The balanced organization

The agile manifesto defines a collaboration culture. But what if your current environment is not collaborative? This article describes alternatives for moving into the agile direction.

Core cultures

In the agile movement, many consider a collaboration culture as a worthwhile goal for any organization and even further assume the members of those organizations share this goal.

This assumption is false. For any organization lacking the heritage of a collaboration culture, turning towards agile will bring only limited results and will not produce insights about what is going on behind the scenes.

In general, William Schneider is admitting the possibility of a cultural transformation, but he is also pointing out the difficulty, the risk and the long-term nature (more than ten years) of such an endeavor [Schneider 2000]. Schneider believes that at least 75% of the management has to be convinced about the necessity of a cultural transformation. For this kind of conviction, John Kotter coined the phrase sense of urgency, [Kotter 1996]. Such conditions are seldom to be found.

If the current organization is not rooted in a collaborative way of thinking and acting, the organization will only endure agility, but not support or emphasize it. Still, agile projects achieve positive outcomes, but just while getting the low hanging fruits during project runtime. Afterward many of the introduced behavioral changes diminish and daily work is snapping back to how things have always been done around here. As soon as the agile coach is leaving, agile patterns collapse and disappear.

In highly competitive and innovative markets there are real advantages in being agile. Agile will help here to get feedback fast, to learn, to decide, to produce results early, to connect with customers and increase employee satisfaction. In an environment where more is unknown than known, where the explorer mindset is vital, the driving forces of agile help to survive and even succeed.

When a culture transformation towards collaboration is to time consumptive (of course) and ever pushing with the help of an agile coach without sustainable outcome isn´t satisfying (of course), what is a pragmatic way to get some positive results?

William Schneider´s Core Culture Model will allow us to identify the organizations’ current culture and classify it into one of four categories. This can be used as a starting point – understand where the organization is and balance towards a new direction. Any change has to grow from the inside of the organization and has to rely on the strengths of the current culture. Imitating or copying the culture of another organization will not be sustainable. Also keep in mind, that organizational change takes time and will never end; it is a continuous game.

Schneider differentiates the following four core cultures:

Of course, there are more than four organizational cultures, and in reality, probably no organization is identical with another, but with the Core Culture Model reality can be reduced to some important characteristics which play a role in this context.
All of the four cultures have specific ways to handle authority, power, leadership, decision making, performance measurement and relations with partners and customers. To understand what that means, let´s go more into detail for each of the core cultures.

Control Culture

The prototype of this culture is the military. The leadership style is dominant. The more the actions of other people can be influenced and controlled, the better. The more subordinates, the better. Markets are being taken by acquiring, not through innovation.
The system is more important than people. Any person is “… like a hand in a bucket of water – when the hand is removed, the water closes in, and there is no trace.” [Schneider 2000:31]

The position inside of the hierarchy gives authority. Decisions are being taken impersonally. Information goes top down and bottoms up and less horizontal. Managers will be told what they want to hear from their subordinates. Information hiding is part of this culture. Conflicts are not seen as being healthy and are usually suppressed. Large control cultures tend to be bureaucratic.

What is now is valued higher than what might be. Predictability counts.

Employees can spend their entire career in one function. People relationships within the same function are close, but relations between functions tend to be distant and formal. People at the top are taking crucial decisions, and if at all, only top management has an integrating effect. Employee performance is measured. Rendered performance is being rewarded; failure to perform will be sanctioned. Individual growth is limited to functional expertise.

Innovation rate is low but operational performance can be outstanding. Usually, customers and partners are being ignored, they have to adapt themselves to the system. Ideas for change will quickly be rejected. There is not much room for having fun at work.

The control culture is the most widespread organization culture of the last century.

In one sentence: The system is most important, and big size counts.

