Agile adoption failure? You’ve got a cultural mismatch.

Bob wanted to chat. “We can’t seem to make this work”, he said. “I just don’t think scrum works for a team like ours.”

I had provided scrum training and a bit of coaching for his team a few months back to get them going. Their story was pretty common – they had been using kind of an ad hoc, waterfall style process. They weren’t very strict about it, but the traditional phases were all there – Product Managers writing requirements documents, the team building out the requirements, a few months of testing, then release. They had heard about scrum and how other teams had really liked it and after the training, they were pumped up about how it could be a much better process for them.

Now things seemed to be falling apart. The team was cheating on the definition of done to get features into the demo by the end of the sprint. “We’ve got to meet our commitments!” they stated. The daily scrums seemed more about rote reporting to the engineering manager, who was also the scrum master. Product Managers were regularly adding “emergency requirements” in the middle of sprints. Retrospectives had quickly devolved into a disengaged, repetitive finger-pointing session focused on what went wrong in the last sprint.

I handed Bob a copy of the book “Tribal Leadership” and asked him to read it and see if it gave him any insight into solving his problems.

“Is Tribal Leadership an agile book?”, Bob asked.

“Not exactly, but I think it will help your team be more agile”, I replied.

While our first inclination may be to jump in and fix each of these problems, I’ve learned that the problem probably is not about the team or about the process. In short, Scrum and other agile approaches are patterns of a Tribal Stage 4 and 5 culture, and if you’re working in a Tribal Stage 2 or 3, you’re going to struggle to make it work. Hit the break for more about cultural stages and some ideas for how to move the needle.

Tribal Leadership

Dave Logan, John King, and Halle Fischer-Wright summarized their study of what made effective leaders in their book Tribal Leadership. The book points out a fact that most of us overlook: humans form tribes. Their work with executives at many institutions showed that different tribes took on one of five cultural levels of development. Here’s a brief summary of the five tribal stages:

Tribal Stage

Prevailing Sentiment


Stage 1

Life Sucks. Anyone that tells you different is selling you something.

Prison culture, gang culture.

Stage 2

My life sucks. Yours might be great, but mine sucks.

Workers in Dilbert/Office Space style workplaces.

Stage 3

I’m great, (and you’re not).

Managers of Dilbert/Office Space style workplaces.

Stage 4

We’re great, everyone else sucks

Groups united around values, working to outdo their competition.

Stage 5

Life’s great. Anyone that tells you different just hasn’t had the epiphany yet.

Rare stage. Example: An Amgen employee, when asked to identify their main competitor, said “Cancer”.

You can also listen to author Dave Logan describe these in more detail here:

Looking at this list of tribal stages, it’s pretty clear that the values and principles of Agile are firmly ensconced in stage 4 and 5 cultures. Let’s look at what we’d expect when implementing agile in Stage 2 and Stage 3 tribes.

Agile in Tribal Stage 2 cultures

Since the prevailing sentiment in a stage culture is “MY life sucks”, this clouds everything about their workplace. Bringing in the agile trainers is likely to be seen by employees as yet another way for the business to squeeze more out of them. They are likely to be highly skeptical about ideas like “self organizing teams” and “servant leadership”, since people in Stage 2 believe they’re not valued and can’t succeed. Since they tend to blame their boss, the system, or their own limitations, continuous improvement, transparency, and inspecting and adapting will all feel like fantasy. You’re likely to hear things like “this could never work in the real world”, since their view of the real world is wrapped up in these patterns of thought.

Often, Stage 2 workers work for Stage 3 bosses, so you’ll see this power imbalance reflected in many ways. Daily scrums will be more about covering one’s behind than working together to find a solution. There is a marked lack of trust in Stage 2, so managers will want to make sure they’re involved with every decision. Since people are respected in this stage, it’s likely that you’ll see work/life balance suffering in order to cram in everything committed to and cheating in order to appear like it’s all done.

