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Agile around The World - A Journey of Discovery

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Key Takeaways

  • Many misunderstandings arise due to clashes in culture
  • The adoption of Agile requires a culture shift
  • Awareness of different cultural types, behaviours and communication styles can help facilitators and teams develop strategies for better performance
  • The concept of “pop-up” teams, teams that are kept together and moved on to the next project to work as a unit, is an emerging model
  • Multi-cultural teams can reach high performing states if they go beyond tolerating and smoothing over their differences, to acknowledging their diversity and finding ways to better integrate with one another


People in different parts of the world exhibit behaviours that can either fit with agile or be an impediment. David Spinks and Glaudia Califano are travelling the world to explore how national cultures impact agile adoption.

On their journey, they found many cultural subtleties. For example, they discovered that in South America, building relationships for long term mutual benefit is a core belief. They compared this to the likes of the US and the UK, where immediate profit is seen as important. These beliefs have a big impact on the dynamics of the relationship between vendor development teams and client product owners.

Another example from their journey is that in Asian cultures, decision making is more consensus-driven, so a big cultural shift is required for embracing the product owner as the single decision-maker.

One of the things Spinks and Califano learned on their journey is that context is key. Just because one set of practices and techniques worked for one team does not mean it can be successful elsewhere. For them, their journey has reinforced the importance of continuous learning and building a broad set of tools and options that can be tried in different contexts.

David Spinks and Glaudia Califano, agile trainers and coaches, will give a presentation about agile around the world at the Agile Greece Summit 2019. InfoQ interviewed them about how culture impacts agile adoption, dealing with differences in communication style, the advantages and challenges of pop-up teams, and establishing multicultural teams.

InfoQ: What made you decide to start traveling around the world to visit companies that are using agile ways of working?

Glaudia Califano: Born and raised in the Netherlands in a Dutch/Italian family, and now living and working in the UK, I really noticed cultural differences in my day-to-day life. In 2013 I took a break from my Scrum Master role in the UK and went to Peru for half a year to teach English and work in a kindergarten once a week.  Working in Peru and living with a local family exposed me again to working in a different culture. Family in particular is a very important concept to Peruvians, and I noticed how they tend to place the needs of family before the needs of the individual. Relationship building is important and often based on trust. I remember my first day working at the kindergarten; when the break came, all of the toddlers ran out of the classroom and into the market. I was horrified at the thought of all the dangers those kids might be exposed to. I was quickly reassured though; the families were all working in the market and they would all keep an eye on each others’ children. I felt there was a high sense of community and shared social responsibility. I could not shake off the thought that these cultural behaviours I experienced while in Peru fit well with the Agile mindset and values. This sparked the idea to do more research.

David Spinks: Like Glaudia, as well as being a passionate Agilist, I am also a keen traveller. Glaudia and I met whilst working as Scrum Masters at the same company. She told me about her idea, and we went on to have discussions about how people in different parts of the world exhibited behaviours that seemed to be either a good fit or an impediment to Agile ways of working. For example, Latino people are very relationship-driven and open. In comparison, people in Asia tend to be more reserved.

Although we found some studies in this area, we couldn't find anyone who had gone out and had direct conversations and made observations in the field. So we decided that we would have a look ourselves, beginning a journey to answer the question, "How does national culture impact Agile adoption?"

InfoQ: How does culture impact agile adoption?

Spinks: First let's talk about what we mean by culture. Culture is made up of many factors. As well as nationality, our profession, age, gender, political beliefs, and socioeconomic background, many other things contribute to our culture as individuals. Additionally, organisations form their own company culture. The way humans behave and interact is a result of their culture, and these behaviours inevitably affect how Agile ways of working are implemented in practice.  

Califano: To guide us through our cross-cultural research journey, we leveraged many aspects from the Lewis Model which was created by Richard D. Lewis, a linguist and cross-cultural expert. It is based on data drawn from 50,000 executives taking residential courses, and more than 150,000 online questionnaires from 68 different nationalities. Additionally, Lewis lived and worked in a multitude of different countries during his career. He identified the following three distinct categories, based not on nationality or religion, but on behaviour:

Linear-active: task-oriented, highly-organised planners, who complete action chains by doing one thing at a time, preferably in accordance with a linear agenda.

Multi-active: emotional, loquacious and impulsive people who attach great importance to family, feelings, relationships and people in general. They are comfortable doing many things at the same time and are poor followers of strict agendas.

