Cultural Impact of The Agile Transformation

Did you notice that it’s all about agile lately? Self organising teams, product ownership, backlog generation and grooming, how to manage and identify roles… the list goes on. With my experience working in companies as small as startups, and as large as blue chip multinationals, I feel one aspect is not spoken about much: the cultural impact on agile transformation.

Agile is a simple set of concepts to understand (once you read the manifesto, of course) but that doesn’t mean it’s easy to implement. It can be challenging for organisations to understand that the principles aren’t ultimatums (eg. you deliver working software or you write comprehensive documentation), and that the concepts of self-organising teams, continuous improvement, and frequent delivery are just points on a spectrum that favours flexibility.

Culture is not superficial as such; in fact it lies in the core DNA of individuals. Every business needs to undergo the change cycle, to align itself with the changing market demand and customer needs. The value stream of a business might spread across multiple geographies and cultures that confront it with various challenges in adopting the change. So the much-needed “Business Agility” mechanism is something every organisation aspires to put in place. I believe that the “Business agility” is the capability of the organisation to respond to a change at a rapid pace by challenging the “status quo”. It is a phenomenon that increases the organisational intelligence and helps it to withstand the competition. One of the extension of the Business Agility is the Enterprise Agile adoption, which helps organizations to simplify its own complex adaptive systems, heavyweight processes, rigid hierarchies and organisation structures.

Regional cultures do matter in enterprise agile adoption.

There are various Asian cultures that are less receptive to collaboration and highly sensitive to hierarchy, titles and status. India is high power index society, where irrespective of whatever is going to happen, there will be some respect for authority. On the other extreme, there are some countries like Japan, The Republic of Singapore where people almost pray someone who is authoritative.

So there are various challenges that surface upfront to roll out agile frameworks like SCRUM in these countries. Sometimes, organisational structures directly reflect the country cultures, with a big ladder of hierarchies to command and control people top down. There is a lot of literature written on large company Agile adoption.Regional cultures do matter in enterprise agile adoption. More, regional culture shapes up as a sharp tool that can threaten the outcome of agile adoption.

The agile concepts of self-organisation, team empowerment, value delivery will prove harder to stick in such cultures. Managers in these countries command lot of respect because of their designation and hierarchy, in contrast to managers in the western world who earn the respect because of their knowledge. For example in northern Europe, a Project Manager has to earn respect of his/her team, by helping and supporting the team in many ways.

Agile practices warrant the right to speak up about any issue and communicate well in advance to minimise the risk that may surprise negatively later. However, due to fear of reprisal many members of a team will choose not to speak up. This particular trait will diminish the chances of failing fast, learning from failure and come back.

Another example, the phrase “Servant Leader” send out very confusing signals to many. Asian cultures perceive the term “Servant” as lesser status. Most of the information technology resources working in Asia do have a strong competition mindset; they give a lot of preference to compete with others in their own team, rather being a team player.

Added to the chaos, the organisational employee performance appraisal gives more weightage to individual heroism that counter agile manifesto. Too much monitoring and control around employees will also play the spoil sport of agile transformation by killing the cooperation, coordination, collaboration, transparency and employee engagement.

Regional culture certainly is a bottleneck during enterprise agile adoption. While it may not be possible to avoid the impact of regional culture, few measures may neutralise its impact to some extent. Decentralising the decision-making will help to a larger extent in understanding what really works in which culture. Making culture based change management plans, localising the training content, establishing communities of practices; constant employee engagement and communication will support the efforts being put into enterprise agile adoption. However, it is important that the organisational goals of going the Agile way may not be forgotten, while dealing with the regional cultural complexity.