How to understand and change your company culture

When adopting agile processes you need companies that empower teams to deliver. The challenge is that this conflicts with the culture of a lot of companies. To improve your processes you need to start with the culture.

How to understand and change your company culture

In 2002, a year after the publication of the Agile Manifesto, my employer decided to adopt Agile, and brought in a trainer to teach everyone.  Unfortunately for the design team – which I was a member of – the process we were taught did not include any design or UX research.  It was just write code, show it to customers, and if they said okay you were done.  After a lot of struggle and experimentation, my boss, Lynn Miller, my colleague Desirée Sy and I came up with ways to adapt the standard UX practices of the time to work in an Agile development framework. That process is now usually referred to as Dual-Track Agile.  (Since that time it’s evolved quite a bit, of course.)

There was a huge amount of interest in Dual-Track after we started presenting it at Agile and UX conferences.  For years, Desiree and I were running sold-out seminars at conferences in various cities.  We taught the process to hundreds of people from hundreds of companies.

Over the years we’d hear back from people who adopted Dual-Track at their companies, and it became clear that the process was not always the slam-dunk we hoped it would be.  In many companies it worked perfectly, as advertised.  But we’d also hear of other companies where the process just wasn’t working.  When people described to us the problems they were having, it was clear that the process they had adopted was not what we had taught them.  There were distortions or additions or exceptions that prevented the process from delivering its intended benefits.

My first reaction was “blame the user”.  They were having trouble because they weren’t doing it right.  But the truth was, they couldn’t do it right.  As one person told Desirée: “I wish you had never published that paper in the Journal of Usability Studies.  Now our management is insisting we work this way, but they aren’t enabling us to work this way!”

We started to understand that the problem wasn’t the process per se, it was the business environment around the process.  It wasn’t the seed, it was the soil.

We learned that culture eats process for breakfast.  When you introduce a new process to an organization, that process will warp itself to fit the culture it is introduced to.  In particular, implicit power structures tend to be preserved. This isn’t out of any kind of malice, but rather because a process change doesn’t address the underlying beliefs and values of the culture that supported the previous status quo.

If you are trying to drive a process change that will move the locus of power or decision making, you are going to run into problems.  You need to pay attention to the unspoken rules and assumptions of your corporate culture.

Understanding Culture

I needed to rethink my understanding of culture. The basic Wikipedia definition is that culture is a set of shared values, attitudes, goals, and practices that characterizes an institution or organization. …”  In any given culture, these all hang together coherently, so you can’t change one (like the practice) without feeling the pull of the others.  Since attitudes and values are harder to shift, they tend to stay the same while practice warps.

Many businesses make statements about what their culture is. But those statements are largely performative. The real culture is what happens day to day; individual actions, what goes on in meetings, what people are allowed to talk about and not allowed to talk about, who gets promoted, and more. All these things are reflective of the actual culture.

The Right Culture for your Process

Modern, optimal product development processes have autonomous, cross-functional teams, aligned on outcomes rather than feature lists, continuously learning and responding, and accountable for delivering real value to customers. You want to get the full value of your investment in design, product management, and engineering. For a process like this to function well, what do you need your corporate culture to value?

Autonomous Teams

To support autonomous teams, your organization needs to value empowerment. Leaders need to trust their teams to do their jobs, manage risk, and make decisions about their work that don’t require senior approval.  This can be a real sticking point right away, especially if your company has a command-and-control culture.

Ideas about whose opinion matters are cultural, and you want a culture that values employees expertise and research over the Highest Paid Person’s Opinion (HiPPO).

So how do you know if your culture actually has respect for expertise? Well, you can look for cultural signals in the day-to-day workings of your company. For example, is decision-making routinely delegated, or is it the same three people at the top who are making all the decisions for everyone? When people delegate decisions, does leadership sometimes override those decisions, or do they support them? And does your team ever build “golf-based features” (ideas from the CEO’s golf buddies)?


Cross-functional teams invite more perspectives into problem-solving, so you benefit from better decision-making. The cultural value you need for cross-functional teams to flourish is respect for diversity. What this boils down to is that everyone who is involved in decision-making has to truly believe that the other people involved make valuable contributions to the conversation.  This is not always the case;  in some company cultures, the opinions of people in particular roles might carry extra weight, or conversely be disregarded.

