Debugging Cross-Border Agile Teams and Processes
Cross-border Agile teams face cultural issues that must be debugged using sophisticated training and communication strategies.
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Making Agile teams work effectively has never been easy. To get the most out of Agile, teams must get used to being honest with themselves about the work they do, and come to terms with the limits and obstacles they face. Once a team has become comfortable with being uncomfortable, the real productivity promised by Agile can emerge.
This is especially true for cross-border teams that have members from different international cultures. As the world has become more distributed and virtual, the barriers to making Agile work have become more numerous and difficult to overcome. We may all be able to work remotely now, but that doesn’t mean that all cultural differences have vanished.
However, these issues are not insurmountable and do not have to derail Agile adoption. Improved and open communication is the foundation of all successful Agile teams. To make Agile teams work, that open communication should be reflected in the four key ways explained below.
Create Culturally Attuned Trainings
When individuals are working together on teams with people from other cultures, there are simply some things they cannot know without proper training and debriefing on appropriate ways to interact with other cultures. Companies, therefore, must invest in in-depth, culturally specific training for all members of the team.
For instance, the first time I traveled to Japan, my team provided me with extensive training on Japanese culture. Not only did this help me to be aware of customs such as greetings, but it also let me avoid faux pas that could have caused offense unintentionally. Additionally, this training helped me begin to learn Japanese words for common terms like invoices so I could begin to acclimate to those with whom I worked.
My experience reflects one of the reasons these types of training are so important. To make Agile work, we all have to strive to avoid people unknowingly offending those with whom we’re trying to work. To give another example, when I worked in Egypt, I learned that a man trying to shake hands with a woman is considered rude or even a form of harassment. Fortunately, I was able to avoid this entirely because I knew about the custom beforehand.
To truly foster cultural understanding on Agile teams, these trainings and info debriefs should involve:
- Information about the respective cultures’ holiday calendars and celebrations
- Do’s and don’ts, as well as mistakes to avoid
- Overviews of common customs and cultural habits
- Common vocabulary words as a way to establish a shared language
Foster Cultural Understanding and Points of Commonality
As alluded to in the previous section, for cross-cultural Agile teams to succeed, every member of the team must have some understanding of the other members’ cultures. That’s why the training piece is so key.
Additionally, there should be a great deal of information shared before teams begin to collaborate about common features of the culture, such as:
- What it is like to live in that particular place
This type of information can help to establish points of commonality that people can bond around, and as the team matures, the members can share and discuss. Sports and food are great equalizers and enable people to talk about a neutral topic that incites passion in many of us.
However, to ensure team cohesion, some topics should always be avoided: namely, politics and religion.
To conduct cultural information sharing in a virtual setting, I have found the technique of asking people to share photographs of experiences and personal stories about their culture and lives to be the most effective. This practice helps to create personas that people can then use to understand one another on a human rather than just a work level. I also recommend sharing common slang and even finding popular internet videos to send around that help explain the culture. These practices all help to foster a sense of community amongst the team.
Finally, having a strategy on how to conduct ongoing coaching, training, and workshops that provide examples of the different cultures is key. These workshops can be 15-20 minutes long and just give brief overviews of the represented cultures. That relatively minor time investment will reap huge dividends long term.
Recognize and Acknowledge Differing Leadership and Managerial Styles
Different cultures also have differing managerial styles. Companies have to be aware of how to accept these differences and incorporate them into how they work with every member of an Agile team.
As an example from my personal experience, I find American managerial and work culture to be very decentralized. Often, individuals feel empowered to make decisions without getting approval from every level of management. That contrasts with other cultures, like those where I am from in Southeast Asia, that sometimes have a very hierarchical approach. Thus, in some cultures, you must have leadership approval to move forward or get budgetary sign-off. Those types of differences cannot and should not be ignored. When team members from different cultures are working together, they must be aware of these differences and approval chains, so that if someone wants to take initiative or be innovative, they are aware of how this might be interpreted by their colleagues.
To address these types of challenges, at times we have given teams budgets that don’t need managerial approval or allotted team expense funds so they can operate more autonomously. This indicates that we trust each member’s judgment and helps to overcome clashing managerial styles.
What this indicates is that leaders need to provide a level of flexibility so Agile team members don’t feel confined and constrained. Every country will have different approval approaches but the trick is to find a way to operate within these structures respectfully while still encouraging innovation.
Finally, I want to return to the idea of honesty and transparency I mentioned at the start. Companies can’t and shouldn’t ignore their team members’ differences. They should instead focus on them and call them out to avoid problems.
This is why cross-cultural communication is so essential. We must recognize that if one culture does something that will annoy another, we have to call that out and acknowledge it. Otherwise, tensions build.
Additionally, leaders must subtly name what is and is not acceptable. This must be done consistently to help establish norms.
I recommend that teams establish norms along the following parameters:
- Teams should operate with consistent standards and practices to ensure cohesion across cultures. These practices should be firmly established and every new person that joins the team should be briefed on them.
- People work and operate very differently in Florida and Jakarta. The key is to make standards at the start that everyone can abide by.
To accomplish this on an Agile team, much of this work falls to the Scrum Master, who must actively work to get people out of their siloes. On our first day working together, I often have had teams write down explicitly what we should and should not do. We can then agree on our standards together. If something is too sensitive for agreement to occur, I recommend leaving it for the moment and returning to it later. but it must be addressed. I often task team members with solving problems themselves so the solution is as organic as possible.
Ultimately, the best way to make cross-border Agile teams work is not to ignore the differences, but rather to try to understand and embrace them. With this approach, it’s not like problems disappear, but they are minimized and don’t fester.
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