Agile in Tribal Stage 3 cultures

Since the prevailing sentiment in a Stage 3 culture is “I’m great, (and you’re not)”, teams will never reach performing stages. Fire-fighting and heroism are the name of the game in Stage 3, so you’ll see leaders focus on short term solutions – resulting in teams that are always in fire-fighting, crisis mode. Stage three is about dyadic, or 1:1 relationships, meaning leaders tend to form hub and spoke relationships with teams. Managers rule the roost in Stage 3, so self-organization and collaboration seem like fluffy buzzwords. It’s about compliance, which effects all of the agile practices: You will see lots of component style teams in this culture, as well as strong silos within teams – all examples of experts in their area defending their turf. There will be finger pointing – “I don’t know why the story didn’t get done, I did my task on time”. Sprint Planning is often about the leaders telling everyone else what they should do during the sprint. Likewise, the Daily Scrum is the time when the manager makes sure everyone is complying with the plan. About 48% of workplaces are Stage 3 cultures.

To summarize, in Tribal Stages 2 and 3, Processes and Tools tend to be used to keep Individuals in line, and Interactions are one way reports to ensure managers can fix any problems or assign blame to the right person.

So how do we fix this?

If the descriptions of stages 2 and 3 sound all too familiar, you may be considering throwing in the towel when it comes to agile transformation. A focus on the processes and tools of agile aren’t going to work – you need to focus on moving your tribe up a level. Fortunately, Logan has some specific advice for how to do this. He has found that tribes start to move up a level (and only one level at a time), when leaders encourage individuals in the tribe to begin using the language and behavior of the next higher stage.

Moving from Stage 2 to Stage 3:

  • Regularly help individuals see how their work makes an impact.
    • In agile terms, this could mean inviting actual customers to a sprint review, or using acknowledgement during Sprint Retrospectives
  • Encourage them to form relationships with late stage 3 mentors.
  • Assign projects that individuals can successfully complete in a short amount of time.
    • Agile done well almost always includes very thin, vertical slice development. Being able to successfully complete a full vertical slice, over and over again, in a single sprint builds confidence both for individuals as well as the team.
    • This is exactly in line with the research of Teresa Amabile as described in her awesome book “The Progress Principle“. She found that the number one factor by a landslide in keeping employees engaged was small wins every day.

Moving from Stage 3 to Stage 4:

This move typically occurs when leaders have what Logan describes as “the epiphany”. They are overworked and struggle to have an impact as Stage 3 leaders. At some point they recognize that in order to have a real impact, their power lies not in their own capability to do something, but in their network. To help catalyze this shift, Logan recommends the following:

  • Have people work on big projects that they simply can’t succeed doing alone. They will need to build many partnerships in order to be successful.
    • Put together a team and have them do Lean-Startup style customer interviews together.
    • Establish Guilds and Chapters to improve on areas of common interest, as described by Henrik Kniberg in the Spotify Scaling Approach.
  • Encourage people to build triads, in stead of dyads. Triads are powerful three person relationships that tend to lead to networks instead of hub-and-spoke patterns.
  • Encourage mentorship from Stage 4 individuals, ideally within the company. These individuals will be obvious by their “we” language, their numerous triadic relationships in their networks, and success that comes from groups that they lead.

To succeed at agile, focus on culture, not process

To paraphrase: “He who focuses on doing agile better will lose it. He who focuses on improving culture will gain agility”. Or something like that. If you want to get agile working, take an honest look at where your tribe is today. If you’re in stage 2 or stage 3, start working to increase the tribal stage to the next level by using the suggestions above. It happens one individual at a time – there’s no silver bullet. Logan says that the best way to get people to move up is simply to encourage them to start using the language and behaviors of the next level. In my experience, when agile adoptions have been successful in stage 2 or 3 cultures, it’s because a leader encouraged people in the tribe to use the new language and behaviors of agile, the individuals saw some success, and so agile helped them move their tribal culture up a level when it became the prevailing way of thinking. Viewing an agile adoption as a tool to increase the level of tribal leadership can help it be successful, since the goal is not to do scrum better, but to help people and tribes become more collaborative and effective. Agile is then simply the pattern used to help make the change.

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