Podcast Ep. 59: The Four C’s of Organizational Culture

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Episode Description:

Welcome to the first episode of 2020. In today’s episode of the Agile Coaches’ Corner podcast, host Dan Neumann will be taking a look at organizational culture.

It is often said in the agile community that the culture has to change within an organization for agile to take place. When it is thought of like that, changing culture can be a pretty tall order. But in William Schneider’s book, The Reengineering Alternative: A Plan for Making Your Current Culture Work, he outlines a framework to make your current organization’s culture work. In this episode, Dan will be taking a look at the key concepts of Schneider’s framework and exploring the four cultures he categorizes every organization into—also known as the four C’s.

There is no one-size-fits-all for the perfect culture to support agility in an organization. Your results will be much more effective if you work with your organization’s current culture, so be sure to tune in to learn how to fully leverage your current organization’s culture.

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Key Takeaways:

  • The four C’s of organizational culture:
    • Collaboration:
      • Similar to a family in their social nature
      • Derives their strength through affiliation
      • Strengths: very team-focused, participative, values diversity, and are generally a fairly trusting organization with lots of open and honest communication
      • Weaknesses or downsides (when the pendulum swings too far into a collaboration-based culture): the harmony of the group may be valued over the frankness that’s needed to talk about tough issues, and there may be too much compromising and too much movement toward consensus-building and collaboration versus being clear about how decisions get made and collaborating within the defined framework (i.e. trouble making and sticking to decisions)
      • Important to consider: collaboration culture can be great, but just make sure the pendulum hasn’t swung too far to the point where the organization is ignoring misbehaviors or shortcomings; instead, tackle them head-on within the culture
    • Control:
      • Similarly modeled to the social institution of the military
      • Power-oriented
      • Leaders are awarded for power reasons
      • Strengths: emphasizes strength, very effective at planning, and there are clear systems, policies and procedures in place
      • Weaknesses or downsides (when the pendulum swings too far into a control-based culture): people will begin to rigidly adhere to the policies and practices without ever stopping to improve them, innovation may stop within the organization, and it becomes difficult to have generalists (which can be very important on agile teams)
      • Important to consider: control culture is not anti-agile, but if you are looking to embrace the values and principles of agile, you have to keep the culture in perspective
    • Competence:
      • Similar to the social institution of a sports team or university
      • Rewards staff that are achievement-focused
      • Can be very creative and visionary and values craftsmanship
      • Strengths: organizations are task-driven, tend to be very efficient and objective, and have high-performance standards
      • Weaknesses or downsides (when the pendulum swings too far into a competency-based culture): individuals may go on “technical tangents” and are spending too much time in “analysis paralysis” (i.e. trying to find the “perfect” solution instead of moving forward with building), over planning, and may become too emotionally controlled with no willingness to deal with interpersonal conflict
      • Important to consider: make sure that the organization’s culture is not striving to win at all costs but instead focusing on completing tasks and achieving objectives
    • Cultivation:
      • Similar to a religious institution in their social nature
      • Values growth and self-actualizing
      • Generally non-profit organizations
      • Strengths: these organizations tend to be personal, nurturing, inspiring, fairly subjective, help people self-actualize to be their best, and provide lots of opportunities for growth and development (which can be very helpful for an agile team)
      • Weaknesses or downsides (when the pendulum swings too far into a cultivation-based culture): way too much self-expression, too much time focused on feelings and worrying about the slightest offense that may have been taken, favorites may be played in the organization, and emotions may begin to trump the place of data
      • Important to consider: make sure the pendulum doesn’t swing too far into cultivation as the notions of measuring and managing would have a hard time really taking root



Mentioned in this Episode


Transcript [This transcript is auto-generated and not completely accurate in its depiction of the English language or rules of grammar]

