Agile and Collaborative Ways of Working

  • Jagmohan Bhanver

Developing a collaborative ecosystem within an organization is not an easy ask. This poses even more intricate challenges when it comes to organizations with a global footprint. Global companies in this context posit two scenarios. One, a matter of priorities. Second, the challenge of reporting lines.

Priorities across different geographies and markets might be vastly different, even if the intent is similar, if not the same. For instance, the corporate office of a certain bank might be looking at increasing market share across the globe whereas the business heads in some of their markets might be more focused on profitability. While the intent in both cases is similar, i.e. benefit for the organization, it is not necessarily achieved in the same manner (one part of the organization eyeing increased market share while the other looks at ramping up profitability). When one considers the various entities within the larger organization, there could be multiple different versions of the intent. It would be extremely challenging for the organization to achieve scale and sustained success, unless the different moving parts within the organization come together as a whole. This means being able to keep sight of the holistic goal (e.g. being globally competitive) while being able to retain some semblance of local relevance (things that make the organization more relevant in different markets).

A large number of organizations work with matrix structures. This is advantageous in the sense that it allows for quicker responses to projects where one requires rapid infusions of technological know-how and efficient processing of very large amounts of information. Older organizational structures proved to be ill-equipped to deal with these very projects within the necessary time limits. What these large projects called for was an organizational structure that could respond quickly to interdisciplinary needs without disrupting existing functional organizational structures. The key difference here was the traditional functional structures operated largely in a ‘controlculture’ environment. Since there was no doubt who reported to whom, the manager could ‘control and command’ deliverables. In a matrix structure, the reporting lines are relatively blurred, because the same person could be reporting to more than one manager. The problem gets further exacerbated when one considers that some of those managers might be operating out of different markets. This behoves organizations to consider looking at developing ‘collaborative’ culture where stakeholders (especially the managers) can effectively communicate with each other. For this to happen, the eco-system needs to provide for a high degree of reliability (dependability on others) between stakeholders. However, while reliability is the underlying golden thread, the actual drivers of a collaborative culture include information sharing (the absence of silos), learning (how the organization and individuals within the organization learn to keep ahead of the market), agility (the speed with which information is shared across the organization, and the agility with which learning happens within the organization), and adjustment (how different parts of the organization arrange and calibrate themselves in line with the larger organizational context)

‘Collaborative ways of working’ and creating Market-driven organizations
In my interactions with various organizations across the world, I tend to ask key stakeholders several questions before we embark on any engagement. A question that I have found to be immensely revealing is “How market-driven do you think your organization is?” The responses vary between ‘I don’t know’ to ‘Quite market-driven’ to ‘Exactly what do you mean by that?’ A rare set of customers do say that they are a very market-driven organization and a few of those indeed are. However, most organizations possibly fall into two categories. One, where they haven’t really thought about this to a great extent, and two, where they believe they are market-driven but are not. So, in the latter category, there are organizations who believe they are market-driven because they have a great sales team or a very effective marketing set-up or perhaps because they have a very aggressive attitude towards retaining clients; or another of several other reasons, none of which necessarily makes them market-driven.

Therefore, it becomes an exciting opportunity to engage with organizations to try and see how we can actually make them more market-driven. It is only fair then that we should first define what we mean by being market-driven.

In short, being market-driven is a superior ability to understand, attract and keep valuable customers.

For the naysayers, the next logical question obviously is, “Why should we be market-driven?”. The answer is quite simple. Market driven firms are more profitable than their rivals. Market driven businesses are 31% more profitable than self-centred firms.

