Agile transformations require trust and many small, thoughtful iterations to succeed. When teams struggle to communicate, dive deep into what might be the underlying issue.
“The team from Mexico doesn’t know what they’re doing.”
That wasn’t true, but it was the first thought that came to mind. The project was to transform our primary operation and billing system to meet the legal and business needs in Mexico. It worked for us, so it should work for them with some minor tweaks. We followed agile development principles, made several onsite visits and had gotten nothing but a unanimous “Vamanos” from our colleagues in Mexico. That’s why, after months of work, we were shocked when we had to roll back the project. Upon review, we missed over 40 show-stopper requirements. What went wrong — and why? We realized that what we tried to do was akin to taking a well-read book in English and translating it into Spanish — it misses the mark.
While the usual technical and personality nuances were involved, we quickly recognized a bigger problem in our approach: we didn’t take into account that there may be cultural differences in communication styles or in how members interacted with authority. We took a very American approach with the team. We assumed that everyone knew they were empowered to express disagreements and risks openly, and that activities would follow a plan-do-check-adjust process as we moved along. This was not the norm for our counterparts in Mexico. Since the US team had not solicited their input in a way that aligned to their cultural style, the Mexico-based team did not bring up the many project warning signs they had uncovered.
“We quickly recognized a bigger problem in our approach: we didn’t take into account that there may be cultural differences”
We need to better anticipate how cultural differences affect communication styles closer to home, too. On another project driven by a Chicago-based team, a scrum master asked our Chicago-based South Asian colleagues if we could expand scope and still complete our sprint. After hearing “Vinoth and I will work on that”, everyone assumed the question was answered and shared with senior leadership that we were on track. At the end of the sprint, the team lead was shocked to find out that the work wasn’t completed. Not only that, the entire team eventually realized that it would take three more sprints to get it done. Here again, we didn’t consider the potential significance of cultural differences.
In the US, direct conversations are common. When we hear someone is “working on that”, we assume it will be done and, if issues come up, someone will let us know. Where was the disconnect? Don’t we all want to get the task done and done quickly? In many cultures, there is a higher value placed on relational harmony than on the task. Telling a manager you can’t get something done could result in the loss of the manager’s confidence and jeopardize the relationship. Similarly, bringing up unsolicited issues to the manager may be perceived as insubordination. Could we have done a better job clarifying our understanding of next steps and timelines?
As intercultural communications expert Craig Storti points out in Speaking of India: Bridging the Communication Gap, there are ways to navigate these conversations, but it requires skill and cultural awareness to do so. Just because you can speak a common language doesn’t mean you have the same perspectives or values. Have you ever wondered why someone didn’t speak up in a meeting? Why they’re not responding with the same sense of urgency as you? Cultural backgrounds may be at that heart of those differences.
The Agile Manifesto states that we should value “individuals and interactions over processes and tools”. Think of each individual or interaction on your team as an iceberg: what is underneath the surface influences what we say and do. On the surface, we see only our team member’s behaviors and overt communications; without understanding some of the experiences and values that drive the individual’s perspectives, you may miss a critical piece of the person’s work and communication style. It takes some deep diving to get the whole picture.
Key research indicates a link between culture and communication style. Geert Hofstede, a much-referenced anthropologist and sociologist of culture, published his seminal research¹ on the dimensions of cross-cultural communications, their effect on behavior, and their application in international business. Anuradha Sutharshan, in her graduate research at Edith Cowan University, incorporates Hofstede’s framework to demonstrate how this affects the implementation of agile methodologies across cultures. Sutharshan’s work aligns with the Cultural Intelligence Center’s research and Hofstede’s¹ framework to link how key cultural values and dimensions impact the effective application of agile principles.
As one example of how dominant cultural values influence teams, let’s look at how Relationship to Authority (also known as the Power Distance Index, or PDI) aligns to agile principles. To interpret the PDI, the higher the index number, the higher the deference to authority. The lower the index, the greater the emphasis on equality among individuals and a greater willingness to expressing one’s own opinions.
Based on this graphic, one may generalize that individuals in the US are more comfortable engaging with other team members as equals, whereas individuals in India and Mexico focus more on obtaining direction or approval from leadership. A deference to leadership may increase complexity and time for decision making which is counter to agile principles. This doesn’t mean high PDI countries are unable to work within an agile framework — it just means consideration of cultural styles needs to be built into the agile transformation process.
“Culture is not just dictated by what country issues your passport.”
You may be saying to yourself, “We don’t work internationally, so that’s not really a factor.” While geographic cultural distinctions were noted in the examples above, challenges arise even in teams from the same location and department. Culture is not just dictated by what country issues your passport. It is much broader than that. Departments have “cultures” which drive their values (e.g., Finance — ROI, fiscal responsibility; Operations — process efficiency; IT — data integrity/integration). Generational perspectives influence communication preferences or work style (e.g., email, phone, instant messaging; traditional waterfall or agile project framework). Competing values and styles in our examples reduced productivity and suboptimized outcomes. We’ll examine other cultural factors in a subsequent post.
So where do you go from here? First, recognize that culture may be a factor. Start asking questions, pick up a book, or spend extended time being part of a group with which you’re not in sync. Dig into the culture to understand those values affecting your project. Second, if you notice your teams are comprised of members from different corporate, department, ethnic, or geographic cultures, consider using a cultural assessment tool such as the Cultural Intelligence (CQ) Assessment to learn how well your team is at engaging across cultural differences.
Karl Ostroski is a Consultant in Slalom’s Business Advisory Service practice and is based in Chicago. He’s been delivering successful IT changes around the world for over a decade. Certified in Scrum, SAFe, and CQ, Karl loves helping cross-cultural teams drive success. Follow him on Twitter: @karlostroski
Alice Leong is a Consultant in Slalom’s Business Advisory Service practice and is based in Chicago. She has extensive experience establishing and leading cultural transformation initiatives for global companies across different industries. Her focus is on coaching companies to leverage the power of diverse teams across their organizations.
¹Hofstede, Geert. (1991). Cultures and Organizations: Software of the Mind. London, UK: McGraw-Hill