Collaboration Culture

The prototype of the collaboration culture is the family. In competitive situations, it´s about our team against their team. Synergy is vital, and 2 plus 2 sums up to 5 when people are working together and support each other towards a shared goal. Positive and mutual emphasizing relationships propel the team. People feel connected and obliged to their organization – and vice versa. Attitude is “together we win, and alone we lose.” There is not much distance between top management and the workforce. If the organization is having commercial success, all people participate in financial wealth. The collaboration culture is more egalitarian than other cultures.
Like an orchestra, all individuals try to behave at their best for the optimal overarching result. Excessive egoism or diva-attitude will not be tolerated.

Relationships with customers are partner-oriented. Customers are part of the team, and much energy is invested in understanding the customers and supply to their real demands and needs.

Ideas and concepts are essential, but it is people who are nurtured. Loyalty and trust are essential while politics, infighting, and betrayal erode collaboration.

Whatever works, is emphasized, particularly what the team decides will work. Pragmatism is part of daily life and initiative of individuals and teams is high. The collaboration culture sees the need for quick change and reacts accordingly. The culture is more tactical than strategic.

Leaders put a considerable fraction of their time and energy into team building with a focus on integration. They value different talents and are willing to make personal sacrifices for the good of the larger organization. Communication is with the entire team. Only leaders who contribute and make things happen have authority. The authority is rooted in the relationship power and less in role power. Leaders are firsts among equals.

Judgments and decision making are participative and collegial. Information and people find their way quickly to the place where needed. Conflicts are seen to be constructive as they increase the performance of the team.

Collaboration cultures can be found in interdisciplinary work environments where speed and complexity come together.

In one sentence: We are great, and the team comes first.

Competence Culture

The prototype of the competence culture is the university. Important are expertise and advancement of knowledge. The motives are excellence, mastery, and achievement of goals. One has to be better than others, has to compete. Authority inside the organization can only be gained through expertise.
Competence cultures supply their customers with the best product at a high price.

Concepts, ideas and theories are important, and people have to follow. Relationships are on the impersonal side and are defined by the task which has to be achieved. Communication style is informal, unemotional and facts based. The organization ensures a lot of individual freedom as people ask for autonomy and the opportunity for personal achievement. People like to be measured and challenged, to prove they are at the top of their craft.

While in the control culture operational systematics are put into focus, the competence culture is giving interest to conceptual systematics. Other than in the control culture, lousy quality will not be tolerated in the competence culture. Members of competence cultures hate it to deliver poor quality. Usually, members of competence cultures feel more connected to their profession than to their organization.

The competence culture is a meritocracy. One has to prove and demonstrate competence. One won´t get away with lip service. Behaviour is disciplined and goal oriented. Things will be done right and proper. The search for improvements is never-ending, and challenges are welcomed.

The competence culture is future-oriented. Strategic considerations are taken seriously, and derived actions will be performed with consequence. Nevertheless, the new chance will not be overlooked.

Leaders are never fully satisfied. They are goal minded and willing to take any decision necessary to achieve those goals. Employees are not bound to a function and move quickly to where their expertise is most suitable for the achievement of a target. Usually, conflicts are handled logical and with reasoning.

Competence cultures can be found in innovative markets and niche markets. But the niche can be tall and possibly being dominated by only one organization. In any case, the produced goods or services are exceptional.

In one sentence: We are exceptional, and we can prove it.

Cultivation Culture

The prototype of the cultivation culture is the religious community. Personal development, the exploration of own potentials, is the central motif. Values give orientation. There are not many explicit rules, but ethical behavior is essential. The functioning of the organization is ensured through mutual commitments to shared values. A member who is not trustworthy or not dedicated to the values of the organization will have to leave. On the other hand, if someone is recognized as being trustworthy but delivered a bad performance, a second chance will sure be given. Possibly in another, better-suited function with better conditions to grow.
In the cultivation culture, people are oriented towards a higher level. It´s being asked for a purpose. Future is an adventure. Relationships are personal, cooperative and interactive. Communication style is open and direct. Ideas of others are enriching own ideas.

Among all four core cultures, the cultivation culture can handle change best. Change is being accepted as a part of human life and change will go hand in hand with learning and development. Experimenting is part of daily life to serve recognition.

Aesthetics, form, harmony, and fitness are appreciated. The creation of the new, inventing, is a natural affair in the cultivation culture.

