Episode #71 – Managing Traditional Culture with Tom Mellor

Featured speakers:

Clayton Lengel-Zigich Clayton Derek Neighbors Derek Roy van de Water Roy

Roy van de Water, Derek Neighbors, Clayton Lengel-Zigich, and Tom Mellor discuss:

  • How to work with management that has traditional culture
  • Working with vs changing a company’s culture
  • Trying to sell process opposed to something deeper
  • Historical revolutionaries


Roy van de Water:  Hello, and welcome to another episode of the Agile Weekly Podcast. I’m Roy van de Water.

Drew LeSueur:  I’m Drew LeSueur.

Derek Neighbors:  I’m Derek Neighbors.

Clayton Lengel‑Zigich:  I’m Clayton Lengel‑Zigich.

Roy:  Joining us today is Tom Miller. How’s it going, Tom?

Tom Miller:  It’s going well. Right in the middle of teaching a scrum master class in the middle of Kentucky, it’s going well. I’m winding down for today.

Roy:  When we contacted you to be on you had asked to talk about managing traditional culture. Can you kind of give us an example of what you mean by that?

Tom:  This is something that comes up in our classes all the time. We can’t do this where we’re at or we’re having difficulty doing it. We run into traditional management, and so a lot of what we talk through is how you deal with management that is versed in traditional nomenclature. They’re used to talking the traditional development processes. They’re not familiar with terminology, actual terminology.

I was just looking through, over the last five or six years, and invariably at every gathering there was two or three presentations given on how management receives scrum, what people did to allay fears, and helping to be supportive of work in the organization, and so forth. That’s really what I was trying at when I suggested the topic of the podcast today.

Roy:  Are you concerned more from a perspective of how to make these changes work around the existing company culture, or is this more from a perspective of trying to change the company culture to meet the changes?

Tom:  There are a couple of perspectives on this, or a couple of considerations. One of them is how stoic the company is, how entrenched it is in a culture already. The younger companies, the startups, the companies that have been generated ‑‑ I’m going to say in the last 15‑20 years ‑‑ those cultures grew up around a lot more progressive thought.

That’s how I’m going to couch it, in management and in organizational structure, behaviors, and so forth. Companies that are older tend to be larger. They’re more entrenched in a culture that’s developed over decades, some of them.

For instance the company that I work for it just celebrated its 90th anniversary. That’s quite a period of time to develop and entrench your culture. When you’re introducing practices that arguably will cause the culture some trepidation, cause the people that have been in that culture for quite some time some fears and some apprehension, then you have to consider how you’re going to support that.

I did a presentation on this back in 2008 or 2009 at a scrum gathering in Florida. Some of the advice that I gave people at that time was you can’t simply go out and carte blanche challenge the culture of the company without providing some explanation and some actual evidence of why such a change in the culture would be beneficial for it.

I’ve been reading a book I probably should have read a long time ago, called “Change the World” by Bob Quinn. In it, he says that transformational change for societies, and for companies, and for all kinds of large groups of people are very difficult because of the diversity of the population.

Derek:  I’ve got a little bit of a question. Certainly we see in the work that we do that it really has nothing at all to do with Agile, and nothing at all to do with process, and the 99 percent of it is culture. The original signatories of Agile and early developers of Agile frameworks, whether it be XP or Scrum ‑‑ you name it ‑‑ I think what they were trying to do is say, “Within the current crappy culture that I have, what can we do as a team to start to change the way we work and move the bar forward.” Now that we’ve seen a number of companies from big to small adopt these processes or these frameworks, what they all tend to do is hit a ceiling to where their performance gets impeded, because the culture around them won’t let them really take it to the next level.

From a Scrum Alliance perspective or a CST perspective, are we doing people a disservice by still trying to sell them process opposed to really trying to get people to understand that it’s a much bigger change than process?

Tom:  We might think that a culture is crappy, or we might not be satisfied with the cultural nuances that we see unsupportive of doing work in a progressive way. But for all of us that feel that way, there are other people that feel strongly oppositional to that. It’s not like suddenly we’re the new thing, and everybody’s going to come on board.

Roy:  I’ve never been brought into a company that wasn’t having problems. There are certainly camps that say, “We don’t need this fandangled agile stuff” or, “We don’t need the address our culture to deal with the fact that we’ve had slumping quarters for the last 15 quarters, and our quality sucks ass.”

But I’ve never been brought into a company that was high performing, market leader, totally kicking ass going, “You know, I really think we need some culture or some process changes around here.” Are we doing a disservice by companies that are seeking help by short selling them that, “Hey, improve your teams and start there, and that’s a really great place to start”?

Drew:  That might still be a great way to start though.

