Category Archives: Corporate Culture

Are Corporate Culture and Values Really Important?

Are corporate culture and values really important? The controversy that is currently brewing in the Boston area over the “Market Basket” grocery supermarket chain is directly related to the conflict between Agile and traditional project management. “Market Basket” is a chain of about 71 grocery supermarkets in New England that generates about $4 billion in annual revenues – it has been a family-run business founded and managed by the DeMoulas’ family for several generations.

(Source: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/DeMoulas%27_Market_Basket)

Arthur T. Demoulas is currently the CEO of the company and has been highly regarded by all company employees and customers for building a strong company culture based on the strong leadership and values. However, some other members of the Demoulas’ family who have an ownership interest in the company didn’t see it that way… They felt that Arthur T. wasn’t paying enough attention to the bottom-line and was putting too much emphasis on corporate culture and values including developing a clearly-defined brand image with very strong employee satisfaction and strong customer loyalty. So, they fired him as CEO and hundreds of employees who were intensely loyal to him promptly walked out of the company in protest. Customers have also started boycotting the stores in response to his firing.

The company has been paralyzed for the past few weeks in the midst of this controversy as deliveries by suppliers have almost stopped because there are no employees to accept deliveries and stock the shelves and customers have walked away. It appears now that Arthur T. is going to buy out the other shareholders in his family to gain a majority and controlling interest in the company. The Boston Globe magazine had several excellent articles on this on Sunday 8/24/2014 – here’s an excerpt of one of them:

“Under CEO Arthur T. Demoulas, Market Basket had a winning business model: He treated employees, managers, and customers as members of a common enterprise, from which everyone gained. Arthur T. rolled out a 4 percent discount on nearly all goods at the beginning of 2014, arguing his customers could use the money more than his fellow shareholders. He paid his employees and managers decent wages, and he treated them with respect. He made sure they understood the objectives, and then let them decide how to achieve them. The greed team that ousted Arthur T., by contrast, is running the company as if they’re take-it-or-leave-it martinets and everyone is losing.”

“At least one of the bidders who emerged to buy Market Basket was said to be offering more than Arthur T. was offering. They said they can squeeze more profits out of the company than when Arthur T. was CEO. They’re deluding themselves. Arthur T.’s business model worked precisely because he didn’t follow this route. Trying to squeeze out more profits will drive customers away, destroy employee loyalty, and increase worker turnover.”

“There’s abundant evidence that a company organized as a common enterprise does better over the long term than a company designed to maximize shareholder returns over the short term. Arthur T.’s business model wasn’t based on zero-sum thinking. He understood that giving everyone a stake in the business would generate gains for everyone, including the shareholders.”

“The reactions to Arthur T.’s ouster proves the point. Customers are staying away from Market Basket stores, even though its costing them, forcing them to buy more expensive food elsewhere. Striking employees are sacrificing paychecks and risk losing their jobs, but giving in means getting stuck with new CEO’s and a board that are likely to cut pay and raise prices. Local politicians have weighed in with some statements of support. This isn’t the age-old labor versus management conflict. It’s labor, management, customers, community, and fired CEO versus greedy directors – something rare in the annals of American business.

(Source: Reich, Robert, “Anatomy of a Meltdown”, Boston Globe, Globe Magazine, 8/24/2014, p 20)

What does this have to do with Agile Project Management? I believe that the conflict between a bottom-line, numbers orientation that focuses on results and a more systemic and holistic approach that focuses on people, culture, and values and other factors that drive results is also one of the key issues behind the conflict between traditional plan-driven project management and Agile.