Reactive: good listeners, who rarely initiate action or discussion, preferring first to listen to, and establish, the other’s position, then react to it and form their own opinion.

It is important to note that the Lewis Model is relative - people in different cultures will show a mixture of behaviour of the three types; it's just a question of how dominant each are. Applied on a national scale, North European countries and the USA are strongly linear-active, Latino countries like Spain, Italy and those in South America are very multi-active, while countries in the far east such as Japan, Vietnam and China are highly reactive. The model is a living artefact and is regularly updated as the global landscape changes.

We did see common challenges and patterns all over the world. We did however also observe differences between the cultural types that Lewis describes. A few examples: the companies and teams we visited in Argentina seemed comfortable with experimenting and they really embraced the Agile value of customer collaboration over contract negotiation. Teams were not afraid to come up with ideas, but extra attention was needed to ensure focus.

In the UK we do have a legacy of "Tayloristic" management practices. To empower teams, this approach has to be unlearnt for Agile to work as intended, and this can be a challenge. The UK is also one of the most "individualistic" countries, where people like to work in their own specialism and tend to be focused on their own career progression. This does make collaboration more of a challenge. In parts of Asia, we saw high collaboration in teams. In Japan, mob programing is used, employees are very loyal to their company, and staff do not switch companies often. In reactive cultures, it is very important not to lose face. Reputation is key, which can make experimenting and incremental delivery scary.

Spinks: We also discovered that economic factors can have an impact. I'm convinced that some companies are so rich that they have become complacent; there is no urgency to change and waste is tolerated. They can only get away with that for so long. In developing countries, and in smaller companies, they have to be leaner and adaptable to changing conditions.

On a people level, when we are talking about developing countries, people have families to support with little welfare state as a safety net. Fear of failure and its repercussions play a big part in behaviour in many places.

InfoQ: What are the main differences in communication styles that you have seen in different cultures? How can we deal with those differences?

Spinks: Being British, I never appreciated the impact of our use of coded speech. For example, we say things like "Hmm, interesting...," while really implying, "It’s a stupid idea". Or, "I'll get back to you on that," when of course we have no intention of doing so. Coming from another culture, Glaudia is much more used to people speaking their mind and saying what they mean. And then you have a culture like the Japanese, where a lot of communication is non-verbal, through body language and by what is not said.

The first step in dealing with these differences is building understanding. We may look at other people and think them eccentric or difficult because their communication style is different to our own. But if we build understanding, then we can better empathise with one another and learn to communicate better with each other.

Califano: In certain cultures, people's social and professional lives are very much intertwined. This has an impact on communication styles and also communication methods. For example, in certain parts of South America we saw that people prefer face-to-face communication. Even when companies offered their employees the option to work from home, they still wanted to come into the office. They feel like their colleagues are part of their "family". In the more "individualistic" and fact-based countries, where social and professional lives are kept separate, people have less of a problem sharing their opinions with their colleagues. In cultures where personal and professional lines are more blurred, emotions are handled with more care. People do not want to hurt their friends and "family", so this can impact retrospective discussions, for example.

Spinks: Being aware of this sensitivity allows facilitators to tailor the format of their retrospectives, for example, the use of metaphors, gathering data anonymously, or exercises that focus on facts of something that happened while avoiding emotions. In another example, we met a Scrum Master from the Philippines who had moved to Japan, a culture where emotions are very much hidden. She first used the Glad, Mad, Sad retrospective format with disastrous consequences, as her team was so uncomfortable using emotive language and would not open up. She realised her mistake, and ran Start, Stop, Continue the next time which led to much more open discussions.

InfoQ: How does the concept of pop-up teams work? What are the advantages and challenges that come with them?

Spinks: In Agile, we promote stability of teams. Teams that stay together for significant periods of time have more of a chance to learn how to gel with each other, learn where each others’ strengths and weaknesses are, and reach higher performing states. In reality though - and it is certainly my experience in companies - teams get broken up and team members are moved around as projects end and demands change. The "pop-up team" concept is to keep a team together as long as possible, and move them on together as a single unit. So when a project or client engagement ends, rather than break up the team, keep them together and move them on to the next project together.  

I can see that the main challenge is finding the right individuals who are not only highly skilled and willing to continuously learn, but will also fit well together, and have the right balance to tackle anything they are thrown into.

Califano: It's interesting that we have seen the concept of pop-up teams emerge independently in different parts of the world. We saw different companies in Singapore and in the UK adopting this model, for example. The advantage of pop-up teams is that they can hit the ground running, they know what they are capable of, and don't have to go through the forming stage that occurs when new teams come together and have to work out how they can effectively work together.

