Are we made to be Agile?

by | Feb 5, 2019 | Business Approaches & Methods, Post

The expectations of lean working practices and the agile ones derived from it are high. Everybody would like to achieve the efficiency and effectivity gains as Toyota managed to achieve after inventing their new way of working. The reality appears to be harder than expected. Negative experiences with these methods make us do believe they are not for us, but is that really true? Why only a few seem to profit? Recently, I read “The Culture Map” and I started realizing it has to do with our different cultural backgrounds. Just copying practices will not work and we might even not be ready for it. 

Cultural differences matter!

If you are working across multiple cultures it is worth reading the The Culture Map” by Erin Meyer to better understand why your colleague or business partner in another country reacts differently than you would expect. It describes a few concepts that show how we differ based on our cultural backgrounds and provides you with useful workarounds. 

What’s your point of view? Specific vs Holistic

While analysing the concept of a specific versus a holistic approachthe following thoughts and potential learnings for our own international cooperations came to my mind.

Erin Meyer claims that Western people approach situations in a specific way, meaning they isolate things from their context (from micro to macro), whereas East Asians will approach a situation more holistic (from macro to micro). Therefore, towards a Western team member you need to give instructions focussing on what that person needs to accomplish and when. Conversely, if you need to motivate, manage, or persuade someone from a holistic culture, spend time explaining the big picture and how all the pieces slot together.

What do you see in this picture?

Lean as the source

Agile working, with Scrum being one of the most popular methods, is to a high extend derived from the Toyota Lean way of working, invented in Japan. Therefore, it is more of a holistic approach.

“Most people implementing Scrum are not Lean, much less a Takeuchi and Nonaka Scrum, and that causes them not to have working software at the end of a sprint. Thus they are Agile “in name only,” not meeting the second value in the Agile Manifesto.”

Jeff Sutherland in a comment on the article “Is Agile a subset of lean manufacturing?

It might be a too radical shortcut, but could we conclude it is therefore potentially less suitable for Western teams? They will initially have a more individual and task oriented approach than East Asians who would need to understand the context first, before they can share tasks as a self managing team in an efficient way. 

Western clients are specific as well

When new clients approach us, they mostly do this with a very specific request, without providing too much context. We have learned over the years that we need to discuss the context to really support our clients best. It is hardly possible to deliver a satisfactory solution when you do not understand the full “picture”.

In my opinion, this could be one of the causes why too often cross-boarder cooperation leads to misunderstandings and results in dissatisfaction.

People don’t like change

This was quite an eye-opener to me and I think it explains why many Western companies struggle with implementing Scrum and building self managing teams. Many team members will not be aware that a different approach towards work is being expected from them. After years of socialization based on the existing norms, values and habits around them, they now face the need to change.

To work as a team in an efficient and effective way, understanding the context is essential to be able to take responsibility. At least that is a conclusion in Erin Meyer’s book and I feel this is a key factor indeed. Without understanding of the context it is almost impossible to provide the right solution.

Therefore, you might have to unlearn existing behaviour if your basic approach is a “specific” one. For sure this will feel scary in the beginning, because you will have to leave your comfort zone. On the other hand I feel it might seem harder than it is. Just start with asking yourself more frequently why things are like they are and why you plan to do a certain thing. Discuss with your team what is the aim for this week and what value together you aim to deliver, apart from discussing, estimating and planning the individual tasks. Ask your client, product owner or business representative why they want something, etc.

We better get this straight to prevent issues like in this movie, presented in a hilarious way.


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