Jamie Notter and Maddie Grant

  Jamie Notter and Maddie Grant


How do you change something as big as culture? Two weeks at a time.

People say change is hard. People say that your employees will naturally resist change. And people will tell you that culture change, specifically, is hardest of all, and will take years to accomplish. Of course, not too long ago people were saying the world was flat. And to be honest, when we stand at the beach and look out at the horizon, it seems like they have a pretty good point. But thanks to science, we have busted the flat-earth myth, and thanks to some interesting developments in the software design world, we think we’re also about to bust the myth that culture change is hard and takes years.


Many in the software world are switching to what is called agile software development. Instead of groups working in silos on their specific part (like coding or requirements development) and then handing it off to a different group to do their work (like design or testing), they are forming cross-functional teams that develop the software together, using short two-week sprints that combine everyone’s input, including the user, to create at least a small piece of the software that actually works.

Then they move on to the next piece (or finish that first piece if they realize that it needs more work), having learned a lot in the process, which guides their work in the next sprint. People who use agile software development report great value in the way the process improves quality, speed, and internal collaboration, all while reducing development costs.

If you apply these lessons to internal culture change, we think you’ll start seeing similar results.

We’re working on improving the workplace culture for a nonprofit organization with about fifty staff. In the first part of the project, we did some hard work on clarifying their cultural priorities. We say hard work because it required some tough conversations about patterns inside their organization that were getting in the way of their success.

For example, the existing culture was built around the spirit that We Are All in This Together. Everyone there had a voice, and that was important given the work they were doing. This was a deeply valued cultural norm, but it was based on the history of the organization that had once been dominated by a different group.

One of the unintended results of that norm was that decision-making had become too slow. Everyone having a voice translated into too many people being involved in too many decisions, making speed impossible. And their stakeholders were starting to complain about it. They needed greater speed to deliver on their mission, but the culture was getting in the way. So after they completed our culture assessment, we helped them develop a set of cultural priorities that would drive results. One of the priorities addressed this speed/voice issue directly:

Priority: Everyone has a voice, but not everyone decides.

If they were more streamlined and rigorous around their decision-making process, then they could achieve the speed, without sacrificing their team spirit or their value around inclusion. Having a voice is not the same thing as making the decision, so they started working hard to clarify that. And here’s where the agile part comes in.

Too many organizations stop the hard work once they get clear on the priority. They pat themselves on the back for achieving the important insight, and then they vaguely tell their people to start living the new cultural norm. And then, a few months later, when they slip back into their old patterns, they believe that change is hard and buy everyone a copy of Who Moved My Cheese?

The Playbook

Agile puts a stop to that. Now that the organization has articulated their priority, they are in the process of developing a Playbook with a list of specific plays that they will run in order to make those priorities the reality inside the organization. The Playbook includes offensive plays (designed to introduce something new into their culture) and defensive plays (designed to protect elements of their culture that are already supporting the priorities). In both developing and implementing these plays, the organization is using agile methods.

To develop the plays, we helped the organization create a cross-functional culture team that broke into groups to develop the plays around the specific priorities. As they flesh out the specific plays, they are bringing in feedback from the rest of the staff, so they don’t go too far down the road planning some change that will, in fact, cause other problems in areas they had not considered. With each sprint, they get closer to developing a more complete play. And when they transition into implementing these plays, they can use the same process.

For example, in sharpening their decision-making processes, they have chosen to implement the RACI model. This is a project management process that requires teams to clarify ahead of time who is Responsible, Accountable, Consulted, and Informed on any given decision. Clarity around these roles improves the quality and, particularly, the speed of decisions, because people know ahead of time whether or how they need to be involved and at what stage.

From an agile development point of view, the RACI model becomes a product that needs to be developed, so a cross-functional team would be created to identify a backlog of items that need to be built to complete that product. Job descriptions might need to be altered to clarify roles, and perhaps team meeting processes would need to be changed to make sure each role had the space to accomplish its task.

The Sprint

The team then prioritizes which parts can be accomplished in the next sprint. For software, sprints are typically two weeks in length, and the team members are working full time on the sprint. For culture change, we often map this out in four-week increments, knowing that the team members also have their regular jobs to work on, though two-week sprints can also be included, depending on the tasks involved.

During the sprint, the team assigns specific tasks to individuals that are designed to get just a piece of that product into a deliverable state. Maybe their first sprint on the RACI product will focus on job descriptions. The team will not rewrite every job description in the organization during that sprint; instead they will choose maybe a couple of job descriptions in one department and work on those, getting feedback from the individuals in those roles, so they not only get the job descriptions done, they will see how they impact getting the work done.

As they implement that one small piece, they are learning and can apply that learning to the continued work on job descriptions and on the RACI product in general. In fact, they may learn in that process that job descriptions are a lower priority, and that changes to the meeting process will have more of an impact. Finding that out after four weeks, as opposed to the six months it would have taken them to draft all the new job descriptions, means they will make more meaningful change, more quickly.


That’s the advantage of the agile method, which is why we advise all our clients to integrate it into their culture work. The agile method doesn’t make this work easy. Being clear and intentional about your culture and aligning that culture with what drives your success is all hard work. If it were easy, we’d all already be doing it, and every place would be a Best Place to Work.

In fact, those best places tend to be the ones that have wrestled the culture priorities to the ground and achieved that alignment. The agile method simply opens up this opportunity to more organizations. If you’re willing to do the hard work of decoding your culture and developing a targeted upgrade playbook, then agile can be the bridge that takes you through to successful implementation. You won’t need any books or programs on change management. You’ll just need more shelf space for your Best Place to Work awards.

Maddie Grant and Jamie Notter are founding partners at Human Workplaces. As culture experts with decades of experience in the nonprofit community, they help you use the tools and resources you already have at your disposal to design and sustain an amazing culture on an ongoing basis. For more information on their culture assessment and activation program, visit https://humanworkplaces.net/.

This article is reprinted from Issue #9 of Nonprofit Performance Magazine. Subscribe today so that you won’t miss other actionable articles that will help you run your nonprofit organization with less pain and more gain!

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