Consider Culture When Implementing Agile Practices

Teams can create balance between agile practices and local culture.

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Agile practices help organizations bring products and services to market quickly and adapt nimbly to customer and market changes and innovations in the technology landscape. In today’s globalized economy, agile methods pioneered in the United States are being adopted in organizations worldwide.

One challenge to implementing agile practices globally is accommodating cultural differences. Because the agile approach started in the United States, American cultural norms may play an outsized role in how agile methods are prescribed and carried out — and that could create problems when teams in other countries adopt agile methodologies. For example, openly expressing thoughts and opinions to authority figures, publicly discussing successes and failures, and assigning credit or blame are often accepted practices in agile teams, but such open interactions may not be consistent with cultural norms in all parts of the world.

Recognizing the unique cultural characteristics of employees taking part in agile projects outside the United States may be critical to project success. When agile practices clash with local culture, it’s important for organizations to recognize the conflict and develop solutions sensitive to the societal norms without impeding agile practices.

We interviewed employees of eight software companies in China, India, and South Korea that had adopted agile software development practices to find an answer to this key question: How do the cultural scripts common in your country work with or against the tenets of agile methods? A population may have a unique word to describe particular behaviors; that named phenomenon is the “cultural script.”1 We focused on a small set of cultural scripts in each of the three countries. (See “Three Countries, Many Cultural Scripts.”)

The employees we talked to described situations in which complications arose because agile practices differed from behaviors that were considered acceptable according to cultural scripts. When faced with such discrepancies, companies developed culturally sensitive ways to encourage employees to adopt agile practices. In many instances, organizations were able to create harmony between being agile and abiding by the local culture’s accepted behavioral norms. We’ve distilled their experiences into practical recommendations your organization can use to address the challenge of being both agile and culturally sensitive.

Lessons From Global Agile Implementations

We interviewed agile team members who held roles such as senior manager, project lead, developer, scrum master, agile coach, and customer representative. They worked on the development of a diverse collection of products, from customer relationship management systems, supply chain tools, and inventory management systems to game platforms and mobile applications. As we learned about the cultural challenges they faced in agile projects and how they dealt with them, we found three areas where agile practices interacted with cultural scripts in atypical ways and created challenges: maintaining flexibility and speed, building an effective agile team, and creating accessible communication channels. In many cases, teams can resolve those types of challenges with flexible solutions that preserve key agile practices but accommodate a culture’s distinct norms.

Maintaining Flexibility and Speed

Agile practices emphasize process flexibility and the quick delivery of value. Some cultural scripts — such as jugaad, an Indian concept that stresses improvisation as a way to solve problems, and South Korea’s palli palli, which emphasizes the importance of completing tasks quickly — align well with this focus, but they may also cause project teams to overreach. We uncovered two solutions for avoiding unmanageable situations in teams whose members may embrace either jugaad or palli palli: streamlining improvisation and adjusting client expectations using a hybrid approach.

Streamline Improvisation

In India, one benefit of jugaad is that it empowers employees to work well in resource-limited environments on tight schedules. Both of those characteristics align well with the flexible and fast-paced nature of agile teams. Employees who can find ways to do more with less can help speed development and reduce waste. The downside is that unorthodox problem-solving approaches may be inconsistent with formal organizational processes, so they may not be reproducible and they may not have undergone the vetting necessary to ensure that they don’t result in unexpected or negative consequences.

This trade-off is illustrated by an example from our interviews. A developer in India needed access to new mobile devices for developing and testing an application. As a solution, he arranged to borrow mobile devices from a retail store at night. This novel approach became an embarrassing problem for both companies when a customer of the retail store found out that her new phone had been used already. The incident caused the senior managers of the software development company to realize that clear organizational guidelines were needed to manage improvisation encouraged by jugaad. The two companies set up a formal arrangement whereby the retail store made mobile devices available to the software company in exchange for software development services. By streamlining improvisation encouraged by jugaad, organizations can leverage the ingenuity of improvised solutions and at the same time bring organizational legitimacy to them.

Adjust Expectations With a Hybrid Approach

South Koreans see palli palli as a dominant part of their culture. It emphasizes getting things done quickly, and that mindset is ideally suited to agile’s principle of delivering value early in the development process. In fact, the two concepts are so well-aligned that some South Koreans refer to agile practices as palli palli practices. Employees in a culture that values speed will strive to deliver results quickly, but an overemphasis on quick results can encourage a continual tightening of already-aggressive schedules, create unrealistic client expectations, and orient work toward short-term results.

When agile practices were put in place in South Korea, employees felt significant pressure from clients to deliver products faster than before. To counter this pressure, some project teams have adopted a hybrid approach wherein a contract is drawn up and the project team and the client agree to terms that specify the overall scope and schedule for the project and identify a set of initial requirements. Contractually limiting a project’s scope and timeline allows companies to implement agile practices only after major requirements are specified and better manage fast-delivery expectations. While such approaches go beyond what is advocated by agile methods, they are essential because they rein in the hyper-agility that would have been culturally expected otherwise. Hybrid solutions like that can help a team shift the baseline for agility so expectations are realistic.

Building an Effective Agile Team

Agile practices are people-oriented, and agile teams are self-organizing and cross-functional. Cultural scripts such as the doctrine of the mean and harmony (DOM) in China and India’s principles of social hierarchy and apane log can contribute to team building, but they also emphasize communication patterns that could restrict the free flow of information between team members. We recommend avoiding such issues by adding pragmatic structure to teams while being sensitive to cultural impacts on team cohesiveness.

