George Lawton, a freelance technology journalist who writes for and other blogs joined several other Agile enthusiasts and I at my home for a Agile Potluck. Naturally, we had a rousing discussion of all things Agile over food and a couple bottles of nice wine and liquor. Stemming from our conversation, George sent me some thoughtful questions that I’ve responded to for his blog. I’ve copied and pasted them here as well.

While talk about DevOps and Agile is all the rage these days, organizations need to address the culture required to ensure success. Sometimes, it can be useful to bring in a third party – a someone with no dog in the hunt, so to speak – to help guide the team to new understandings of development constraints and how to overcome them through iterative approaches and more frequent, better testing.

We caught up with one such guy, Agile coach Chris Gagné, who explains what’s involved in creating a new culture. As Gagné explains, without a full cultural transition – and even a spiritual transition of sorts – companies are doomed to revert back to old Waterfall-style approaches. Such companies are Agile-in-name-only, he says. Here’s the best of our email discussion: What is an agile coach?

Gagné: An Agile Coach is someone who mentors, teaches, and facilitates the Agile transformation within an organization. Ideally, a coach has had the direct experience of actually working in a highly-developed Agile culture (at several seniority levels) so that they can more accurately convey what it “feels” like. What are some of the ways that cultivating a good Agile culture that allows teams ship twice the work in half the time with 10 times the joy?

Gagné: First, what is a good Agile culture? I recall my days at Evolve Media with great fondness. We created a culture of trust and ownership. We trusted the teams to deliver the goods and gave them room to surprise and delight us. We made them the owners of their work: once they could demonstrate that they understood Agile principles, we took a step back and allowed them to define how they worked together.

People need a sense of autonomy, mastery, and purpose to feel motivated in their work. A culture of trust and ownership allows teams to develop autonomy and mastery of their craft. A joyful work environment allows companies to attract and retain highly skilled experts who have the liberty of working anywhere they like. A good Agile product manager makes it clear to their teams why their work matters.

We know from Dale Carnegie that people want to feel important. If you can motivate them to care enough to produce their best work, they will feel the satisfaction of a job well done and can appreciate their importance to their organization.

Finally, people want to grow in their careers. An Agile learning organization allows team members to blamelessly inspect the quality of their work and processes so that they can continuously improve. How does the notion of “a schedule is only a hypothesis” improve organizational learning and development process?

Gagné: Mary Poppendieck talked about this in her talk “The Tyranny of ‘The Plan’” at the Lean and Kanban event in 2009. When a team misses a delivery date, it’s common for managers to consider this a “performance failure” and punish the team. A better way to look at it is that “a schedule is only a hypothesis.” If the date is missed, the hypothesis was wrong. Thus, there is a learning opportunity. Complex stems inevitably fail. A failure is evidence that we do not have a full handle on how the whole system works. Your willingness to learn from this event rather than throw someone under the bus will increase your ability to understand this complex system and reduce the odds that you’ll have a similar failure. Every single little detail matters. How can organizations leverage the idea of lowering the cost of failure?

Gagné: Innovation comes only through fearless experimentation: nothing tested, little gained. If the cost of failure is high for either the company or individual members of the team, the team will only take safe, predictable bets. Agile lowers the cost of failure because less is lost through taking smaller bets. The increased pace of development further allows teams to execute more tests in the same amount of time. This reduces the cost to the company. A good manager understands that even when a bet doesn’t pay off, the learnings gained and willingness to fail was worth the cost. These managers will not punish the team for the failure unless the failure was reasonably certain or avoidable. What lessons can modern enterprises learn from the construction of the Empire State building?

Gagné: These lessons again come from Mary Poppendieck. The Empire State Building, an 85-story building in Midtown Manhattan, was built exactly on time and 18 percent under budget. They did this in 1930, 40 years before the microcomputer became popular and over 20 years before the invention of the PERT chart. The building team literally did the detailed planning for upper floors as the lower floors were being built.

The lessons for companies everywhere is: If Toyota can build cars using Lean and builders built skyscrapers without computer-based planning with similar principles, there’s no such thing as a project that’s too big to be built using Agile. In fact, I’d argue that the larger the project gets, the more important it is to break it down to smaller, iterative chunks. What is the best place to start in getting an agile culture off the ground?

Gagné: Expose the C-level executives (and ideally the board) to companies that have a truly successful implementation. The most successful companies may not even call themselves “Agile” as they often discover their own way and transcend the Agile bootstrapping.

Hire executives and senior leaders from successful Agile companies.

An Agile coach can help with locating both informational interviews and tours with successful companies. They can also assist during the interview process with potential candidates to evaluate their Agile experience. What lessons can larger organization draw from Toyota’s success in implementing Agile-like practices?

Gagné: First, If Toyota can do it, anyone in the software/hardware industry can do it. There’s considerably more capital and time involved in setting up an automotive manufacturing plant and “beta testing” new product concepts. Because there’s no obvious connection between building cars and writing software, there’s no easy way to simply attempt to mimic the processes found in a Toyota plant. So, by studying Toyota, one is more likely to walk away and implement the principles. Scrum and Kanban are just useful process starting points that are compatible with Agile principles, not ends in themselves. What are the worst ways of trying to implement agile?

Gagné: A successful Agile adoption almost certainly will require a complete overhaul of the organization’s culture, structure and processes. The culture and structure are guided by C-level executives and the board, who must embark on a journey of personal transformation to transition from command-and-control to servant leadership. This path typically requires a large deal of psychological (and perhaps even spiritual) growth on the part of the leadership and can be both challenging and time-consuming.

Without changing the culture and structure, the company can only expect “fr-agile,” a state in which the team has perhaps achieved a degree of performance improvement (typically 35 percent) that falls fall short of the several-fold improvement possible with Agile. Further, because the team is being asked to follow processes that assume that teams are truly empowered and supported by servant leaders, the implementation will always feel “forced” and subject to collapse. In these environments, the program management office will frequently “improve” the Agile practices to relieve the pain caused by a process that does not reflect the extant non-Agile culture and structure. Inevitably, this will reflect a transition back to Waterfall-style processes that are “Agile” only in misguided perception.