I've seen cases where one development manager excluded the design team from any access to his project until the very end because he believed that design was there to make things pretty. He wasn't doing it out of malice, he was trying to save the design team time. The result in the end, of course, was a completely unusable but pretty feature.

I’ve seen a development team’s assessment of an acquired technology get completely disregarded because of short-term sales concerns, with the resulting decision costing the company far more than the short term gains.  

More perspectives means better decision-making

To determine if your company really values diversity, you can ask yourself these questions:

  • Are decision-making teams put together thoughtfully to represent key perspectives?  Or is it always the usual suspects?
  • Is meeting facilitation seen as an important skill?  Or are meetings left to be free-for-alls?
  • Are the people who are being promoted bringing more diversity to the leadership team?  Or all they all buddies from the same frat?
  • When hiring, is diversity considered as more than a checkbox item?  Do hiring managers assume that foreign work experience is automatically inferior to local?  Or do they think “wow, what can we learn from that?” I always ask my hiring panels “What perspective or knowledge will this candidate bring to the team that the team does not already have?” – and it can really change the conversation.

Psychological Safety

But respect for diversity is not enough – to get the full value of your diversity, your teams need psychological safety. This is a term that was coined by Dr. Amy Edmondson from Harvard Business School, who describes it as “the shared belief that a team is safe for interpersonal risk-taking”.

In a psychologically safe team, people can have hard conversations respectfully, they can raise bad news, and they can drive innovation.  This can’t happen in corporate cultures where disagreement is seen as disrespect, where toxic behaviour is tolerated, or where changing your mind is seen as weakness.

If your company culture values psychological safety, you will see norms in place to protect and promote it.  You’ll see open conversations in meetings, no taboo topics, respect shown and enforced.  Leaders will admit when they make mistakes, and actively mine for disagreement in meetings.  People will pay attention to how meetings are actually run, and ensure they run well to encourage contribution, especially for difficult topics.

If you see toxic behavior go unchallenged in meetings – people being bullied or insulted or hogging the floor, those are all signs that your company does not really value psychological safety.

Lastly, but of key importance, are managers held accountable for creating psychological safety? Every manager should be expected to demonstrate this skill to be considered for promotions or raises.


For your autonomous teams to be successful, your company culture needs to value teamwork.  Of course, every company says they value teamwork, but many engage in practices that directly undermine it, such as having reward systems that pit workers against each other, or attributing team successes and failures to individuals, rather than to the team as a whole.  If your leadership believes in rock-star saviour developers, or if they routinely break high-performing teams up, then they don’t value teamwork or all the work it takes to build team relationships and norms.

Management Support

Culture change can start from anywhere in a company, but it’s unlikely to be ultimately successful without leadership buy-in.  Leaders have a huge impact on organization culture based on their expectations, their behaviours, and the behaviours they allow.  If you can get leadership to buy into deliberate culture change, that’s a large part of the battle.  Rolling out the changes is the next part.

Holding workshops and hanging inspirational posters is not going to have any lasting effect on culture.  In the stress of everyday work, people will fall back on old ways of doing things automatically.  So how do you make changes that will last?

A few years ago I was speaking to the VP of a company who was hired specifically to deal with a culture problem that had been in the news.  I asked him how he was able to fix the problem, and he told me “I took the fast route. I let go of 75 people.”

I call this “the surgical option”,  and I believe that it is the right option when the problem is truly toxic behavior.  But for other cultural changes, you can use the second option, which I call “braces”.


  • Remove the people demonstrating toxic behavior
  • Coach the leaders who were complicit


  • Management talks about culture openly
  • Establish, demonstrate and monitor desired behaviors
  • Align business practices with values
  • Maintain steady pressure on all fronts

Key takeaways

Healthy relationships and healthy teams are the foundation of good decision-making and meaningful innovation. You want to make sure you have that in place.  Every leader is a culture architect, like it or not.  So if you are a leader, you should be deliberate about the culture you are creating on your teams.

“Culture eats process for breakfast” is a warning, but also a promise.  In a healthy culture, bad processes will not thrive.  They’ll be fixed.