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18.11.2019 | Press

Agile Cultural Change: Seven Strategies for a New Attitude

On the Agenda: “Learn How to Fail“

Agile working is often associated solely with methods like Design Thinking or Scrum. But the implementation of only such methods is insufficient to equip a company for the agile world. Employees need to adopt self-responsibility, decision-making abilities and team player qualities with a love of experimentation. Business consultant Robert Birkwald explains how companies can achieve this agile cultural change by implementing seven practical strategies.


“Freedom for the teams!” Under this motto, the top management of a multicorporate enterprise focused on agile ways of working. New methods like Scrum and Design Thinking were expected to make the organisation as flexible as never before. Employees were supposed to work autonomously. But this did not work out. Instead of self-organising projects and taking decisions by themselves, hardly any team dared to take over. Employees felt overchallenged by the agile work environment. One of them reports: “We know how Scrum works, but hardly anyone has the courage to work accordingly.”

Many companies get agile working wrong: They want to meet customer expectations more quickly and flexibly, which is why they train their employees to use agile methods like Scrum, Kanban or Design Thinking. But these methods cannot be prescribed. They require a fundamentally new way of thinking and personal attitude: taking responsibility for one’s decisions, setting priorities on one’s own, employing entrepreneurial thinking, discussing optimal solutions with colleagues, and giving feedback.

“The emergence into the agile world primarily means to leave behind old behavioural patterns,” explains Robert Birkwald, expert on agile transformation at the business consulting company next level consulting. “This is the only way how employees can work successfully with these new methods.” The greatest challenge is that employees unconsciously follow old behavioural patterns. As in a reflex, they ask their supervisor to take decisions, they play it safe and avoid risks. Robert Birkwald explains that “companies should make their employees aware of such reflexes and behavioural patterns, they should encourage them to learn new behaviours and to practice them.” He elaborates on seven recommendations for successfully coping with this cultural change.


1.  Move employees out of their comfort zone

Companies which have succeeded in the agile cultural change elicited their employees out of their comfort zone on purpose. They made their employees face completely new challenges and experiment with new tasks. Not only were mistakes and failure allowed, they were encouraged to “learn how to fail”. Employees learn a lot when they struggle with challenges: Do not give up when you encounter obstacles on the way. Instead, stay patient, pursuit your goals and invest time and personal energy.


2. Convey positive experiences

Many employees do not know the ways these new, agile working methods demand. For this reason, agile-working companies make these working methods approachable. They carefully introduce their employees to agile methods by means of simulations or role plays, for instance. Robert Birkwald stresses that “it is important to talk to employees about their emotions, for example to reflect together on frustration or personal handling of the experiment.” How are employees doing in agile work environments? Which emotions are triggered when taking courage for new ways, organising tasks autonomously or venturing into the unknown?


3. Give feedback

Feedback assists employees in developing and strengthening a new attitude within the organisation. Robert Birkwald illustrates that “over decades, many employees have internalised declaring experiments and failure taboo. Introducing them now to these insecure new ways requires supervisors and managers to provide their employees with adequate feedback. Also, the colleagues’ and mentors’ feedback is important. Ideally, everyone feedbacks everyone – even employees their supervisors and managers.


4. Focus on the current task

Multitasking is a widespread habit. Agile work, however, is seriously affected by multitasking. Many agile methods demand the participants’ absolute focus, for instance when trying new solutions to tackle a problem, attentively observing their effect and taking decisions for promising new ways. Robert Birkwald explains that “this is the reason why mindfulness is so often stressed in relation with agile working methods.” There is a similar connection between agile working and reflection: Competent agile teams are by themselves critical of their own way of working and their output. “It is important to switch off the autopilot and to question one’s actions very carefully.”


5. Highlight teamwork

Agile employees work in teams. However, they are rarely rewarded for their teamwork but for their individual results. The consequence is that employees rather sharpen their elbows than reach out to each other. Robert Birkwald advises everyone “who wants to have self-responsible and self-organised teams to more appreciate group output and adjust bonuses and other services accordingly.”


6. Create communities

An exchange of experiences is of utmost importance for employees in agile teams. For this reason, some companies have initiated communities to support their employees in networking with each other. Robert Birkwald suggests that “it is helpful for employees to find a suitable buddy among their colleagues for their personal exchange of experiences.” It is crucial for employees to be attentively listened to, to be able to speak openly and to ask for help and guidance.


7. Educate managers

Managers and supervisors will make or break the successful development of an agile mindset. They are good role models and often the inspiration for a new attitude. Robert Birkwald observes how “managers are used to be guided by best practices.” An agile environment also requires a different leadership approach: no specifications, plans and control but feedback, coaching and support. “Good agile managers take their time to encourage their employees, to enable them to work self-organised and to give feedback,” explains Robert Birkwald. He is certain: Companies, starting for the agile world, have to re-think their management as well.

next level holding GmbH.

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Tel: +43/1/478 06 60-0

Fax: +43/1/478 06 60-60