Culture Chaos

Beware! Regional Culture Chaos May Derail Organizational Agility
Posted on Scrum Alliance on 18-March-2015

Professor and theorist Edgar Schein defined culture as:

A pattern of shared tacit assumptions that was learned by a group as it solved its problems of external adaptation and internal integration, that has worked well enough to be considered valid and, therefore, to be taught to new members as the correct way to perceive, think, and feel in relation to those problems.

Regional cultures matter a lot in enterprise Agile adoption. In fact, culture is often a sharp tool that can threaten the outcome of Agile adoption efforts. There are various Asian cultures, for instance, that are less receptive to collaboration and highly sensitive to hierarchy, title, and status. In many of these countries there will always be some respect for authority, no matter how many times they are hit by a tsunami. So there are various challenges that surface up front to roll out Scrum or other Agile frameworks in these countries.

Organizational structure sometimes directly reflects the country culture, with a big ladder of hierarchy to command and control people from the top down. The Agile concepts of self-organization, team empowerment, and value delivery are really hard to make “stick” in such cultures. Managers in these countries command lot of respect because of their designation and hierarchy, in contrast to managers in the West, who earn respect because of their knowledge. For example, in some parts of northern Europe a project manager has to earn the respect of his/her team by helping and supporting the team in a variety of ways. Initially he or she may even start out as a little-respected person!

I frequently observe that the core values of every company that are proudly portrayed on the wall fail to translate into real behaviors. There seems to be huge gap between awareness and action, which likely results in chaotic situations.

Some examples of anti-cultural patterns that may work against organizational agility:

  1. There is a lack of basic discipline in the company.
  2. Employees hesitate to speak up before a manager/boss because of fear of retaliation.
  3. The culture of individual accomplishment ranks above teamwork.
  4. There is a culture of indecisiveness and ambiguity across various levels of the organization.
  5. The culture is one of not sharing information freely.

Agile practices encourage speaking up about any issue and communicating well in advance to minimize risks that may cause negative surprises later. However, due to fear of retaliation, many members of a team choose not to speak up. This particular trait will diminish the chances of failing fast, learning from failure, and springing back.

Sometimes the phrase “servant leader” sends out very confusing signals. Asian cultures perceive the term “servant” as indicating lesser status. Most IT folks working in Asia have a competitive mind-set in their DNA; they prefer to compete with others on their own team rather than being a team player. Adding fuel to fire, the organizational employee performance appraisal gives more weight to individual heroism, which runs counter to the Agile Manifesto.

Excessive monitoring and control around employees will also be the spoilsport of Agile transformation, killing cooperation, coordination, collaboration, transparency, and employee engagement.

In these ways regional cultures appear to be a major stumbling block during enterprise Agile adoption. While it may not be possible to eliminate the total impact of regional culture, putting in place a few measures may neutralize its impact, at least to some extent. Decentralizing the decision making will help in understanding what really works in which culture. Making culture-based change-management plans, localizing the training content, establishing communities of practices, and encouraging constant employee engagement and communication all may support the efforts being put into enterprise Agile adoption.

However, it is important that the organizational goals of going the Agile way are not forgotten while dealing with regional cultural complexities. –

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