In 2003 I published a book called “From Quality to Business Excellence – A Systems Approach to Management” which is directly related to this problem. The figure below is a diagram from that book:

Business Excellence Model

(Source: Cobb, Charles, “From Quality to Business Excellence, ASQ Quality Press, 2003)

The idea behind this is that many companies are very short-sighted and reactive – they focus primarily on bottom-line results and when the numbers in a given quarter don’t meet expectations, they try to take some kind of corrective action without really understanding the cause-and-effect relationships that drive those numbers. This can lead to erratic and unpredictable performance. Companies who take a more systemic approach and understand these relationships are able to be much more proactive by focusing on at a deeper level on the performance drivers behind the numbers rather than simply reacting to the end-results. That should result in more consistent, sustainable, and predictable performance.

This pendulum has swung back-and-forth – should a company focus only on bottom-line results or focus on the internal factors like customer loyalty and employee satisfaction that drive bottom line results? The Market Basket controversy here in the Boston area is a perfect example of that. In the 1980’s and 1990’s many leading companies and enlightened managers successfully developed this kind of softer leadership approach that Arthur T. Demoulas is noted for; however, over the years since then, increasing pressure to produce fast-paced, short-term results has caused many companies to lose sight of this concept. To some people, the focus on numbers and bottom-line results may seem incompatible with a focus on some of the softer issues like corporate culture and values; however, enlightened companies and managers are able to successfully develop what I call a “systems approach to management” to achieve both.

Traditional plan-driven project management is also very results-oriented and numbers-oriented with a focus on meeting planned costs and schedules and many people see that approach as incompatible with Agile that focuses heavily on a softer leadership approach, an emphasis on culture and values, and empowered, self-organizing teams. I don’t see those approaches as mutually exclusive and focusing on one of those extremes or the other is not likely to produce optimum results. I think it’s naïve to believe that you can focus on company culture and values and empowered employees alone and the bottom-line numbers will somehow come out right as a result; but its equally problematic to focus on bottom-line results only without an appreciation of the factors that drive those results. The right balance of these two approaches will vary from one situation to another but, in general, a focus on both is needed to some extent to achieve optimal results.

Developing an Agile Company Culture

Developing an Agile company culture can be a major obstacle to successfully implementing an Agile development approach; however, it doesn’t have to be that difficult. Some people make the mistake of thinking that you have to change the entire culture of a company in order to adopt an Agile development approach. I don’t believe that is either necessary or appropriate in many cases; a company’s culture should be designed around whatever business they are in and that may or may not be well-aligned with implementing an Agile development approach. See my previous blog post on “Agile and Corporate Culture” for more discussion on this:

http://managedagile.wordpress.com/2013/03/30/adapting-an-agile-development-process-to-a-corporate-culture/

Agile works best in companies that are in the business of developing products or where software product development is somehow very directly related to their primary business. In other companies where the relationship is more indirect, it can be much more difficult to implement an Agile development approach because it may not be as well-aligned with the company’s primary business objectives. An example is Walmart…Walmart’s primary business is driven by reducing costs. I’m sure that software development plays some role in that but it is much more indirect than a company like Amazon.com whose business is very directly leveraged by software development. It should be very easy for a company like Amazon.com to implement an Agile development approach and far more difficult for a company like Walmart to do the same thing.

The key point is that since Walmart’s primary business is through conventional brick-and-mortar retail stores, they have to develop a culture that is well-aligned with squeezing costs out of every area of their operations and managing a large number of retail stores very efficiently and effectively. Those are the primary drivers of their business and that may not align very well with an Agile development approach. If you were to set out to implement an Agile development process inside of a company like Walmart, would you try to get them to give up their entire corporate culture and adopt a different corporate culture that is more suitable for hosting an Agile development process? I don’t think so, but there are some fundamental aspects of any company’s culture that can be dysfunctional are most critical to adopting an Agile development approach. Here are a few of what I think are the most important factors:

