop and bring in new practices. You want to really look at what’s happening and try to find ways to continually improve. So even, even the little things can have a meaningful impact. And I think, uh, what losing every three ounces or so of, of body mass helps you um, it’s like a 1% improvement and running efficiency. So it’s those little, little changes. That’s an example of one of those that can, uh, have a big impact.

Quincy Jordan: [26:27] That can make a difference when you’re at that 23rd mile.

Dan Neumann: [26:30] Well, and I signed up for a 50 miles, so that’s not even halfway. Yeah, we’ll see. But my goal is to finish it. So two more weeks, I’ll be able to mention that, but, uh, yeah, just, uh, always interesting to see where learning can come from. It doesn’t have to be an agile book per se, but I’m looking forward to measuring some stuff that matters very soon. Alright. Thanks, Quincy.

Quincy Jordan: [26:58] Absolutely. Thanks for having me, Dan.

Outro: [27:01] This has been the Agile Coaches’ Corner podcast brought to you by AgileThought. The views, opinions and information expressed in this podcast are solely those of the hosts and the guests, and do not necessarily represent those of AgileThought. Get the show notes and other helpful tips for this episode and other episodes at agilethought.com/podcast.

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