The vital question therefore is not “why” but “how” we could be more market-driven. While this is the subject of a much larger discussion, in our experience, we have found the following factors making a significant difference between being market-driven or not:

Externally oriented culture

  • Beliefs, values and behavior need to emphasize superior customer value
  • Continuous quest for new sources of advantage
  • Giving our people the right tools and environment to offer that superior value or for them to be committed to offering the same
  • Moving towards being a learning organization, which includes easing out communication blockages at all levels

Agile capabilities to sense and respond

  • Distinctive capabilities in Market sensing
  • Capabilities in Market relating, including closer relationships with customers
  • Anticipatory strategic thinking
  • Rate of change within the organization being faster than the rate at which the external environment is changing; and the ability to re-invent


  • Focus on delivering superior customer value across the organization
  • Coherence of structure of systems; aligning systems, processes and people – all with the aim of delivering ONE organizational agenda with internal and external customers
  • Adaptability

Shared knowledge base

This should support the other three components, i.e. Externally oriented culture, Agile capabilities and Configuration. It involves creation of a shared knowledge base in which the organization collects and disseminates its market insights and creating systems and processes whereby this is accessible within the organization. It also includes creating a mechanism by which this knowledge base gets updated regularly and eventually using this information to address gaps and create superior customer value.

A lot of organizations exhibit a mindset that falls somewhere between being transactional and value-added. If the goal is to be truly market-driven, one needs to move towards a ‘collaborative’ mindset. Organizations that are able to move across the continuum from being transactional to value-added, and eventually collaborative, have a fair chance at being market-driven.

Agile and ‘Collaborative ways of working’
While Agile working methods incorporate different inclinations, all exhibit distinctive patterns like focus on customers, evolutionary development, adaptive planning, continuous improvement and expedited delivery. Disruption across pan-global businesses has reiterated the need for enhanced customer experience, innovation, and the ability to adapt; thereby establishing an ‘Agile agenda’ across companies. Agile isn’t exactly the new kid on the block. On the contrary, it is a combination of several established methods that have been doing the round for several years, albeit now being a company-wide agenda rather than being limited to a specific business or project. Broadly, Agile is about agility of both internal and external customers (including employees), generating early results, demonstrating adaptability and continuous improvement.

The four core values of Agile development include:
1. Individuals and interactions over processes and tools
2. Working software over comprehensive documentation
3. Customer collaboration over contract negotiation
4. Responding to change over following a plan

The first core value lays stress on Teamwork and Communication. For people to collaborate effectively, productive interactions are required. It doesn’t make the tools and processes any less significant; it’s just that they should align with the team’s needs.

On the second value, documentation at times ends up getting used as a prop to justify software that isn’t capable of being understood well enough or one that doesn’t work well enough. The software should be able to address the needs of the user. While documentation is important, the documentation is simply the means to the end; the latter being the creation of software that meets the users’ needs.

The third core value emphasises the need to work closely with customers and this requires frequent communication. This ensures that one has a keener sense of what the customer wants. Of course, contract negotiations are important, but not at the expense of discouraging collaboration with the customer.

The fourth value really talks about consistency of change. While that might be construed as an oxymoron, the fact is that when one is working on developing software, most things are going to change, whether it is technology, the market, customer needs or the business imperatives. Having a plan is sensible. Having said that, the plan needs to be flexible enough to accommodate change. A plan that allows you to quickly respond to change keeps you relevant! Again, if one has to ensure that the plan has that degree of inherent pliability, communication pathways between stakeholders (between employees and between the organization and their customers) need to be kept unclogged. Collaboration must be an intrinsic part of the planning environment. Needless to say, if the business or the organisation is clear on what they want to achieve, there will be lesser dependency on change. We will cover both these aspects when we talk later in this article about Collaboration culture and Cultivation culture in the Schneider model, and their relevance to Agile.

Doing Agile is not enough!

A lot of organizations and teams believe it is enough to apply Agile methods. Sadly, that just isn’t true!

Doing Agile is not the same as Being Agile. Most teams put a lot of focus on the methods (the competence and ability aspects), e.g. Kanban, Scrum and so on. However, they miss out on aspects like ‘Values’, ‘Beliefs’ and ‘Identity’ (the Vision and the Mission). The latter are important in moving from simply “Doing Agile” to “Being Agile” or having an Agile mindset. In other words, Agile requires an adaptive and collaborative environment as well as focusing on developing additional enabling behaviours. In order to derive the maximum benefit from Agile collaboration, one needs to go beyond the necessary methodological expertise and develop the right attitude and a focus on shared values, and an understanding of who we are and what we want to achieve through agility.

