Making Culture Change Easier


  • There is formal authority and informal authority
  • Formal authority will can make it easier or harder to shift the culture of the org
  • Informal leaders will make it certain or impossible that you'll shift the culture of the org

Many issues arise when a company begins its transformation to Scrum. Entire textbooks have been written on this very topic. The biggest challenge, however, is the cultural shift that happens when people are required to change from one very comfortable way of thinking and working to another less familiar mindset. There are many things you can do to make this cultural shift smoother, but we will focus on one strategy that has been proven to be extremely effective.

Identify authority figures

Start by identifying a member from each of the following groups. You'll want buy-in from both.

  1. Formal Authority: Someone in a formal position of authority (manager, director, Chief [insert] Officer)
  2. Informal Authority: Someone without organizational authority but who is a natural leader among his or her peers.

Members with Formal Authority are the people with the organizational approval to make team- or department-level decisions, such as managers, directors, VPs, or C-levels. Keep in mind, however, that in anything other than a start-up, these higher positions may be too far removed from the front lines to have a truly measurable impact on culture change. They may direct that there be a culture change, and if bought in may refrain from disruption, but there's tremendous value in focusing on the people in the trenches. They are the ones who will have far more active impact on culture when bought in.

Members with Informal Authority are the employees whom everyone respects, looks up to, and goes to for advice. Generally, there's one on each team or a couple in each department. These are the people everyone is happy to listen to and work with. In most traditional organizations, these are the people who don't drink the corporate Kool-Aid just to get ahead. They are the people who actually run your corporate culture. They have the social influence to dictate what decisions other employees do and do not support just by virtue of their own opinions.

If you want to streamline your implementation, you'll need advocacy from both Formal and Informal Authority. You can certainly do it without, but it will be a long and arduous process, and the check-writers will likely give up on it before the change has the chance to prove its value.

But why is it valuable to have both?

Formal Authority value

The value of having a Formal Authority advocate is to prevent impediments and distractions. If you don't have buy-in from one of the managers, directors, VPs, or C-level personnel, then they won't understand the process and will constantly pull the organization back toward traditional methods and thinking. They will be adding projects and tasks here and there, or pushing for a hard deadline while measuring the wrong things. That's manageable if you have great natural leaders in the trenches that will act as a buffer between that manager and the rest of the organization and speak up. If you don't have this person(s), then you run the risk of being sidetracked from ever evolving the culture.

Keep in mind that when starting from scratch, you will inevitably have pushback from some level of the organization that doesn't immediately buy in. The faster you're able to gain advocate's in their peers, the easier it will be to prevent that pushback from having a measurable effect.

Informal Authority value

If you don't have an advocate with Informal Authority, you run the risk of perpetuating the misconception that the change is "just another new corporate initiative." Your team will view this as yet another waste of time. They won't be motivated, they won't be organized, and they will be less productive than before. This is especially true if that person with the Informal Authority is an active critic of the change. If the 'cool kid' doesn't like it, no one is going to take it seriously.

However, if you do have buy-in from this person, you will quickly obtain buy-in from the rest of the team. They will be motivated and excited to adhere to the new culture. You will convince each goose that it is good for the gander. Motivation and buy-in are great, but the value that both of these deliver is participation. Culture change lives and dies in participation. Having an Informal Authority holder is the easiest and fastest route to achieving it.


Identify the holders of Formal and Informal Authority within your organization. Get their buy-in and make them advocates - or risk a long and arduous process that likely ends with a failed implementation. How you get that buy-in is up to you, but soliciting their advice is a good place to start. (Giving them some responsibility during the implementation is another tactic, but they need to actually want the extra work.)

For now, knowing whose help you need is half the battle in obtaining their support.


Lead Happy!