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Questioning if Agile Works in Asia

| by Savita Pahuja Follow 3 Followers on Jun 24, 2016. Estimated reading time: 5 minutes |

A number of commentators have asserted that Agile and/or Scrum does not work effectively in some Asian cultures.   The counter argument is also well represented in the blog-sphere.  This article presents both points of view. 

Is Agile/Scrum Counter to the Asian Mindset?

Joshua Partogi, Professional Scrum Trainer at scrum.org, recently wrote an article on Scrum does not work in Asia. He claims that most banks in Asia have not gone full-throttle with agility.

Partogi gives reasons why Scrum and agility do not work in Asia. He asserts that the major reason why Scrum does not work to the fullest in Asia is because most Asians are comfortable in the presence of a hierarchy in which they know their position and the customs/rules for behavior in the situation.

People expect to be told what to do and people want to tell other people what to do because that is how a system that is in order works.

He states that Asians tend to avoid conflicts in order to maintain harmony with their peers, which impacts the way agile teams in Asia run their sprint planning, sprint review, sprint retrospectives, and daily scrum. According to Partogi, people tend to hold back their opinions because they are not accustomed to a safe environment in which to they may make mistakes.

Claudio Caballero, CTO at Goodwill Group Foundation, suggests that one reason may be the difficulty in telling hard truths in Asian culture, in his blog on Agile adoption in Asia faces tough obstacles.

Agile requires an ability to tell hard truths to those controlling the purse strings, which is decidedly difficult in Asian cultures that place a much higher premium on deference, respect, and "saving face" than is the case in the western cultures where agile techniques were pioneered.

Ken Schwaber, Co-Founder of Scrum and Head Of scrum.org, mentions culture barriers in promoting the idea of Scrum in China on his blog. He says that people who expect predictability face problems in an agile environment.

People who are culturally attuned to predictability want to believe that they can predict the future. Their job is then to cause the future to come true by forcing the people and resources to make it happen. People who use Scrum have learned that predictability is impossible when complex, creative work like software development is done. The results are terrible: bad software, missed schedules, wasted money, and demoralized workers.

Partogi says that the Asian education system also impacts the way people think and behave in the work environment.

The Asian education system is all about high grades and ranks, not about experimenting, self- discovery and making mistakes, which is what Agility is all about.

Partogi says that because of the outsourcing model in Asia, organizations try to reduce development cost by using Agile, but Agility demands great team members who most often are not cheap. He feels that Scrum will be challenged in Asia as long as people still think that transitioning into Agility is cheap. 

The Counter Argument - Agile is Not Easy, Anywhere

John Okoro of the Auspicious Agile blog published a post titled "An Optimistic View of Agile Adoption in Asia" in which he explores many of the same arguments made by Partogi and comes to a very different conclusion.  He starts by making the point that Asia is not monocultural:

It is important to remember that Asia is not monolithic or homogeneous. China is different from ASEAN, India, Japan, and Korea. Countries in ASEAN differ, Singapore is not the same culturally as Thailand or Indonesia. To look at Asia as one monolithic place is not an accurate or informed view.

Researcher Geert Hofstede provides a tool for exploring different aspects of national culture in his Cultural Dimensions country comparison tool.  Hofstede makes the point that the cultural dimensions are broad generalisations and that within countries there will be vast differences in organisation, team and individual cultural aspects. 

Okoro goes on to tackle the percieved education system bias.  He says:

My wife, a teacher by training in the US, came to Singapore on a Fulbright Fellowship to study the education System. One of her findings was that even though in past generations the education system was very focused on grades and rank, that there is more of a move now towards creative thinking and creative problem solving in the schools. 

The overall trend in Asia is toward greater creativity and innovation. This also follows from ancient culture and history in Asia. In China much innovation originated including: gun powder, the compass, paper, and golf among many.

He also talks about the perception of outsourcing as a cheap alternative and the dangers of cookie-cutter agile adoption, irrespective of where it is being undertaken:

From experience in the US market I know that it is true that low cost, low effort transitions to Agile are often attempted by simply training Project Managers and developers on Scrum, and changing little else in the organization. 