Intro: [00:03] Welcome to the 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: [00:17]  Welcome to this episode of the Agile Coaches’ Corner podcast. I’m your host, Dan Neumann, and thank you for joining me. This is the first episode of 2020 and if you listened to the last episode on New Year’s resolutions, I’m curious if maybe you’ve set any and seeing as how this will be released the first Friday of the new year. Are you still going strong on those? If you listen to the last one, you’ll know most New Year’s resolutions only last a couple of weeks according to Strava, so I’m curious if you’re making it and if you have any tips, so feel free to reach out with podcast@agilethoughts.com or tweet about it with the #AgileThoughtPodcast. This episode is going to be focused on a discussion of organizational culture. If you’re familiar with agile or have listened to some of the previous episodes, we’ve touched on agile being grounded in a set of values and principles as defined in the Agile Manifesto. And we’ll often refer to agility as a mindset. So it’s not just a set of practices that you do or a set of activities that you do or it’s not just following the Scrum Framework, but agility is grounded in a set of values and principles. We’re not going to go into those in this episode, but I want to talk about culture because sometimes I hear folks in the agile community saying that the culture has to change within an organization for agile to take place. And when I hear things like that, changing culture if it’s possible, is certainly a pretty tall order. And it makes me think back to some work by a gentleman named William Schneider. And he wrote a book, um, many years ago called, The Re-engineering Alternative: The Plan for Making your Current Culture Work. And when I got introduced to Schneider’s culture model and started to explore it, I think there’s a lot to be learned by agilists within that and some of what I’m going to share on this podcast is what Susan DeFabio, a collaborator with me on a coaching engagement and a coach herself. We presented at the Agile2012 conference. So it’s been a, a notion that’s been in the back of my mind and sometimes in the front of my mind at at various times. And why I want to share a little bit about the Schneider model and a little bit about how I see it relating to agility as part of our time together today.

Dan Neumann: [03:00]  So Schneider hangs his Framework on the fact that, or his perspective that each organization tends to fit a model that matches up pretty well with one of four social institutions. So he says organizations either tend to look like the social institution of the military, which would be one of them, either a family or an athletic team, which would be a second category. They tend to look like a university or a religious institution. Whether that’s a church or a synagogue or a mosque or any other particular type of religious institution. And he says these leadership paradigms, these culture paradigms tend to either be military, family, university, or religious institution in their nature. So you certainly could have a business that runs very much like the military. You could have a business where it runs very much like a family. You’d have a business that runs like a university. And so that’s, that’s kind of the Framework that he creates. So take a second and think, have you, have you been in an organization that is very power oriented, which is what you tend to see in a military organization? A family is going to drive its strength more through affiliation and the strength of affiliation than of power, at least in most families. Universities tend to reward their staff that are very achievement-oriented, getting published, doing research. Those achievements lead to promotion and that’s where people get their, their strength within that particular culture. And then religious institutions tend to want people to grow or be self-actualized. So I can think of places I have been where really there’s a focus on growing the individual and these tend to a lot of times be not for profits where they’re trying to grow people within the organization.

Dan Neumann: [05:04]  So you’ve got four culture paradigms: military, family, university and religious institutions and then leaders tend to promote and be rewarded for um, power reasons, affiliation, achievements or growth. And I hope that’s clear as you can kind of think back in your experience, what’s it like to be part of a family or have you been in an organization that feels like it’s a family? So maybe at this point you’re thinking what does that have to do with agile anyway? Well, I think within the agile community there are a lot of folks who would say agility can’t take hold in a military-like organization where people and the organization really value power as their particular paradigm. There’s a sense that they need to move towards a more touchy feely growth oriented, um, religious institution-like or move towards family where you get your strength through affiliation than really adherence to high standards and power like you might have in a military group. So I take that thought about the military and then think back to General McChrystal’s book, Team of Teams, which is about some of the changes that were made in the U S military as well as some changes then where he saw this team of teams approach taking place in large organizations like Ford Motor company where they’re chipping away at this silos and creating teams of teams so that they can be more adaptable. Certainly within the military, power is still very important. Yet at the same time, the power within silos was not serving the purpose well much like at Ford Motor company where power within silos didn’t serve the purpose well and they went more towards teams of teams to be more competitive. So I want to spend a little bit of time and explore the, the four cultures. So Schneider labels them all with words that start with C. so there’s the control culture, which you can think of as the military. And this one emphasizes strength. It’s very effective at planning. It has systems and policies and procedures yet when it gets too far, so that’s those are strengths within a control organization, when that pendulum swings too far, the weaknesses can become that people rigidly adhere to the policies and the practices without ever stopping to improve them. They perhaps stop innovating within those organizations and it’s very difficult to have generalists, which can be really important on agile teams within Scrum Teams is that we want a lot of times to have generalists because they are more flexible or can help the system be flexible and to support the specialists.