While William Schneider’s organizational culture model might not be the final word on the subject, it is certainly an apt reference point for our discussion here, especially since I am going to try and relate this to Agile very soon. Organizations considering making Agile transformation efforts may want to consider the impact of culture since the latter embodies ways of working, values, use of processes and systems, leadership styles, decision making practices and so on.

Schneider’s model sets forth four core cultural classifications. While none of these cultures is better or worse than the other, it is important to understand the cultural context in which we want to implement Agile. This could make the difference between the effort being a success or failing to yield the desired outcome.

The Control culture in the illustration here focuses on Power. Power is the underlying motivator in this case. The intent is to be able to predict or be certain. Hence, standardisation, processes, data are valued in this culture. Leaders here are mostly directive and authoritative. There is a clear chain of command and hierarchy is given importance. Order and procedures are vital.

The driving motivator in a Competence culture on the other hand is Achievement. The intent is to be the best and hence distinction is important. Naturally, there is significant orientation towards learning and development. The environment is competitive. Compared to Control cultures, one is valued here not because of Power, but owing to one’s expertise. Hence meritocracy is of importance.

Collaboration cultures are motivated by Affiliation. The pursuit is of unity, team building and trust. WBL (work-based learning) finds favour in this cultural environment. Leadership here is participative. Client relationships are more partner-based here as compared to dominating the market place in Control cultures. This latter point has implications for Agile transformations might happen more effectively in a Collaboration culture. However, we will cover this aspect in a bit.

The fourth cultural classification is Cultivation. The driving factor here is self-actualization and it’s unsurprising that this is not very common in the traditional corporate structure. The leadership in these cultures dons the role of a catalyst, a sponsor or a mentor. The work environment is charged with a sense of commitment, passion and contribution. Customer focus is more in terms of growth for the customer constituents. This cultural construct is a perfect case of a values-driven organization.

Collaboration and Cultivation represent the ‘Personal cultures’ while the other two characterize ‘Impersonal cultures.’ Similarly, Collaboration and Control cultures represent reality or actuality, whereas Cultivation and Competence are more aligned to possibilities. Additionally, Control and Cultivation are opposite culture types, as are Competence and Collaboration.

Agile and Culture – where do ‘Collaborative ways of working’ come in?
Organizations intending to develop a Collaborative culture might want to ponder on ‘their purpose’ in the context of the customer (Cultivation aspect), thereby bringing about a fine balance between Collaboration and Cultivation. In our work with clients and based on studies conducted by other consultants and consulting firms, we have observed that Agile is very strongly patterned around ‘Personal cultures’—namely Collaborative and Cultivation. This is irrespective of the Agile methods adopted by the organization. This is not surprising considering the predisposition towards Collaboration and Cultivation in the Agile Manifesto principles.

One of the reasons Agile transformations failis that teams don’t realize that the process is bringing about a shift in culture. Since there is an actual cultural shift and organizations continue with their Agile efforts without being aware of how people are responding to that shift, there is significant resistance to change. The other big reason for relative failure of Agile adoptions is that concerned stakeholders fail to take into account the existing cultural memes within the organization. Being cognizant of the existing core culture and other supporting cultures allows the organization and Agile teams to understand what they might be up against; how favourable or otherwise it might be to an agile transformation effort; and how they can achieve what they want to achieve in a manner that supports the Agile transformation process.

About the author:
Jagmohan Bhanver is a PhD in organizational psychology. He has done his specialization in organizational leadership from Northwestern University and has an EDP in HRM from XLRI, Jamshedpur. Bhanver has formerly headed national and international roles for Standard Chartered Bank, HDFC Bank and HSBC. He is currently Chief Mentor for PeopleFirst (India & Middle East) and the CEO for Talgro India. PeopleFirst is the largest Executive coaching and OD firm in Asia. Talgro is an award-winning EdTech company. Bhanver is the best-selling author of six books, which have been translated into multiple languages. His latest books are Pichai: the future of Google, Nadella: the changing face of Microsoft, Click: the amazing story of India’s ecommerce boom and where it is headed. Bhanver is a coach to CEOs and industry leaders, worldwide.

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