Who needs agile processes, design thinking and other “startup techniques”

Methods vs. Attitudes vs. Culture in companies in the CEE region — the TLDR version of the “culture eats processes for breakfast” theory


For me, the expression of agile carries the same meaning as the SCRUM methodology for a long time. In the recent years, it is often mentioned by large enterprises as a new direction and a key to overcoming challenges. The topic of agility usually arises when company executives are telling me their stories, as they are hit by the competition and besides they also desperately need to differentiate their companies on the labor market. Sometimes we have a conversation in a form below:

“We like what you do, and we need the same. We need to be innovative. Can you teach us some startup methods that help us to be more effective and to make our people happy?”
“I’m sorry, but can you clarify what startup methods mean to you?”
“What everybody does nowadays: it’s agile project management and design thinking.”

In this article I will unveil the differences between the agile approach and methodologies. I will also show, how enterprises can examine their attitude to make sure that the agile approach could be beneficial to them.


Attitude, approach, methodology

Let’s take a closer look at what this discussion is about, starting with these two expressions: agile and design thinking.

Photo by Jack Hunter on Unsplash

In most vocabularies, Agile is an approach, initially used in software development. It advocates adaptive planning, evolutionary development, early delivery, and continual improvement, and it encourages rapid and flexible response to change¹. Design thinking, however, is a methodology for the practical, creative resolution of problems using the strategies designers use during the process of designing².

If we deep dive into agile we also found methodologies within the approach: the two most popular and best known is SCRUM — used in software development — and KANBAN — developed to improve services and manufacturing efficiency.

But why are these methodologies used by startups or — at least — why we think they do? Certainly not because they believe that this is the coolest thing ever, as they enjoy themselves in a hipster cafe somewhere in downtown Budapest or San Francisco, sitting by a 20 inches thick raw oak desk, gently siping their filter coffee. It is because they need to act extremely fast, at a lowest possible cost and as efficiently as possible. This way they can validate their product or service at the smallest risk rate.

Startups operating this way can save a lot of time and capital, which they usually don’t have enough. In most cases, what is forcing them forward is the thought that when they are running out of money, they will not have their next chance to prove their talent. If they fall, they most likely have to go back to the labor market, which is not the best option for an entrepreneur. I believe this a question of attitude.

On the other hand, large companies are struggling for their size and — surprisingly — also for their capital. Many of them started to operate when they were in a unique market position with only a few competitors around. In the CEE region — and especially in post-communist countries — their operation was often granted by state funds and discounted tax rates. Moreover, there were an enormous amount of human resources available, applicants who were eager to work in these enterprises. As these companies became large and profitable in a relatively short time, employers were in a comfortable and relaxed position, at least from the organization development perspective: there was no need to chase methodologies which grant them a fast, low risk and efficient environment. I believe this is another question of attitude.

Photo by Nathan Dumlao on Unsplash

Since then, the market has changed. A generation has grown up; the Millenials and the iGeneration entered the labor market. With their appearance, a different and more conscious mindset also emerged. When I have the opportunity to talk about this issues with corporate executives it becomes clear that ask for assistance and want to apply “startup methods” to solve their human resource problems. They believe, they can offer something for the employees of the new generation. Unfortunately, some large firms’ reaction to this challenge is to switch into a “buzzwords only mode.” This is how agile methods, coaching, employer branding transform into meaningless expressions.

If we accept that working methods applied by both the startups and corporates are attitudes, it concludes that

corporates don’t need to learn methodologies in the first place but need to change their attitude and mindset first.

Once they know more about their attitudes — which also means they know more about their culture — there is the opportunity to find and learn methodologies and tools which could be beneficial to them.


Forming a culture — Why? How? What?

I recently reviewed the theory of Simon Sinek called “golden circle”, pitched by him about ten years ago (please check the linked TED video for the full story). What Simon stated I translated to something like this: most of the individuals, groups or organizations know what they do, some of them know how they do that, but only a few have the knowledge and fully aware why they do that.

Although Simon shows the importance of why from the brand perspective, I believe it can as well be applied to the organizational culture. As he stated:

“The goal is not just to hire people who need a job; it’s to hire people who believe what you believe.”

In other words, we need people who share the same vision, who can work for the similar business goals and who are eager to reach that goal as much as we do. Those who have the same attitudes and mindset.

Let’s go back to the original definitions we discussed earlier. If we accept that agile is an approach and SCRUM, KANBAN and Design Thinking are various methodologies we also see that by applying these methods we get the answer for the question of how, but we don’t know so much about of the why. Without finding the answer to our “why” question, we cannot be sure that we need these methodologies.


A search for attitudes

In one of my other articles, I write about how important is to discover the values of the individuals to create or change a company culture. These personal motivations can answer why an organization exists and what it represents. But who are the ones, whose value-set is influencing the organization culture most and determining the company’s future in the long run?

It seems evident that we need to examine the values on the executive level first. However, based on our experience it is as essential to discover the company’s underlying informal network to locate the influencers. These people sometimes remain hidden in the organization. They are often strong individuals, sometimes with a lack of formal authority, but with enormous social power which appears in various forms in the company canteen. With their ability, they can support but also block the transformation processes. Therefore knowing their attitude and values are also essential to find the answer to the question of why. In the end, the common value-set of the formal executives, the founders and the formal and informal influencers will be what determines the starting point and the angle of the organizational transformation.

When I quote the conversation again from the beginning of this post, I will extend it with the following answer:

“We can help you to locate those individuals who operate this company, including the executives and the influencers. We also can support you by offering knowledge, experience, and tools to find out these individuals’ motivation, their attitude, and your common value-set. Based on the result, you will be able to decide what tools would be the best to create or to change the culture, to reform the business processes and to achieve the common goals. Within these tools, there might be some that used by startups as well.”

Are you curious how we work? Easy Monday is a framework that uses agile practices to help you to transform your organization culture that drives empowerment, engagement, and innovation. To have a deeper dive, you can check the detailed description of the framework here. You also can read more articles, case studies and interviews on our medium blog.

¹ “What is Agile Software Development?”. Agile Alliance. 8 June 2013. Retrieved 4 April 2015.

²https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Design_thinking