Dan Neumann: [08:42]  So control culture isn’t anti agile but it does mean that if we are looking to embrace the values and principles of agility, we need to keep that culture in perspective. So we will want to do planning a control culture, really values planning. Yet at the same time it would be silly to give a single number that you use for your budget and for your forecast and for your, your target when it comes to planning. So you can do the planning. And at the same time recognize that here’s the range of possible outcomes. We can harness a power, or I’m sorry, we can harness a control culture to make sure that there is adherence to the agile framework that the organization has chosen or that the teams choose. If that’s the case, maybe the organization says every team will adhere to a framework and your options are a, B, or C. so if they’re adhering to the scrum framework in a control culture, we would expect to have a lot of clarity about who the product owner is, who the scrum master is, who the team members are, and there’d be a lot of clarity about the roles that each of those is pretty bold is going to have.

Dan Neumann: [10:04]  So the control culture looks a lot like a military. A collaboration culture looks more like a team. They’re very team focused, they are participative, they’re going to value diversity, and there tend to be a fairly trusting organization, which I think when some people think about agile, that that sounds like a fantastic type of organization to be in. Where we’re collaborating with each other, where we’re doing a good job of handling conflict. We have open and honest communication. You know, people are treated with a sensitive and caring manner. And so those types of things I think are where a lot of people in the agile community think an organization should go if they want to be agile. Hopefully from the conversation of control, I’m starting to make the case like you can be control culture and be agile. You can be a collaboration culture and be agile.

Dan Neumann: [11:07]  You want to watch for the weaknesses and collaboration culture though when collaboration swings too far, people might value the harmony of the group over the uh, the frankness that’s needed to talk about tough issues. There might be too much compromising, too much move towards consensus building and collaboration versus being clear about how decisions get made and collaborating within the defined framework. So things can get difficult or stressful in, in within a collaboration culture where the pendulum has swung too far. Then we have a hard time making and sticking to decisions. So you might think of this where when we have a collaboration culture that’s not effective, where Oh maybe making decisions within the retrospective too, make a particular change or take on a particular behavior and then we have a hard time sticking to that. When push comes to shove, where within a control culture maybe when push comes to shove, if you don’t adhere to the level of engineering excellence that’s expected, there are consequences or when you are not self-organizing, there are consequences there.

Dan Neumann: [12:29]  So collaboration culture can be great. We just need to make sure that the pendulum hasn’t swung too far where we are ignoring misbehaviors or ignoring shortcomings of the culture and we want to make sure to tackle those head on within that organization’s culture. So competence culture, that’s more like your university. We have standards or a task driven organization. We tend to be very efficient and we tend to be objective. So there are very high performance standards here. You could think of the performance standards that you would expect from your engineers as something where we want very competent software developers. You can think of the competence required within the Product Owner role in Scrum and making sure that we are very understanding of what our customers actually need within a competence culture. And so this can be a pretty creative place. It can be really visionary. It really values craftsmanship. I know there’s a lot of the software craftsmanship folks out in the agile community and this competence culture might be something that would attract somebody who is subscribing to the software craftsmanship mindset. One of the weaknesses though in it for competence culture goes too far is we go on these technical tangents. I think of these as um, pejoratively. You have the software architects who want to architect the perfect solution but not build any of it. They spend too much time in analysis paralysis or too much time trying to find the perfect solution instead of moving forward with one of many very good solutions.

Dan Neumann: [14:27]  There may be over-planning that happens and at times it may be too emotionally controlled. There might be no willingness to actually deal with interpersonal conflict within a competence culture or at least not to deal with it face to face. So we want to make sure that we are not striving to win at all costs and striving to step on the backs of other people within a competence culture. But you could see how standard settings and focusing on tasks and focusing on achieving an objective, could be a very valuable mindset of valuable culture characteristic within a competence culture. So the fourth type of culture I want to talk about is cultivation. And this tends to be more like your religious institutions, church, synagogue, mosque, what have you. Cultivation cultures tend to be very personal. They tend to be nurturing, they’re inspiring and they tend to be fairly subjective. You may be trying to be agile within a not for profit organization. And so there are aspects of a cultivation culture where we’re trying to help people, self-actualize to be their best, to be creative. That can be super helpful when we’re trying to be agile. People want to grow new skills, they want to help others learn those new skills. And those opportunities for growth and development in realizing their potential are super valuable for a Scrum Team, for an agile team. However, when things get too far out of whack, there can be way too much self expression. There can be too much time focused on feelings and worrying about the slightest offense that may have been taken and there might be playing favorites within the organization. And maybe the worst thing that comes to mind for me right now is how the data gets screened out. So emotions trump the place of data. So I could think of this as a place where Kanban and the notions of measuring and managing would have a particularly hard time taking root if the organization is too far over towards the cultivation mindset. So we’ve got collaboration cultures, control, competence and cultivation. And so maybe to help you frame this up, if we were to want to take on an engineering practice like test driven development where tests are written first it’s a failing test, then you write the code that makes that test pass and then when the code gets to the point where it needs to be modified to be better code, then it gets refactored. So it’s red, green refactor. When you think of the tests, red tests are failing, you make the test pass with code and then you refactor.