Tom:  This is a generalization and may be not supported actually by observation, but I think there can be a tendency to go in naively. If you come in and consult these companies, companies [inaudible 07:27] to feel that you have an answer. Why would you be there? To your point, if I’m doing well and taking [inaudible 07:34] at the market, and putting out [inaudible 07:36] products, I’m probably not bringing people [inaudible 07:40] improvement anyway.

But if I’m trying to resurrect a company that at one time maybe didn’t perform well or maybe got bit by complacency ‑‑ any number of those really bad things that can happen at companies ‑‑ then there is a propensity to reach out for a silver bullet. Yet, there is a hesitation on those companies to invest into thorough changes that will be required if they’re actually going to recover or progress.

It’s interesting because Jerry Weinberg has written for years that you can’t manage change in the same way that companies think that they can manage products, and manage people, and do all that. There’s even a model called the ADKAR model that supposedly systematically and mechanistically structure your organization to manage change.

He and Virginia Satir work very closely together for years, and the dynamics of the change are much more aligned to Virginia Satir’s change model, which there’s some kind of foreign element that’s introduced into a company that creates chaos over some period of time.

That’s where support for change whether you introduce the agile practices or you’re introducing different engineering practices, however you want to characterize it, there’s got to be support in those organizations.

The organizations have to want to have that support, and they got to reach out and bring that support in, in the form of coaching, or in the form of really good guidance. Otherwise, it’s a waste of everyone’s time if you’re just going to give a lip service, and you’re not really going to invest in the change.

Clayton:  I’m sure that you guys see a lot of people at your classes that have this problem. Maybe they are coming for refreshers, CSM, or whatever. They’re wondering how they can either change or just manage traditional culture and facilitate agile.

What have you seen have been effective for those people. To someone listening that’s maybe in that same boat, how would you recommend that they manage that stuff?

Tom:  I took a fortune 50 company through that process, and I can tell you that I have scars and wounds on my body that resulted from people who thought I was crazy.

The thing is that you have to put the organization, and the teams, and the people first. If it becomes about individuals, in any sense, then it will break down. If somebody goes in and introduces this, and sees themselves as heroic, or solely instrumental, or that sort of thing, there’s going to be a lot of animosity and resentment towards such a person.

You’ve got to reach out. It’s in the terms of what Quinn wrote in “Change the World.” He used Christ, and Gandhi, and Martin Luther King as examples of people who didn’t have positional authority, and yet they created huge, transformational change. It survived them.

It’s the same kind of thing that you have to go into organizations with. You can’t go in there thinking you’re going to be a hero. Those three people didn’t do that. They came in with a passion, and a conviction, and something that they felt would lead people to a better place. You have to bring people along with that. You have to reach out and appeal to people’s fears. You’ve got to be able to mitigate those fears. You’ve got to engender trust.

It’s tough. People look at me in classes and they go, “Who’s going to do that?” I go, “I don’t know. It’s got to be somebody in your company.” Otherwise you’re going to have to do this surreptitiously forever, and eventually you’re going to be discovered.

You’re either going to get discovered because you’re doing something against the grain, or, like was in my case, you actually get results and people can’t avoid seeing it. They’re going to look at it. They’re going to say, “How are those teams he’s working on getting good results?”

Then the cat’s out of the bag. Once the cat’s out of the bag, you have to really think, from a therapeutic perspective, how am I going to take the organization through this? I’m not going to do it by myself, so I have to find allies out there that are going to help me.

Clayton:  I think it’s a very good point. I think there are a lot of people that get really excited and passionate about this stuff, but they are expecting that kind of silver bullet. Or, they think they can be the hero and do it behind the scenes, and then it kind of blows up in their face. I think it is good to reiterate the point that there isn’t that silver bullet there.

Tom:  You have to have structural support. Otherwise, it will just become a fad. There won’t be any legacy to it.

Roy:  Tom, is there anything that you are currently working on, or any upcoming things that you’d like to share with the audience?

Tom:  I’ve written quite a bit about this. I have a blog called “Helping Pigs Fly.” That was the title of the presentation that I did several years ago at The Scrum Gathering, I just created a blog on it. One of the thing I focus on in the blog is how do you handle these kinds of cultural issues, and that sort of thing. If you Google “helping pigs fly” the blog comes up right at the top. There’s not too many things called helping pigs fly I guess.

Clayton:  If I wanted to take Scrum training from you, how would I go about finding a class?

Tom:  You can go on the Scrum Alliance site. Go to the training tab, and then search it. You can search by parameter.

Roy:  Thank you for joining us.

Tom:  It was my pleasure, and I really enjoyed it. Thanks for having me on.

Clayton:  Thanks a lot.

Roy:  Thank you.


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