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Organisational Culture And Agile Frameworks: How To Create An Alignment

Culture impacts all areas of our lives. Some are obvious such as religion, family values. Many, however, fall below the radar but still have lasting effects. In this article we will look how you could create an alignment between your organisational culture and the Agile framework you choose to adopt.

What is Culture?

I don’t think you can go far wrong with William Schneider’s definition of Culture: How we do things around here to succeed.

Schneider describes four distinct cultures summarised below in his model, as illustrated by Michael Sahota in his book ‘An Agile Adoption and Transformation Survival Guide’.


 The four culture types are:

  1. Control culture, which is about getting and keeping control.
  2. Competence culture, which is about being the best.
  3. Cultivation culture - learning and growing with a sense of purpose.
  4. Collaboration culture, focused on working together.

So, when we are trying to evolve our organisations to make them more agile and responsive, the following should be useful questions to ask:

  • What is the predominant culture in our company?
  • Does our predominant culture support or hinder changes we are trying to introduce?
  • What elements of our culture do we need to change to achieve success?

Why do we need to consider culture when adopting Agile? Because Agile is more than just tools and practices, it includes a mindset, a set of different behaviours, and acts as a catalyst for cultural change.

Organisations need to be prepared for cultural change, and able to steer it, so that they can keep the best traditions of the current culture, and use Agile to create a new, better culture that will enable future success.

For now, let’s start by having a look at the various dominant Agile frameworks.

Agile Methods and Approaches

From the Agile Methods and Approaches out there, Scrum still dominates the market in terms of adoption. In the latest VersionOne 10th State of Agile Report, 75% respondents claim to follow Scrum (58%) or Scrum hybrid (17%). Next is Kanban at 12% (Kanban or hybrid), then XP and XP hybrid at 11%.

What you will notice is that the hybrid approaches are often a combination of Scrum / XP / Kanban.

Agile methodologies used - VersionOne survey

Now let’s look at the alignment between these approaches and the culture of the organisation. By looking closer we can explain the unique cultures of Agile, Kanban, Scrum, and how well they might fit with your current organisational culture.

In that respect I am grateful to Michael Sahota and Michael Spayd for their guidance in the ‘An Agile Adoption and Transformation Survival Guide’ book and the Culture Survey of Agile, respectively.

Agile Adoption Strategies at your Team Level

Your organisational culture: Control Culture

If your company is characterised predominantly by a Control culture, I would probably lead with a Kanban approach. Why? The foundational principles of Kanban are:

  1. Start with what you do now.
  2. Agree to pursue incremental, evolutionary change.
  3. Respect the current process, roles, responsibilities and job titles.


Start with what you do now

The Kanban Method does not ask you to change your process. It is based on the concept that you evolve your current process. There is no sweeping, engineered change to a new process definition or style of working.


Agree to pursue incremental, evolutionary change

The organisation (or team) must agree to pursue evolutionary, fact-based approach to improvement.


Respect the current process, roles, responsibilities and job titles

It is likely that what the organisation currently does has some elements which work acceptably and are worth preserving. By agreeing to respect current roles, responsibilities and job titles, we eliminate initial fears.

[David Anderson 2010: Kanban Method]

In fact, if you map the principles and core practices of the Kanban Method to the Schneider model, they are largely aligned with the Control culture, as none of them possess an immediate threat to the status quo.

Your organisational culture: Competence Culture

What if your company is characterised predominantly by a Competence culture? In this situation you could concentrate on Software Craftsmanship and lead with technical practices promoted by XP, such as merciless refactoring, Test Driven Development (TDD), Acceptance Test Driven Development (ATDD), Continuous Integration, Continuous Delivery, clean code, etc.

Software craftsmanship means that the developers will be the best software developers possible.

Your organisational culture: Cultivation and Collaboration Cultures

What about Cultivation and Collaboration cultures? If you map the Agile values and principles to the Schneider Model, then you will notice a high density in their alignment with Collaboration and Cultivation cultures.

In this case, I would probably lead more with a Scrum approach. That’s not to say that Kanban and XP are not Agile.

Summary - What Agile frameworks fit with what culture type?

To conclude this section, the awareness of the dominant organisational culture, based on the Schneider model and visualised by Michael Sahota’s diagram, can be used as a guide to determine what approach could be most appropriate for you to build on the dominant culture of your organisation:

  • Control – lead with Kanban
  • Competence – lead with Software Craftsmanship
  • Cultivation and Collaboration – lead with Agile values and principles and Scrum.