Dan Neumann: [17:41]  So in a control organization that’s easy to do, you just dictate that this is how we do things going forward. You maybe support them with some training and then there’s standard of behavior is set and that’s how we move forward. In a competence culture, you might also have the standard setting, but it really becomes a source of pride where competent engineers just should be doing this within our organization. So it’s different than the dictation that might come from control, but in that competence culture, it’s going to be part of your professional reputation, if you will. In collaboration, we’re going to help people do it and we’re going to do it as a team and pass the ball back and forth much like a team would and in cultivation you’re going to really take more time nurturing people and trying to bring them along with that behavior than you would in a controller or competence culture.

Dan Neumann: [18:40]  So none of those four cultures are antithetical to the practice of something like test driven development. They’re also not opposed to the idea of self-organizing teams. So a self-organizing team in control, you’re going to say, Hey you guys are going to self-organize around this. In a competence culture you would expect that competent people should be able to self-organize. Collaboration culture, that’s your, your basketball team if you will and it’s a little bit more like a street ball if you will. The self-organization happens and it happens maybe more naturally in that environment. And in cultivation that would also be a more natural mindset or a more natural perspective. So you can set the standards of self-organization in the support of the agile principles that are around self-organization. Even if your culture is not collaboration or cultivation.

Dan Neumann: [19:40]  So I hope that makes sense. I think the expectation that the culture of an organization is going to change is very challenging in small, closely held organizations. Organizations tend to take on the perspective and the personality of their leadership. In larger organizations, there’s thousands and thousands of people. And the expectation that the culture of thousands of people that they’re operating in is going to change, I think is a, uh, an unrealistic expectation. So you’ll hear it in the disclaimer, these are my opinions and not those of AgileThought or anybody else. But I think it is helpful at least to think of what type of culture am I inside and how do I harness the cultures predispositions to help it embrace agile principles and agile values versus trying to pull a coup of some kind and change the culture to something radically different. So I think you’ll find your life and your results to be much more effective if you work with the culture and be aware of some of the downsides. If the culture swings too far off the uh, the spectrum if you will.

Dan Neumann: [21:00]  So I’ll welcome your thoughts. Again, you can tweet them or email them the email is podcast@agilethought.com or you can tweet with the #AgileThoughtPodcast and I’ll look forward to hearing about those and your new year’s resolutions. I’m still working my way through the book, how to measure anything. I know I mentioned that on an earlier episode and there were mixed reviews. My collaborator on that episode said, eh, I’m not sure, um, they didn’t get much out of it, but I’m actually pretty intrigued by the notion of measurement, especially within agile teams where you know, within Scrum the Scrum Guide does not prescribe velocity, but a lot of people get focused on velocity. We’ll have a conversation in the near future about what to measure there. But there’s just the notion of productivity of a software team. Do we use function points, do we measure the satisfaction of our customers? What really is important and the book, how to measure anything has some nice framework concepts in there that I’m pretty interested in. And so that’s what’s got me inspired and hopefully I’ll be able to finish it here while I’m still on my Christmas and New Year’s vacation. So until we make that a full fledged episode, I’m just going to set that aside for now, but we’d love to hear your thoughts on culture and we will put a a diagram with some of the, the tips and the relationships of one culture to another up on the show notes where you can get it at agilethought.com/podcast. Thanks for listening.

Outro: [22:40] 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 from this episode and other episodes at agilethought.com/podcast.

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