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Creating a Culture for Enterprise Agility

Ola Chowning
by Ola Chowning
Culture Enterprise Agility

Technology is changing so rapidly these days it’s hard to keep up. Thank goodness we have IT practitioners in our organizations who are used to technical change, who are well versed with the latest and greatest digital advances and ready to lead us in the right direction. Right?

Well, not so fast.

Many of the changes we see happening in technology today go far beyond the routine technical changes IT is so adept at handling. The changes happening in technology today get right down to the essence of an enterprise’s culture. What do we mean when we talk about culture? It is the norms that employees in our organizations expect from each other and act out every day. It is the behaviors we do without thinking – the behaviors that are rarely written down but weave through nearly every process, decision and interaction that happens inside our organizations.

Do you take for granted that your boss will want to discuss and okay that mid-size purchase before you make it? Does your leadership team tacitly expect a status report from major projects on a monthly basis, or that they will be copied on deliverable approvals sent to suppliers from middle management? Do you publicly recognize employees for a job well done – particularly “heroic” behavior like working all weekend, jumping in and solving a problem outside of their area or going above and beyond for a customer? Are your people acknowledged or incentivized for developing an in-depth focus on a narrow capability? Is their domain expertise reflected and reinforced in the company’s job architecture? These are the kinds of behaviors that define your organization’s culture.

The latest, most meaningful changes we see in IT are the ones being made in the name of enterprise agility. Enterprise agility is a company’s ability to apply technical velocity and rapid feedback to match the variety of speeds needed across its business. It is accomplished by using capabilities such as DevOps, customer alignment, automation, lean process management, Agile principles and digital enablement to the degree that they can increase speed and agility where speed and agility are needed in the enterprise. Generating technical velocity in this way requires a fundamental shift in a company’s culture.

Particularly for established companies whose IT practitioners have been engaged in a specific corporate culture for a long time, this shift can be dramatic and even frightening. The thing about company culture is that it is pervasive – it’s not just the IT department that needs to embrace new behavior; it’s also the business units it works with directly, the leadership teams it reports to and the back-office departments it interacts with on a daily basis.

The new high-velocity, business-aligned – even business-embedded – methods needed to enable enterprise agility require true team empowerment. This means pressing decisions down to the lowest level, sharing accountability between the business and IT and recognizing teams for broad skill sets and responsibilities rather than deep domain expertise. And perhaps most fundamental of all, it means IT and the business must engage as a single, unified team. This is a big change for the technology worker – not to mention business stakeholders and leaders. No longer can technologists have their most in-depth conversations with their code, PCs and machines; they’ve got to get out of their cubes, take off their headsets and interact with people.

Understanding precisely what the new normal should be is critical to making it happen, and we often see pilot or innovation teams acting as the model while they work to uncover the core behavior changes needed in a particular culture. Often, change becomes most challenging when people learn to accept and act on decision authority, stretch technical capabilities into ancillary operational, development or security areas and then act in those new areas, interact frequently with teams, conduct peer code reviews with frank feedback and showcase new features to business or consumer representatives.

IT workers can’t do this in a vacuum. A company can’t expect technologists to change their behavior if leaders continue to expect, reward and display old behavior. Agile teams need authority and autonomy. Business leaders need to get comfortable with being measured, at least in part, based on digital outcomes and IT leaders and practitioners need to get comfortable being measured based on business outcomes. Executives have to understand and use those new measures consistently. Companies may even need to adjust their financial paradigms and bring IT out of the cost side of the ledger.

Add to this the IT service providers or staff augmentation resources you’ve hired to work in your environment, and the problem multiplies. How do you change culture across external resources and partners? How do they know how to behave?

Changing your culture to increase enterprise agility begins by recognizing that change is needed. Employees need constant communication and a clear vision of what good looks like; managers need to watch for and reinforce appropriate behavior and publicly recognize team values rather than individual heroics; HR needs new ways to set goals, measure performance and reward teams; leaders need to update organizational constructs and get comfortable with a more collaborative model; and executives need to redefine IT so it is central to the business. Most importantly, new behaviors take practice. So we need to provide time and space for our teams to practice new behavior in a trusted environment.

Ignore or fail at changing enterprise culture, and you minimize or even reverse the benefits of enterprise agility. Be sure to address culture change in your digital transformation plans – it should be core to your transformation from day one and continue long after you complete the necessary technical changes. Plan for culture change, develop the programs to make it happen and measure adoption frequently. Then get ready for the true unleashing of your digital capabilities.

ISG helps clients create the conditions to enable enterprise agility, including culture change. Contact me to discuss how we can help you.

About the author

Ola is an IT transformational thought leader with over 25 years of leadership experience within various industries helping enterprises make transformation change. She is a seasoned professional with expertise in emerging delivery models that contemplate the rapidly changing technology landscape. She has advised corporations in the opportunities related to emerging technologies, and is fluent in Enterprise Agility, DevOps, cloud, and automation. Ola leads ISG's Enterprise Agility practice in the Americas.