This is only a guide and should not be used without the consideration of the more detailed organisational context.  More importantly, I am not saying that you couldn’t use Kanban in a Cultivation and Collaboration culture.

However, Scrum is less likely to succeed in a Control culture. What is interesting is that most organisations that I encounter display a control culture, and yet most want to start with Scrum.

An important aspect to mention is that you normally need to go much deeper than looking just at the methodology as it stands. By studying the existing culture in-depth, I often craft a combination of Agile tools and techniques that will sufficiently fit with the current context to be successfully adopted. At the same time, they will be the right catalyst for further change to get to the new cultural destination.


An alternative segmentation of culture types: Value-Driven Cultures

More recently, I attended an event where Michael Spayd and Lyssa Adkins presented five organisational value cultures (‘Altitudes’) based on Frederic Laloux “Reinventing Organisations”. In summary:

  1. Impulsive (Red) – Power and dominance, chiefdoms, illegal organisations
  2. Traditional (Amber) – Follows authority, consistent processes, stability, hierarchy.
  3. Results-Driven (Orange) – Success-oriented, accountability, meritocracy
  4. People- Driven (Green) – Community based, empowerment, values-driven
  5. Purpose-Driven (Teal) – Autonomy, authenticity, adaptive.

This sparked my curiosity in terms of how it could be mapped against the Schneider Model. Let’s lay out the Schneider model in a linear way, rather than as a quadrant.

Is there alignment? I think so.

‘Traditional’ certainly maps to Control and ‘Results-Driven’ to Competence. Interestingly I would align ‘People-Driven’ with Collaboration and ‘Purpose-Driven’ with Cultivation. 

Scaling Methods and Approaches: How do they map against culture?

The basic frameworks I have discussed are fine for working with individual teams, but what about when we need to scale up for a larger organisation? Just as there is a choice of Agile frameworks available at the team level, there are various scaling frameworks available. The same questions of cultural compatibility apply here too.

According to the VersionOne 10th Annual State of Agile Report, the most prevalent scaling approaches are:

  • Scrum of Scrums
  • Scaled Agile Framework (SAFe)
  • Internally created methods
  • Large Scale Scrum (LeSS)
  • Disciplined Agile Delivery (DAD), with some other approaches in the middle ground.
VersionOne survey - Scaling Agile

Scrum of Scrums is a meeting, not an approach. DAD is more of a Meta framework - by understanding your goals, it directs you in the most appropriate direction, which could be one of the team approaches or other scaling approaches.

Certainly SAFe (created by Dean Leffingwell) and LeSS (created by Craig Larman and Bas Vodde) sit at opposite ends of the Agile spectrum, as well as at opposite ends in terms of current adoption rates.

LeSS has no project/program organisation or project/program management office (PMO). These traditional control organisations cease to exist in a LeSS organisation, as their responsibilities are distributed between the feature teams and the Product Owner. In addition, LeSS has no support groups such as configuration management, continuous integration support, or “quality and process”.

In contrast, SAFe builds on W. Edwards Deming’s maxim: “A system must be managed. It will not manage itself. Left to themselves, components become selfish, competitive, independent profit centers, and thus destroy the system... The secret is cooperation between components toward the aim of the organisation.”  

SAFe has thus a number of program level teams, roles, and activities which are organised around the Agile Release Train (ART) metaphor - a team of Agile teams that delivers a continuous flow of incremental releases of value.

The new ‘kid on the block’ in the scaling area is Nexus (created by Ken Schwaber), which isn’t mentioned in the VersionOne survey, probably because it is relatively new. Nexus sits between SAFe and LeSS in terms of team coordination, and includes a Nexus Integration Team consisting of the Product Owner, Scrum Master and one or more Nexus Integration Team Members.

Having had a very brief look at some of the scaling approaches, let’s now move on to have a look at the cultural fit.

Agile Adoption Strategies at Scale - the Cultural fit

If your company is Traditional (Amber) or Results-Driven (Orange) I would almost certainly lead with a SAFe approach. Remember that Traditional and Results-Driven can be mapped against Control and Competence.

