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Creating An Agile Culture: Top 3 Challenges Empowered Teams Face


By Ron Montgomery, Management Consultant & Owner, OnPoint, LLC

{#/pub/images/AgileCultureEmpoweredTeams.jpg}Agile organizations must overcome cultural challenges to enable teams to function, foster creativity and move quickly.  When Project Managers face organizational challenges they can slow down, or even worse, fail; it takes a companywide approach to succeed.  These challenges were recently published in a survey titled “The State of Agile Development,” where more than 4,000 respondents from various software development organizations who reported failed agile projects noted that three of the top five sources of failure were related to company culture.  The negative impact breaks down the team’s ability to work effectively, contradicting the important aspect of empowerment.


Top 3 Challenges Empowered Teams Face & How To Overcome Them

1.     Company philosophy or culture at odds with core agile values

2.     External pressure to follow traditional waterfall processes

3.     Lack of cultural transition


If you are a project manager beginning your agile journey, it is critical to understand these cultural challenges and to develop plans to deal with them. 


Challenge #1 – Company Philosophy or Culture at Odds with Core Agile Values

As noted in an earlier blog article agile principles promote collaboration by self-directed teams of business experts and developers who continually monitor and improve their performance.  Those of us who have worked in medium-large organizations can immediately see the conflict between an agile culture and the predominant corporate culture, which can be described as “command and control.”


The “command and control” culture promotes top-down decision-making, extensive up-front planning, stove-piped functional organizations, and a directive style of leadership. While a project manager cannot directly change the organization, you can prepare for potential cultural issues by setting proper expectations with project sponsors and team members that this project will operate differently:

1)    The project will require that certain control practices will need to be waived

2)    The project team will need to establish team rules that will differ from prior projects

3)    These changes will result in better outcomes for the project


Challenge #2 – External Pressure to Follow Traditional Waterfall Processes

It may be hard to believe, but not everyone thinks agile is great.  I understand.  About 8 years ago, I was one of the “yabbits”  (yabbits are those people who frequently say, “yeah, but what about this...”).  It took me more than a year to understand and appreciate the benefits of the agile framework over the traditional waterfall methods.  The yabbits are commonly found in the Program Management Office (PMO) and will object to the lack of extensive documentation and phase-gate reviews in the agile framework.  As your organization continues its agile journey, you will encounter a great deal of resistance from yabbits and will need to either win them over or negotiate a number of exemptions from established procedures. 


Before you can convert them, you need to understand that they are concerned about being blamed for a project failure.  In your conversations with the yabbits, focus on the benefit of agile for risk mitigation.  For example, the short agile delivery cycles reduce common sources of risks such as turnover in project sponsors and team members.  The role of product owner reduces the risk of misunderstood requirements.  The agile testing approach reduces the risk of bug-ridden software moving to production.  Beyond extolling the benefits of agile, it would also be helpful to engage your project’s executive sponsor to absolve the yabbits of blame if your project encounters difficulties.


Challenge #3 – Lack of Cultural Transition (a note to senior leadership)

There are limits to a project manager’s ability to effect change.  Eventually, the organization will impose a brick wall that agile teams will be unable to scale. The brick wall may take the shape of project delays due to excessive sign off requirements, reluctance to delegate decision-making authority to product owners, or turf wars that restrict the ability of team members to collaborate.  Regardless of the shape of the wall, the bricks will be provided by a culture that favors command-and-control over empowered teams.


In order to win with agile at scale, organizations must execute a cultural transition that will have profound and far-reaching impacts.  Following are but a few examples:  

  • The organization will become flatter, enabling faster decision-making but also thwarting career goals of some managers

  • Subject matter experts from various disciplines must not only learn to trust and respect each other, they will need to “move in together” in co-located work spaces

  • Managers and leaders will change their work styles from “order givers” to “servant leaders” who focus on removing impediments and making sure the teams have the resources they need to be successful.


Changes of this magnitude will require the active sponsorship of senior leadership.


It’s Not Just an I.T. Thing

Because it originated in the software development discipline, the agile movement is too often viewed as a something that is solely for the benefit of I.T.  When you scratch the surface of agile, you will find that the movement began as a means of improving software development in response to rapidly changing business needs.   It is the business that drives the requirement.



{#/pub/images/RonMontgomery1.jpg}Written by Ron Montgomery, Management Consultant & Owner, OnPoint, LLC Ron is certified as a Project Management Professional, Agile Certified Practitioner and Certified ScrumMaster with over 35 years of hands-on experience in business planning, software development, process improvement & deployment of software solutions.  By partnering with clients to drive business value from technology projects, Ron assists clients with business planning, IT strategy, project and program management, vendor selection and team training/mentoring.



Do you have a management question for Ron? Please visit our Project Management Community and he will be happy to help: Ask an Expert


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Here are some related articles you may be interested in: 

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Agile Methodology: A Creative Approach to Project Management 

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