  • Transparency and Trust – In many large corporations, there is somewhat of a contractual relationship between the business users and the people who deliver Information Technology solutions. The business users may be under intense pressure to reduce costs and want to get firm commitments from the solution providers on the costs and schedules of projects. That is one of the major factors that has can be a big obstacle to implementing an Agile development approach – sometimes it even creates somewhat of an adversarial relationship between the two organizations. The key to getting past that obstacle is:
    1. Companies need to realize that this is not an “all-or-nothing” proposition to totally give up all control of projects to become Agile. There are many ways to blend traditional project management principles and practices with Agile principles and practices to develop the right balance of agility and control. See my blog post on a Hybrid Agile framework here:http://managedagile.wordpress.com/2013/07/22/a-hybrid-agile-development-framework/
    2. Developing a spirit of trust, partnership, and collaboration between the two organizations can require some strong executive-level leadership to break down some of the traditional barriers that exist inside of companies. The strongest driving force for making that happen is that it requires a more collaborative partnership approach to focus on rapid innovation.
  • Focus on Continuous Improvement and Innovation – A focus on process improvement and continuous innovation is certainly not new to Agile. It has been around a long time and many companies have successfully adopted continuous improvement approaches based on Six Sigma and other methodologies. I published my first book in that area called “From Quality to Business Excellence” in 2003. What I found was that in the companies that did Six Sigma well, it may not even be noticeable that it was Six Sigma. They may not have a lot of the hoopla like black belts and green belts that are normally associated with Six Sigma and it was so deeply engrained into the way the company did business, that it may not even have been called Six Sigma.The companies that did it well took a systems thinking approach to adapt it to their business while the more superficial companies simply did it mechanically “by the book” and treated it as just another “Program du jour”. I think a similar thing is happening today with Agile. Companies who take the time and effort to understand Agile at a deeper level and adapt it to their business are probably more likely to do it successfully.
  • Respect for People and Self-organizing Teams – This principle is also not new to Agile. It was a key element of Dr. Deming’s principles that form the basis of the Total Quality Management (TQM) approach and I can remember a strong focus on this when I worked at Motorola in the early 1990’s. It’s another thing like Six Sigma that some companies forget about when the pressure gets intense to deliver business results. They sometimes take a superficial, brute-force approach to try to drive business results rather than taking a systems-thinking approach to understanding the factors that drive business results and the role that people play in achieving those goals.

If you only focus on those three things about a company’s culture, I think you will have a pretty good foundation for implementing an Agile development approach and those three things are somewhat common to all companies regardless of what business they’re in.

By the way, here’s an interesting footnote to this article: Walmart has recognized the importance of e-commerce to their business and has formed a new division called “Walmart Labs” to address that challenge. Here’s an interesting article on that topic:

http://www.technologyreview.com/news/429589/walmarts-new-high-tech-labs-youre-not-in-arkansas-anymore/

The Importance of Systems Thinking and Agile

Understanding the importance of systems thinking and Agile is critical in order to gain a deeper understanding of Agile. Wikipedia defines “Systems Thinking as follows:

“Systems thinking is the process of understanding how things, regarded as systems, influence one another within a whole. In nature, systems thinking examples include ecosystems in which various elements such as air, water, movement, plants, and animals work together to survive or perish. In organizations, systems consist of people, structures, and processes that work together to make an organization “healthy” or “unhealthy”.”

Why is “Systems Thinking” important? It allows you to see things in an entirely different perspective:

  • You see the “whole” rather than the “pieces” and understand their relationship. In an agile implementation you see the business as a large ecosystem and see the development process as only one component of that ecosystem and you begin to better understand how the two are interrelated to each other.
  • Within an Agile development process, you begin to better understand how all the components of that process work together to make the overall process more effective and instead of following the process rigidly and mechanically, you see it as a much more dynamic process where each component of the process may need to be adjusted to fit the situation.

“Binary Thinking” is the antithesis of Systems Thinking. Instead of seeing the real complexity that is inherent in many situations, people who engage in binary thinking are sometimes looking for a simple, cause-effect explanation for something that isn’t really very simple at all. They:

  • Tend to see the Agile values and principles in “black-and-white” terms as absolute statements rather than relative statements that need to be interpreted in the context of the situation as they were intended to be.
  • See the relationship of Agile and more traditional plan-driven approaches as “either-or”, mutually exclusive choices (Either you’re Agile or you’re not) and they may see these approaches as competitive with each other rather than seeing them as potentially complementary.

