“What is deeply and thoroughly understood will not repeat itself.”
Among those to dedicate themselves to improving how people work, there is a great deal of focus in the matter of culture. The meme is often cited like this:
“Culture eats strategy for lunch.”
An oft-cited passage from Peter Drucker seems to surrender to the meme that culture is something that cannot be surmounted:
“Culture — no matter how defined — is singularly persistent … In fact, changing behavior works only if it is based on the existing culture.”
If you look up the definition of meme in Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary, you’ll find that the very concept is defined as “an idea, behavior, style, or usage that spreads from person to person within a culture”.
This matter of culture holds a lot of attention, and a thus a lot of power within conversations about improving our ways of working. This power can be an impediment to what some practitioners commit to as their highest priority: “early and continuous delivery of value”.
One of Merriam-Webster’s definitions of culture sounds close to what the meme refers to:
5.c The set of shared attitudes, values, goals, and practices that characterizes an institution or organization <a corporate culture focused on the bottom line>
The origin of the world culture offers something different. The word originates from the Latin word cultura, which means something closer to “cultivating” or “tilling”.
The principles and practices of agile offer an alternative to working within a culture of attitudes, values, and the like. Through cultivating practice of delivery of value, changing conditions, technical excellence, and retrospect, we can gain access to something that’s new every time we engage in work. Continuous, rigorous practice re-writes the future of what’s possible, and leaves the constraints of culture to a different age.
Practices for Work Outside of Culture
The path to a new future often calls for practices of non-cooperation with an existing culture:
- During the African-American Civil Rights Movement, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. required those who worked with him to sign a commitment card, pledging one’s “person and body to the non-violent movement”. The pledge consists of “ten commandments” for practices that were a pathway toward outlawing racial discrimination, and the establishment of voting rights.
- Gandhi’s Theory and Practice of Satyagraha encompassed practices that sought out value through “truth-force”. The practices directly confronted an existing culture, and did so acknowledging that vindication would come “not by infliction of suffering on the opponent, but on oneself”.
Those are examples of transforming entire societies, and required a level of commitment and practice that was proportional to what they intended. If those don’t resonate in your world, explore what Charlie Parker did within the realm of music. Look at what Georg Cantor did within the realm of mathematics, or what Vince Lombardi did with an organization that had sustained a culture of losing for over a decade.
The common theme among all these examples is that they overcame impediments established by a culture through rigorous practice in service of an empowering and valuable mission. Complete commitment re-wrote the future, and caused the old culture to dissolve away.
Where to start?
“No matter how the last sprint ended, this sprint is new. … The past is gone. The future is uncertain. This sprint is the only thing the team can control.“
That is a powerful practice for anyone impeded by culture. Focus on core principles and practices you’ve identified in support of your mission as the starting point for re-writing the future. Cultivation in the present moment is what you can control.
Allow the culture to eat its lunch. Lunch is not what you’re in the game for. Make your mission visible in your world, and practice, practice, practice. With time, commitment to your empowering mission will dissolve culture within the flow of value.