We heard that there is such a shortage of talented people in all parts of the world that actually finding people and incentivising them in such a way that they stay with the same company is a challenge. It is probably more challenging in some cultures, for example those that are more "individualistic" in nature, as I talked about earlier.

InfoQ: What does it take to establish a multicultural team?

Califano: To answer this question I have to give a bit of background first. Cultural differences give us the greatest potential for creating value. They widen our perspective, and affect how we collectively notice, how we interpret things, how we make decisions, and how we execute our ideas. Multicultural teams’ broad perspective gives us a wealth of material to create innovative approaches and overcome complex challenges.

However, research shows that in many cases, multicultural teams perform worse than homogeneous teams, and in some cases they outperform homogenous teams. Joseph J DiStefano and Martha L.Maznevski carried out research to determine what distinguished the poor performers from the high performers. In their paper "Creating Value with Diverse Teams in Global Management" published in 2000, they came to the conclusion that multicultural teams come in three models.

The Destroyers: Multicultural teams with low trust, negative cultural stereotyping, and where "team" decisions are made by the manager or a formal leader without genuine discussion among the team members. Result: Low performance.

The Equalisers: Teams consider themselves to be doing well, however, these teams suppress the cultural differences in order to smooth processes, and in turn suppress their differences in ideas and perspectives. Result: Mediocracy.

The Creators: Teams that explicitly recognise, accept and nurture their cultural differences and incorporate these into every facet of their team process. Team members respect the skills of the other members. Result: Teams creating high value products to market fast.

In order to establish a team like the "Creators," the key is not in the makeup or technical skills of the team, but rather how they understand, incorporate and leverage their differences.

Spinks: For me, this is all about building understanding and empathy.

In their paper, DiStefano and Martha L.Maznevski talk about using the three principles of "Mapping", "Bridging" and "Integrating" to create high value successful multicultural "Creator" teams. Teams objectively acknowledge their differences and the impact that they have. By deliberately mapping these differences, the team develops an understanding and appreciation for how those differences affect their teamwork. Next, teams find ways to bridge communication gaps in ways that explicitly take the differences into account. Finally, during integration, teams build on these ideas to manage participation and resolve their disagreements. For example, someone on the team may be from a culture where it is unusual to speak out, and is used to deferring to those of authority. They may be uncomfortable being asked to be open and saying what they think in Sprint Retrospectives or Sprint Planning events, for example. Collecting input anonymously or allowing people to discuss in pairs could be the sort of adaptation needed in this case.

All of this is with the shared goal of improving collaboration in order for the team to deliver the most valuable and high quality solutions possible.

InfoQ: What have you learned from your agile journey?

Califano: I have been amazed at how generous companies have been in opening their doors to us. By coincidence we started in Argentina at the same time that the board members of the Agile Alliance all decided to come to Buenos Aires for a breakfast meetup. We were allowed to join and we met so many great people. The first company that invited us to visit them was 10 Pines in Buenos Aires, known as "la empresa sin jefes" - the company without managers. That first visit seeing true self-management made a lasting impression on me, and set the scene for the rest of our travels.

Spinks: We learned so much on our journey from all of the cool stuff that Agile teams around the world are doing, from organisations practicing Holacracy, to those using Lean Change Management techniques. There is a wealth of knowledge and experience out there, and there is so much that the global community has to share and learn from each other.

Finally, we recognise that adopting Agile methods is a culture shift itself, and it is hard whatever the national culture, but by removing cultural barriers and implementing cultural adaptations, it can be successful everywhere.


About the Interviewees

Glaudia Califano works with teams in various capacities, from facilitating workshops to getting deeply involved "in the trenches" with teams. This includes providing organisations with guidance on Agile practices, methods, frameworks and tools, to successfully engaging people across the board. Over the years, she has acquired knowledge and experience across the Agile spectrum. Califano is a professional Scrum trainer (, ICAgile authorized instructor, accredited Kanban trainer (AKT), certified DevOps trainer (DOI), a certified facilitator of LEGO® Serious Play®, and a cross-cultural trainer of the Lewis Model.

David Spinks' professional experience spans the roles of: Agile trainer, Agile coach, Scrum Master, Kanban service delivery manager, team leader and software developer in a variety of industries, including finance, eCommerce, social housing and education. He is a professional Scrum trainer with, an accredited Kanban trainer with Lean Kanban University, and an ICAgile authorized instructor.




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