How to spot whether your organisation is agile or not

Is your company agile enough to produce its next commercial silver bullet? Probably not, argues Colin D Ellis, author of Culture Fix: How to Create a Great Place to Work.

I love a good silver bullet. Something that senior managers get really excited about implementing, only to take completely the wrong approach to doing so and waiting for the silver bullet bus to pass by again in a few years time.

The bus has deposited things such as ISO9000, Six Sigma, PRINCE2, PMBoK and Big Data at various stages over the last 10-15 years. It’s fair to say that some have worked better than others, but not because of the silver bullet itself, but because of the mindset, behaviours and the commitment of the people looking to do something different.

And so to agile.

There are many benefits to being a more agile organisation. The great organisation cultures have proved this over the years, but not – interestingly enough – by going agile. More of that shortly.

But bar sending everyone on an agile training course (in a waterfall way) how do you know if your organisation is agile or not? I’ve prepared a bit of a game for you to play in the office called ‘Are we agile or not?’. I know, the title definitely needs work.

What is agile?

Before we play, here’s a quick rundown, in case you missed it, as to what this thing called agile actually is. In February 2001, and having been under increasing pressure to ditch their creative tendencies and spend more time filling in documents than coding, 17 software developers got together in a hotel in Utah to do something about it. It might just be me, but I always picture the hotel in The Shining, but that’s not important here.

Anyway, they came up with some common sense values and principles designed to inform organisations of how to get IT projects delivered in a way where the customer not only appreciates the outputs but is able to get value quickly rather than waiting for a year to get anything back.

Coming into the session in Utah there were already multiple ways of doing things, so a principle aim was to gain some agreement on a culture, rather than a method. The output is short, sharp and to the point.

You can find their agreement at and it’s something that really resonated with me when I read it. It calls for reality, humanity, empowerment, trust and a dedication to co-creating a culture where creativity and communication are favoured over a slavish devotion to a process.

And yet, where there is common sense, there is also a bunch of people trying to make it complex and then make a ton of cash out of turning it into a badge that everyone has to attain in order to be able to call themselves ‘agile’.

Things have become so bad that one of the original signatories, Ron Jeffries, has called on software developers to abandon what they’re being sold and get back to the original cultural principles.

OK, on with the game.

Not agile

Let’s start with the negatives so we can finish positively, which always works better in articles.

Most organisations are not agile, let’s get that out of the way early. Often there’s good intention, but it’s invariably followed by action that only addresses some of the superficial cultural elements and not the root cause of why an organisation isn’t agile in the first place.

Some of the signs are as follows and are done in isolation, not connected to a larger cultural evolution programme:

  • Lots of managers saying ‘we’re going agile’, especially the CEO
  • Going open plan
  • Updated branding that talks about agile or agility
  • Funky furniture
  • Establishing an innovation lab (for people with fixed mindset behaviours
  • Members of the executive photographed in front of a Kanban board (or any new tool)
  • Talking about customer value but still printing out PowerPoint packs
  • Talking about ‘scaling’ agile when they don’t really understand it in the first place
  • IT telling people that projects are going to be done agile
  • Laminated agile frameworks distributed around the office
  • Establishing a waterfall project to implement ‘new ways of working’
  • Bringing consultants in to define agile ways of working
  • Changing team names to copy other people’s cultures


The first thing I’ll say about truly agile organisations is that they would never say that they’re agile. I understand that seems counterintuitive, however, the fact that they consistently look for better, smarter ways to do things means that they’re never running for the silver bullet bus. Honestly, I think you already know if your an agile organisation or not by now as you’ll be laughing on the outside, not crying on the inside, however, here are some signs that you’re agile:

  • Methods are seen as important but don’t define the way things get done
  • Employees hold each other to account without the need for management intervention
  • Customer satisfaction is at the heart of every conversation
  • There is discipline around delivery with an emphasis on ‘published not perfect’
  • Brilliant jerks are managed out of the organisation
  • Employees can determine their own workspaces
  • Good behaviour is celebrated
  • Trust is assumed not earned
  • Feedback is continual not twice a year
  • Time and money is spent on cultural definition and evolution
  • Senior managers role model the behaviours expected of others and are accessible
  • Failure is shared
  • There is cognitive diversity – everyone is encouraged to share their ideas

How did you do?

If your organisation isn’t agile, then what’s required is a cultural redefinition involving everyone that you’re expecting to be more agile. In my experience of running these sessions, those that don’t want to play ball are great at demonstrating it early on and single themselves out for performance management.

If you’re already agile, then you know that the challenge is to stay there. There are countless examples of forward-thinking companies that took their eye off the ball and lost it all.

The world of work has changed and in order to keep up with it, being more agile is critically important. Whether you’re successful will be determined by whether it’s treated as the latest fad or a cultural journey that never ends.

About the Author

Colin D Ellis is the author of Culture Fix: How to create a great place to work. He has worked with companies all over the world including Red Bull, Thomson Reuters and in New Zealand and Australia’s government to help them transform their cultures.

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