That sort of narrow thinking has led to many stereotypes, myths, and misconceptions about what Agile is and also about what traditional Project Management is. We need to rethink what Agile is as well as rethink what traditional Project Management is to see them in a new light as potentially complementary rather than competitive approaches and “systems thinking” is the key to that. It is also the key to becoming a “learning organization”. Wikipedia defines a “learning organization as follows:

“A learning organization is the term given to a company that facilitates the learning of its members and continuously transforms itself. Learning organizations develop as a result of the pressures facing modern organizations and enables them to remain competitive in the business environment. A learning organization has five main features; systems thinking, personal mastery, mental models, shared vision and team learning. The Learning organization concept was coined through the work and research of Peter Senge and his colleagues (Senge, 1994). It encourages organizations to shift to a more interconnected way of thinking.”

Adopting a “systems thinking” approach and becoming a learning organization are two of the most important aspects of enterprise-level agility.

The Relationship of Agile and Corporate Culture

It’s important to understand the relationship of Agile and corporate culture. Adapting an Agile development process to a corporate culture can be a very difficult thing to do because changing a well-established corporate culture is not easy. If you ignore this problem and implement an Agile development process without attempting to integrate it with the overall business environment that it is part of, it’s not likely to be totally effective. The predominant thinking seems to be that you have to force the whole company to be Agile in order to adapt it to an Agile development process; I don’t believe that is the best solution in many cases. A company’s culture should be designed and optimized around the business and markets that company operates in.

One of my favorite books on this subject is “The Discipline of Market Leaders” by Treacy and Wierzema. It identifies three primary “value disciplines”

  1. Operational Excellence – Companies who focus on operational excellence succeed or fail by offering products and services more efficiently than their competitors can offer them. McDonald’s and Walmart are examples of companies whose primary value discipline is operational excellence. They do the same thing repeatedly at a low cost; that is what “operational excellence” is and it is reflected in their culture.
  2. Product Leadership – Companies who focus on product leadership succeed or fail primarily by innovating products to meet market needs faster and better than their competitors. Apple and Samsung are examples of companies whose primary value discipline is product leadership. Constant innovation is very important to these companies and they might be dominated by engineers who wear jeans and sweatshirts to work.
  3. Customer Intimacy – Companies who focus on customer intimacy succeed or fail primarily by providing a high level of personalized service to their customers relative to other competitors. Ritz Carlton Hotels is an example of a company who is driven by a culture of customer intimacy – their employees are trained that customer needs and customer service always come first and their processes need to be flexible to adapt to customer needs.

The idea of value disciplines is that a company can’t be deficient in any of the three areas; however, no company can be all things to all people and the company needs to choose one value discipline as the primary area of focus to excel in. The value discipline that is chosen as the primary competitive differentiator tends to define the whole company and its culture and values.

How do these value disciplines align with an Agile development approach? Obviously, the Product Leadership discipline has a very strong alignment. Companies who are in a business that demands Product Leadership as a critical success factor will have little difficulty in adapting to an Agile development approach because there is a natural alignment with the primary success factors in their business. Operational Excellence is probably the one that is most difficult to align an Agile Development approach with. In these companies, there are several alternatives:

  1. Ignore the misalignment and just implement Agile as a development process without attempting to align it with the business. That’s not likely to deliver optimum results, in my opinion.
  2. Attempt to force the company to change its culture to be more Agile. That may not be successful either and also may not be the best solution for the company’s business
  3. Develop an “Adaptation Layer” between the Agile development approach and the company’s business environment. This approach is probably the most practical and most likely to be successful in many cases. It might consist of putting a thin plan-driven “wrapper” around an Agile development approach to integrate it with the company’s business.

My Agile Project Management Training provides more details on this approach and provides some case studies of companies who have taken different approaches for solving this problem.