Members of the culture are empowered towards autonomy with considerable personal freedom. Attitude is optimistic and positive with loyalty for the values of the organization.

What could be, is more important than what is. Continuous improvement, as well as ideal solutions, are being searched for and appreciated, while still following values and ethics, which are paramount. Any kind of progress, small or large, will keep things going.

Leaders remove obstacles which would impede others to develop their full potential. They trust their employees, are catalysts and exercise control only at a minimum level. They understand themselves as expanders and not controllers of people. They infuse life into the organization. Eccentricity is allowed. Challenging the status-quo, the questioning of dogmas and traditions is desired. Often leaders are enthusiastic, positive and insightful. They are charismatic and inspiring and can put values into operation. They are more defined by followership than by hierarchical power. Decisions will be taken quick but can be changed just as quickly. Conflicts will be managed actively as they are perceived to be valuable and possibly enlightening. Communication style is calm and polite; yelling and screaming are not okay. Instead, the thoughtful exploration of differences is.

Organizational structure is decentralized with minimal lines of authority. People are free and encouraged to interact with anyone else in the organization to create. The presence of goodwill is assumed. Information flows freely. Internal competition is minimal because people will help out one another. Individual talent can grow and move in a rather wide range of directions. This is less true of a collaboration culture. Commitment is very high. Employees do the recruiting. Word-of-mouth brings people in.

In one sentence: Life is fascinating.

Culture and leadership

A pure form of the described four cultures does not exist. Any organization has elements of all four cultures. Nevertheless, each organization has a core culture, a dominant culture which all other cultures have to serve. E.g., a military think tank might be driven by competence and collaboration while still serving the general control culture of the military.
The connection between leadership and culture is significant. E.g., a cooperative leader can be in a struggle when acting inside of a control culture. Control cultures need bold and clear commands, while the leader would try to intensify collaboration. This can turn to an unresolvable conflict between the leader and the organization.

Leadership has to be in line with the problem domain the organization is acting in. Is the domain complex, innovative and competitive, like for example in software development, a control driven leader might not be of much use. Such problem domains demand cooperation and competence.

Content and process

William Schneider is classifying his four core cultures by using the dimensions of content and process. Content is what the organization pays attention to; it has the two poles actuality and possibility. Process, on the other hand, describes the communication and decision-making process, which is personal or impersonal.

Figure: Content and process

Control culture and collaboration culture are actuality driven, with collaboration culture being actuality-personal and control culture being actuality-impersonal.

Competence and cultivation culture are possibility driven, with competence culture being possibility-impersonal and cultivation culture being possibility-personal.

Cultures which differ in content focus and decision taking process are most opposite, as they have nothing in common in the dimensions of content and process. An organizational change from one of these cultures to the opposite other one is the biggest challenge. E.g., a culture change from a control culture to cultivation culture will carry the most significant risk and highest effort, the same is true for a change from collaboration culture to competence culture.

It´s more obvious to change to a direct neighbor. It is to decide then what dimension has to be changed. Is it content or process. Should an actuality driven organization move into possibility driven behavior or should an impersonal deciding organization transform into a personal deciding organization? This depends on what is necessary for the organization to survive and to be successful.

In what culture am I living?

The motive to ask about the core culture can be personal or organizational. On an individual basis, you might ask yourself: What is my preferred culture? Does my preferred culture suit with the culture of my current workplace? Am I able to change something with the current culture? Should I leave?

On the organizational level, the question about the core culture will produce some insights about the functioning principles and driving forces of the organization. This insight is a prerequisite to handle issues like: Is the current organization efficient enough? What are the current problems? In what environment or market is the organization positioned? Is the culture sufficient for that environment? Organizational changes should be managed with care on top of these insights.

Agile methods and core culture

A control culture characterizes most corporate structures. It is the culture of the last century, for large organizations with a tayloristic production approach with a skilled minority at the top and many followers below which are being told what to do and how to do it. The individual is not so important. Instead, the system is.