Add Pragmatic Structure

The hierarchical structures encouraged by DOM in China and social hierarchy in India mean employees expect decisions to be made by superiors and are accustomed to following instructions. This dependence on structure is counterproductive in agile environments that rely on dynamic self-organization and empower employees to determine the best way to get their work done.

We found that software development companies in both China and India took steps to reorganize their teams in ways designed to discourage employees from falling back on traditional hierarchical structures to manage their projects. For example, in India, one company formed multiple subteams and each member of a subteam was designated the leader for a module. The leaders could recruit other members of the subteam to perform tasks for their modules. Similarly, in an agile project at a company in China, instead of one person acting as product owner, a group of stakeholders collectively served as product owner. In both examples, authority was dispersed across multiple individuals and reporting structures were rearranged, so the companies were able to encourage individual decision-making and communication between parties — practices that would have been discouraged in traditional structural hierarchies.

Balance Skill Sets and Group Cohesiveness

In India, the cultural script of apane log leads to the formation of teams made up of people with shared backgrounds and experiences. While such teams may be highly cohesive and therefore able to pursue projects with a sense of common purpose, they may lack diversity and members may demonstrate a tendency to prioritize team goals over the project.

We found that agile teams in India may lack the diversity of skills that is so important to the agile process because team members are often drawn from a pool of people with similar backgrounds. That’s because staffs in India tend to be made up of people with similar education and training because social ties generally play a more important role than skill sets in decisions about who to hire and who to promote. The end result is an undesirable uniformity of skills on agile teams. Moreover, the strong social relationships typical among people who embrace the notion of apane log also led to team members covering for one another’s weaknesses. To reduce the impact of apane log, managers adapted hiring practices to ensure that teams possessed the range of competencies and skill sets that were essential for particular projects.

Creating Accessible Communication Channels

Open and ongoing communication is critical to agile practices. But interpersonal communication is often deeply affected by cultural scripts that can inhibit open dialogue and interaction essential in agile teams. We suggest overcoming this obstacle by building an environment in which people can engage in open communication without running afoul of cultural norms that may discourage it.

Create Context for Openness

Open communication was a challenge for agile teams in all of the countries we studied. For example, in China, mianzi, which emphasizes the importance of maintaining social standing, caused employees to be reluctant to share information they believed might damage their own reputations or the reputations of others. And in South Korea and India, jeong and apane log, respectively, which both stress the importance of forging strong social relationships, can have both positive and negative repercussions in agile projects. On one hand, the group cohesiveness that results from such relationships can be beneficial, but it can also lead individuals to engage in behaviors that favor the team over the project.

Employees who embrace mianzi, jeong, and apane log may take criticism too personally or cover for the weaknesses of fellow team members. Those three cultural scripts inhibit the open communication that agile methods rely on to keep the development process transparent and ensure that project information is available to all members of the team.

Managers in China and South Korea dealt with their employees’ hesitancy to express themselves openly by creating environments in which open dialogue was acceptable. In South Korea, one organization held informal meetings after regular work hours in bars or other locations outside of the office, creating an opportunity for team members to discuss difficult topics in a comfortable atmosphere. At some of those off-site meetings, project members informally briefed their managers and customers about the difficulties of adopting certain agile practices. In China, the managers’ approach was to explain to employees how mianzi could be used to assist the agile process. They emphasized that mianzi is a conflict management tool that could help employees avoid responding to one another in irrational ways. They also noted that embracing mianzi could help colleagues and customers “save face” by adopting a positive attitude when communicating with one another.

Create New Communication Channels

In China and India, DOM and the institution of social hierarchy, respectively, instill people with a sense of respect for authority figures and, as a result, interpersonal communication is often very formal and less open. This less relaxed style of interaction can hinder the free exchange of ideas and make it harder for employees lower in the organizational hierarchy to develop a deep understanding of customer needs.

In both countries, we found that employees would remain silent when they disagreed with their superiors, because they believed they were not in a position to make decisions. In China, only some employees would talk to customers, and in India, communication occurred mainly between people who were at the same level of the organizational hierarchy. On an agile team, a lack of open communication with the customer may lead to incorrect assumptions about customer needs, and therefore significant rework may be required when the end result is not what the customer expected. To address that problem, companies created wikis to support collaborative decision-making. Through the wiki, all team members could share their thoughts openly but also anonymously, so that they didn’t appear disrespectful. Such solutions can help employees feel they are preserving their respect for authority, and at the same time provide a channel for openly sharing concerns.

Consider Culture in an Agile Implementation

Introducing practices that bring agility to a team or organization can be done with cultural sensitivity. Successful agile companies adapt their practices to suit project and organizational characteristics.2 Adapting your agile practices to be considerate of cultural scripts will demonstrate to global teams that agile methods are not a one-size-fits-all approach and that localized nuances do matter. As you implement agile practices pioneered in one culture in countries that have different cultural norms, it’s important to consider how the requisite agile behaviors may mesh with the cultural norms of the employees being asked to behave that way.

While the specific solutions you create to resolve conflicts between agile practices and cultural scripts will likely vary depending on local contexts and cultural norms at play, the broader and more compelling storyline here is that agile product development teams can find a workable balance between standard agile practices and behaviors that would be typical in the local culture. Striking such a balance is important not only because it helps ensure that agile teams will be able to accomplish their goals, but also because it can create interesting opportunities to leverage the unique perspectives and solutions different cultures may offer.

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References

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2. D.K. Rigby, J. Sutherland, and H. Takeuchi, “Embracing Agile,” Harvard Business Review 94, no. 5 (2016): 40-50.

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