Let’s talk about culture agility. I’ll start by unpacking the concept and then walk through how it can be practically applied in your organization. And by the end of this post, you might even agree with me that culture agility is the most fundamental of the CultureIQ core qualities.
Culture agility is the ability of an organization to move through the growth process. That is:
- the process of trying things, learning from them, and then iterating
- the process of failing, and learning from failures
- and the process of reinforcing agile behaviors
While trying new things and “failing” are essential to agility, learning is really the core of what makes agility valuable. Although an admittedly extreme example, Astro Teller, who runs Google’s X Labs, gives an interesting TED Talk on failure and culture at his organization. Google X is, of course, special in terms of its resources and parameters, but don’t let that intimidate you. The concept can be applied to even the most traditional of organizations.
Culture Agility is learning to try things, not trying to fix things.
So, why is it so valuable? Why do I believe that it is the most fundamental of our qualities (my product management bias mind aside)? Because doing anything requires strength in this dimension. In order to improve innovation, support, responsibility, collaboration and all of our other qualities, you first need to get good at trying new things. An organization that that consistently makes small tweaks is flexing that agility muscle; it’s growing and improving, and it will be able to make the big tweak when necessary. One of the most valuable culture outcomes that comes from being agile is having an organization that is effective in learning from its failures. Mistakes are inevitable, so you might as well make them productive. Just like a human who wants to learn a new skill, say a baby learning to walk, failing is an essential part of development for an organization. It’s fundamentally important that the baby learns to get up after it falls, and the same is true for a company. A great article is Strategies for Learning from Failure published on Harvard Business Review. If you haven’t already, I’d urge you to read it. Understanding the power of effectively learning from failure and the importance of failure acceptance in an organization adds context that might change the lens through which you see culture agility.
At CultureIQ, we’re in an endless search for the most worthwhile and valuable “all-hands” meeting format. We’ve tried three major iterations: the first was weekly for one hour in a conference room, the second was monthly for two hours with lunch, and the current iteration is a weekly standup for 25 minutes. There are numerous reasons for why we switched from one to the next, and how the structure of the next iteration was decided, but, for the sake of explaining culture agility, the mechanics of the meetings themselves are less important than the process we’ve gone through to adjust them.
1. As a team, we are explicitly aligned in our acceptance of agility, so people are comfortable with the changes. This translates into people feeling that they are part of a process, not the recipients of a solution. Without alignment upfront, then people would start to get tired of the changes (admittedly, sometimes they still do! But we have our mutual understanding to fall back on).
2. We collect a ton of feedback, and we make changes to the meetings based on that feedback. We’ve learned what our team values and doesn’t value, and it has helped us make decisions.
For example, I learned that our team values the dedicated time together more than the distribution of information when we ran monthly meetings for two hours, so we shifted our monthly time together to focus on team-building, and moved the information component to weekly standups.
3. We are transparent about the feedback. When something doesn’t work, we are honest about it and discuss it. This is how we learn from failure.
As a culture company we are deeply focused on our own culture, yet culture agility is still challenging for us. Sometimes we hit it, and other times we don’t. When we don’t, we end up following an initiative too far in the wrong direction before getting aligned on its purpose and course correcting. But we’re getting better at it, and that’s the whole thing about culture agility. So how can you drive your organization towards a more agile culture? Start small. Talk to your team about trying something (it can be anything– once a month happy hour, a new app, reducing the length of your weekly meeting, etc… ), and get alignment upfront that everyone is bought into this initiative being a test. Do it for a period of time, collect feedback, adjust it, collect more feedback, share the feedback, and then have an open and honest conversation with your team about how (or if) it should continue. Maybe it doesn’t work at all. Congratulations! That is a success (in terms of agility), because you’ve created the opportunity to learn something. Now, iterate on the initiative and feel good that you know what direction not to go in (and hopefully why). Maybe it works really well. Congratulations! That is a success (in terms of agility). And it also means that something in your organization was just changed for the better, and that’s great! Now you’ll be able to try something else.
Sure, culture agility is scary, but it’s also fun. Reach out if you have any thoughts– I’d love to hear your perspective and learn what’s worked for you and what hasn’t.