On the other hand, in the agile movement a collaboration and cultivation culture is propagated. The organization is expected to be smaller and network-oriented; people are much more egalitarian and understand their shared goals. Individuals are essential, and skill levels are high.

Agile [Beck et al 2001] is often used as a paramount phrase for methods like Scrum, Kanban, XP and even a value system like the Software Craftsmanship movement [Bradbury et al 2009] is sometimes entitled to be agile. If we take a closer look at these different approaches and map them to William Schneiders core cultures on the dimensions of content and process, some interesting insights reveal.

Figure: Agile and culture

Kanban, for example, gives a low-level entry into its working model, because Kanban will let you start where you are now. Kanban will visualize your current workflow without changing it at first. There are no new roles and organizational structures like Sprints or iterations. The cycle time and lead time of the work orders will be measured. At this point waiting queues become visible, are being analyzed and actions will be taken to streamline the workflow. Eventually, WIP limits (work in progress limits) will be introduced at working steps. This exact measuring and not touching current processes at first is well-suited for a control culture and does not require much of any other culture. Still, Kanban could serve as a „gateway drug“ for balancing the organization into a collaboration or competence culture, if necessary.

The Software Craftsmanship movement and even XP are well suited in a competence culture. Professional expertise on an individual level, holding high of the profession and demanding for quality are essential features of this culture, and the same can be said about XP and Software Craftsmanship.

Agile at the core is located in a collaboration and cultivation culture. Michael Sahota deduced this in his „Agile Adoption and Transformation Survival Guide“ [Sahota 2012]. The Agile Manifesto reminds us the of the agile values:

Scrum is an excellent representative of a collaboration- and cultivation-minded agile method. A Scrum Team is delivering work with less than ten members by following an iterative delivery approach which is organized into subsequent so-called Sprints, which take between 1 to 4 weeks of duration. The Scrum Team will deliver a working product increment in each Sprint, and they do it together as a team with a shared Sprint Goal. Progress is being measured in working software and is visualized in burndown diagrams. Of course, being able to achieve such kind of a continuous value delivery requires a lot: a value-oriented mindset, a good understanding of customer needs and the ability to break down these needs into functioning pieces which can be delivered in a Sprint. Further, a functioning team structure, exceptional expertise on technical site only to be able to come to a product increment every 1 to 4 weeks – there is a strong connection to the competence culture. Transparency is crucial, and progress is being measured and shared with everyone having an interest in the project – here is some connection to the control culture.

How to balance the current culture

Assuming the organization has a control culture, the least change and challenge for the organization is to start with Kanban. The current process will be visualized, and performance will be measured.

The next step is to correct the dysfunctions of the process. Is the cycle time to slow? Are there waiting queues at some work steps? To analyze those dysfunctions will provide insights to come up with possible improvements. Would it be of help to intensify collaboration? Is the technical expertise and competence on the desired level? This exercise is developing paths to balance the control culture towards a collaboration or competence culture.

Figure: Balance the culture

To get this working, at least the will to understand and share insights about the current situation, the will for transparency, is necessary. But this should be inside of the natural range of a control culture, as this culture is actuality-impersonal driven.

The success of the balancing actions is, like always, depending on the dedication of the organization leaders. There might be control cultures which resist any change.

But with some good will, balancing for the better should be possible inside of any culture and not against the culture. I see this approach to be a realistic answer to the problems of an imperfect world.


[Beck et al. 2001]
K. Beck et al., „Agile Manifesto,“ 2001,
[Bradbury et al. 2009]
D. Bradbury et al., „Manifesto for Software Craftsmanship,“ 2009,
[Cottmeyer 2011]
M. Cottmeyer, „Untangling Adoption and Transformation,“ 2011,
„Kanban Development,“
[Kotter 1996]
John P. Kotter, „Leading Change,“ Harvard Business School Press, 1996
[Sahota 2012]
Michael Sahota, „An Agile Adoption and Transformation Survival Guide,“ 2012
[Schneider 2000]
William E. Schneider, „The Reengineering Alternative,“ McGraw-Hill, 2000
„Scrum Guides,“
„Extreme Programming, A gentle introduction,“