Agile adoption success: a matter of cultural context?
Cultural factors can have a great deal of impact on the successful adoption of an agile methodology in an organisation
The Chinese “problem”
Ken Schwaber, co-creator of Scrum, suggests in this brief article that cultures that are attuned to predictability (believing that they can predict the future) might struggle more in getting benefits from adopting Scrum.
Another interesting article on EpicCoaching is pointing to a link between cultural attitudes and success in using an Agile methodology, basing their insights on their direct experience working with companies in South East Asia.
Adoption vs transformation
One consideration consistently emerges from different analyses: Scrum is often adopted as a “development methodology” to be used only in development teams. The management and other departments of the organisation would not be affected by the Agile mindset underlining Scrum. Unfortunately, the best benefits for an organisation are achieved when they adopt an Agile mindset at all levels, by doing an Agile transformation which is, above all, a culture shift.
The importance of values
This is the key point: we are not just talking of a practise, as there is a connection to principles, values and mindset. This is nicely visualised by the “Agile Onion”:
For a practice like Scrum, to be successful in a specific context (country, company), the values and principles of that specific culture must be aligned to the ones emanating by the Agile mindset, that has originated in the US. Let’s dig into some possible elements of attrition.
Hierarchy vs flat structure
According to the Chinese Confucianism, the universe is a structured system, with a defined hierarchy that supports the world’s natural order. A cultural preference towards hierarchy can favour a mindset where people expect to be given prescriptive directions from an superior authority. This is clearly not in alignment with the idea of self-organising teams promoted in the Agile principles: personal initiatives and autonomy might be seen as dangerous and chaotic. The idea of fluid leadership or servant leadership embedded in the Scrum Roles (Scrum Master, Product Owner, the team) might be seen as confusing or even irritating.
Harmony vs conflict
In many cultures, the Oriental one for example, harmony at a personal or social level is an important value. A conflict, even when civilised and constructive, might be perceived as something to avoid at al costs. The Scrum retrospective, where the team might discuss openly delicate or controversial topics, could be perceived as an unpleasant context.
Conformity vs creativity
Acknowledging differences between cultures should not lead us to support any bias. Diversity is a richness that allows the exchange of new ideas and approaches. We can clearly see how Lean, developed in Japan in the manufacturing sector, and Agile, formulated in the US originally for software development, have many overlapping concepts, even if they’ve been born from two very different cultural contexts.
At the same time, as change agents, it’s important to be aware of cultural differences to mitigate the risk of attrition and rejection.
We would like to close this article by asking you: have you noticed in your daily work the impact of cultural differences in approaching change? Do people react differently to uncertainty? What about the influence on communication and team dynamics? We would love to hear your thoughts and observations in the comments!
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