In SAFe v3.0 (the previous version of SAFe, before SAFe 4.0 was launched in 2016), Scrum was the framework of choice for managing the work at the Team level, and Kanban was chosen to manage work at the Portfolio level, with no specific guidance at the Program Level. However, in SAFe v4.0, Kanban can also be used directly at all levels (not just with the Portfolio), integrating strategic alignment with local emergent context. At the sharp end, Delivery Teams can use Scrum, Kanban or a hybrid, depending on their needs.

Furthermore, one of the Core Values of SAFe is ‘Built-in Quality’, as illustrated by the maxim “you can’t scale crappy code”. SAFe relies heavily on the XP technical practices.

We have already seen how the combination of Kanban and Software Craftsmanship will align with Control and Competence (Traditional and Results-Driven).

In addition, the SAFe Big Picture has a level of hierarchy which speaks to the Traditional culture in terms of team, program, value stream and portfolio. This will resonate with internal management as an adoption approach (“I can still see my place in the structure”, albeit these roles will also certainly change). Also, SAFe does provide guidance on objective-based metrics at all levels, which will also certainly resonate with the Results-Driven culture.

If your company is Purpose-Driven, I would be more inclined to consider a LeSS approach. Remember that Purpose-Driven maps to Cultivation.

The flat structure of Purpose-Driven organisations prefers expanding the existing autonomous teams’ responsibilities to creating a more complex organisation with specialised groups. This is well aligned with the LeSS organisation, which is very flat with just a Head of Product Group to support the teams.

Of course, at the heart of LeSS is Scrum, which aligns with Cultivation (Purpose-Driven), as mentioned earlier.

What happens if your company is People-Driven? To be honest, SAFe could extend into this, but using more Scrum at the team level - the same is true for LeSS. Additionally, it could be the sweet spot for Nexus, which is the exoskeleton of scaled Scrum development.

What is interesting is how these organisational value cultures (altitudes) are roughly distributed (source: Agile Coaching Institute and Michael K. Spayd 2015):

% of People


In conclusion, how do you align culture with scaling approaches? Let’s summarise:

  • Traditional / Results-Driven – lead with SAFe
  • People-Driven – could be the sweet spot for Nexus, or SAFe could bleed right and LeSS bleed left
  • Purpose-Drive – lead with LeSS.

How does this look?




This could explain why the latest State of Agile Report shows 27% of respondents are using SAFe and only 6% LeSS.

However, this doesn’t explain why Kanban (including its hybrids) only has a 12% adoption when, according to the cultural fit, it should be more like 30%. The same applies to XP (and hybrids) at only 11%, when the cultural fit implies it should be more like 40%. And yet, Scrum sees a 58% adoption, when it is more aligned with the less widespread People and Purpose-Driven cultures.

What is the reason for this apparent contradiction? Scrum is lightweight and simple to understand
 (source: Scrum Guide 2013), which is why, I guess, it is very attractive as a starting point on the Agile journey. But the Scrum Guide goes on to say that it is ‘difficult to master’. The reason behind this could be that 75% of the time the cultural context is not the right one.


Conclusion & Health Warning for your Culture

I will conclude the article with saying that my recommendations are general, and you will need to adapt them to your own organisation’s context, inspecting what works and what doesn’t. Of utmost importance is to regularly reflect on the way the team or the system is performing, and constantly look to improve.

In the Schneider model, no culture type is considered better than another – depending on the type of work, one type of culture may be a better fit. Let’s not make it a ‘war’ between the different approaches, but give ourselves the best possible chance of success with the right approach for your organisation and its environment.

Cultural change is easily avoided - it’s hard, and often involves a range of skills and experience not found in the business. Also, culture isn't static. By its very nature, it always evolves. The question is: do we want to leave it to fate, or keep a hand on the tiller? Far better to go forward with our eyes open, and make conscious positive choices in order to bring the changes and success that we so badly need.

How does your organisation’s culture look like? Do you feel like you need to change it, but don’t know what to do or where to start? We can help you - Radtac’s Culture offering assesses your existing culture and helps you get to where you want to get.

Get in touch today to find out more.

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Darren Wilmshurst

Darren Wilmshurst

With his strategic C-suite-oriented approach to IT leadership – and his infectious energy – Darren has successfully delivered multi-million pound business transformations for e-commerce sites, ERP implementations, outsourcing and offshoring, including multiple Agile transformations. Read more