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Culturally Biased Agility

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Culturally Biased Agility

In business, the term 'culture' gets thrown around a lot. But can your national culture affect the way your perceive Agile, and it's component methods, such as Scrum?

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Changing culture from waterfall to agility?

All the effort put into Agile development has to be worthwhile, why else abandon the waterfall approach? What are the benefits of Agile Development and what are the reasons it should work? Enough to explore the concepts of Agility and freshen up on the topic.

The Agile movement started in the US and is focused on solving problems with long-term software projects that are over-budget and do not deliver what has been agreed upon or what is needed. Delivering working software in short cycles avoids the pitfalls common to long running projects. Frequent customer feedback and the option to stop the project after each cycle reduces the financial and organizational risks.  To achieve this, various implementation methodologies have been created with specific rules, roles, processes, and meetings, like Scrum. But there is also a "bigger" story why the Agile approach is effective. The Agile Manifesto concisely formulates the basic ideas. 

“We are uncovering better ways of developing software by doing it and helping others do it. Through this work we have come to value: Individuals and interactions over processes and tools; Working software over comprehensive documentation; Customer collaboration over contract negotiation; Responding to change over following a plan. That is, while there is value in the items on the right, we value the items on the left more.”

A closer look at the manifesto reveals the ideas that it propagates and the underlying concepts and value judgments.

The first line of the manifesto says "uncovering by doing it." Meaning that knowledge that matters is found in practice, not in design or engineering. This statement suggests that software development has an ambiguous relationship towards theoretical knowledge and a methodology. Software can not exist without some level of engineering, but building a software system as an engineering project is often inadequate. Craftsmanship is required to build a qualitatively successful system. 

The next couple of sentences mentions two concepts in which the first is more important than the second. However, the concepts are not necessarily contradictory or exclusive, but by positioning them next to each other an extra dimension of meaning and value is added. In general (it is a little bit too obvious) personal interaction, collaboration, and pragmatic goal-oriented actions are supposed to be more effective than procedures, contractual relations, and planning. 

In essence, the manifesto values two aspects of software development: the body of knowledge and the work process. 

The problems of large projects are resolved by shifting from a rational methodical process to a creative process which involves individuality and teamwork. This is an appealing story for most developers and it is confirmed by the daily reality of software development. And of course, it is true; creativity, knowledge and individual cooperation are very valuable in knowledge-intensive and creative processes, and software development is just that. But this also means that the cultural context in which we are working has a big influence because individualism and collaboration are much more culturally biased than legal contracts.

There are numerous definitions of culture and there is not one that is all-encompassing; but there are a few greatest common denominators: the view on individual and collective, the perspective on relationships and ‘things', authority, ideas about space and time, and personal relationships. 

A commonly used system for describing these cultural differences are the cultural dimensions of Geert Hofstede. Hofstede's model has six dimensions: 

  • Power Distance Index. “This dimension expresses the degree to which the less powerful members of a society accept and expect that power is distributed unequally. The fundamental issue here is how a society handles inequalities among people. People in societies exhibiting a large degree of Power Distance accept a hierarchical order in which everybody has a place and which needs no further justification. In societies with low Power Distance, people strive to equalize the distribution of power and demand justification for inequalities of power.”
  • Individualism versus collectivism. “The high side of this dimension, called individualism, can be defined as a preference for a loosely-knit social framework in which individuals are expected to take care of only themselves and their immediate families. Its opposite, collectivism, represents a preference for a tightly-knit framework in society in which individuals can expect their relatives or members of a particular in-group to look after them in exchange for unquestioning loyalty. A society's position on this dimension is reflected in whether people’s self-image is defined in terms of “I” or “we.”
  • Masculinity versus Femininity. “The Masculinity side of this dimension represents a preference in society for achievement, heroism, assertiveness, and material rewards for success. Society at large is more competitive. Its opposite, femininity, stands for a preference for cooperation, modesty, caring for the weak and quality of life. Society at large is more consensus-oriented. In the business context, Masculinity versus Femininity is sometimes also related to as 'tough versus tender' cultures.”
  • Uncertainty avoidance. “The Uncertainty Avoidance dimension expresses the degree to which the members of a society feel uncomfortable with uncertainty and ambiguity. The fundamental issue here is how a society deals with the fact that the future can never be known: should we try to control the future or just let it happen? Countries exhibiting strong UAI maintain rigid codes of belief and behavior and are intolerant of unorthodox behaviour and ideas. Weak UAI societies maintain a more relaxed attitude in which practice counts more than principles.” 
  • Long term orientation versus short term normative orientation. “Every society has to maintain some links with its own past while dealing with the challenges of the present and the future. Societies prioritize these two existential goals differently. Societies who score low on this dimension, for example, prefer to maintain time-honoured traditions and norms while viewing societal change with suspicion. Those with a culture which scores high, on the other hand, take a more pragmatic approach: they encourage thrift and efforts in modern education as a way to prepare for the future. In the business context, this dimension is related to as "(short term) normative versus (long term) pragmatic" (PRA). In the academic environment, the terminology Monumentalism versus Flexhumility is sometimes also used.”
  • Indulgence versus restraint. “Indulgence stands for a society that allows relatively free gratification of basic and natural human drives related to enjoying life and having fun.  Restraint stands for a society that suppresses gratification of needs and regulates it by means of strict social norms.”

These indexes are maintained online for a lot of countries and there are charts available that take two or more cultures and compares them. The graph below shows the Dutch indices compared to the United States. 

Image title

Two dimensions are far apart, "long-term orientation" and "masculinity-femininity." A more 'masculine' society, according to this dimension, has a strong focus on competition, while 'feminine' cultures are more focused on "do what you like." The communication style and motivation in the Netherlands is informal, the emphasis is on doing what you are good at. 

In the Netherlands, employees do not keep their opinions to themselves and feedback is often given even if it is not asked for and without regard to position and hierarchy. In a more hierarchical performance oriented culture, there is much less room for free opinions and there have to be organized sessions to share feedback and become a better team. 

The Long Term dimension is also interesting. A long-term vision is focused on change and responding to changing situations and the like, unlike a short-term adjustment that attaches to an unambiguous truth, traditions, and well defined goals. In the USA, Scrum is likely to work differently than in the Netherlands since Scrum is focused on the short term, and provides the possibility to adjust goals in a structured manner. But what if the long-term vision is already dominant? It could be that the strict regulations and rules of Scrum then, unintentionally, have other effects on feedback and the creative process.

The Agile Manifesto implicitly assumes North American pragmatism, which is different from continental ideas. To put it simply, "Whatever works is true” as opposed to “‘When something is true it will work.” This is quite a different disposition towards the subject matter. These ideas affect the creative dimension and specifically the value systems in software development. Also, it manifests itself in an attitude towards a methodical approach to Agile development with roles, processes, and methods in different cultures.

The software community has to be critical towards Scrum and the ceremonies that it prescribes and try to understand the underlying principles and apply them to the situation within the culture and organization we are in. The basic principles of agility make sense and are worthwhile: feedback, continuous improvement, and reduced risk. At the same time, a lot of challenges in software projects remain, due to a complex organizational structure, compromises between stakeholders, the absence of focus, rapidly changing business goals, and a lack of motivation to clean up technical debt. 

Implementing an Agile methodology in an organization has to take into account the cultural peculiarities. Knowledge sharing and empowering the creative process helps to ensure the involvement of all stakeholders, which is crucial for success.

New roadmaps, more flexible boards, and dozens of new integrations. And that's just the beginning.  

agile ,culture ,scrum

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