On a similar note, Bob Gower posted about his experiences at the Agile Singapore conterence:

Conference participants were overwhelmingly from larger companies. Far from the counterculture, startup-heavy Agile of 10 years ago, these participants were well-read in Lean and Agile principles and had a strong interest in large, scaled systems right out of the gate. Everyone I talked to seemed knowledgeable, curious, and compelled by the business importance of changing how things are done.
 
In conversations with presenters and participants alike I heard people recognize that other markets are generally ahead of the Asian market; but this doesn't mean we can predict where the next few years will take us. Our ability to look back on where the U.S. and European markets have been doesn't necessarily give us predictive ability in Asia. Consider, for example, the spread of cell phone technology, where later entrants into the market were able to leap over the early adopters.

He concludes by pointing out the size and scope of the Asian market, and the focus on scale:

The Singapore Government is investing $1.2 billion in “key areas of technology development to drive improvements within the public sector,” with Agile development as one of those key areas. I suspect that when it comes to applying Agile at scale -- and scale is the only thing that seems to matter to the Asian markets -- companies in Singapore, India, China, and Japan will leapfrog over their U.S. counterparts in coming years.
 
An indication of the extent of interest and adoption of Agile in Asia is the number of conferences and events which are held in the region every year.  A small sample includes:
 
EDITOR'S NOTE: This post has been updated to provide alternate viewpoints and explore the topic from different dimensions. 

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facile generalization by Michael McKechnie

I tend to doubt anyone who says “agile does not work with x” because it suggests the writer does not understand that agility is about principles, not practices. You can apply the principle, or not, but saying (for example) that “honesty doesn’t work” is really a different way of saying “I am not operating in an environment of honesty.”

Same statement applies to “scrum does not work”, unless it’s a statement about an environment where it is genuinely impossible to batch requirements and deliver them to production in 4 weeks or less. A tree farm, for example, would not be able to apply scrum to tree production.

Beyond that, the statements in the article suggest naivety about culture. Yes, hierarchy is relatively more important in Asia than the US (though not more than Germany, for example) – but there are a lot more hierarchies than the one we see from an org chart, and those hierarchies all impact how people deal with each other. Add to that the fact that the majority of staff I’ve run across in Thailand (for example) have been schooled in the US or UK and adopted a lot of foreign cultural values, and I have trouble believing that Asia is a monoculture with a single set of values.

The article quotes Ken Schwaber, but Ken's comment doesn't say anything about Asia - Ken speaks about culture in general, and he's quite right.

There are lots of other points to make, but here is a key one:

Lean manufacturing was developed by Japanese people working in Japan. Lean thinking inspired the signatories of the Agile Manifesto. Toyota's success in the marketplace suggests that they got a few things right.

So, I have to call bull on anyone who says agile can’t work in Asia. I agree completely that culture can be a barrier to agility, when the principles and values of that culture conflict with the principles and values of Agile.

the author says agile but only talks about scrum by John Broderick

there's a lot more to agile than scrum, and reading the agile manifesto would make me think that scrum is not really as agile as portrayed

www.agilemanifesto.org/

Wow so incredibly racist by Arnav Desai

First of all lumping almost 2.5 billion people as asians is so blindingly stupid that the whole article itself make me want to stop reading. While it would be silly to expect a similarity in culture between regions , its equally stupid to expect similarity in Asia itself. China, India the two most populouse nations are extremely unique having incredible diverse cultures within their boundaries. Also, asians are people just like any other region and can change and adapt to any methodologies. To make sweeping judgements is silly and does not help further required change.

Re: Wow so incredibly racist by Jeff Hain

When you try to discuss general tendencies, you can't avoid doing averages and approximations.
The point is whether the approximations are relevant enough.
As Paul Valéry said:
"What is simple [averages, etc.] is false, what is complicated [the truth] is unusable."

That said I agree with you about diversity in Asia.
Long time ago I did read a memoir by an asian author, and at some point in it there was
a table with a cultural trait per column, a country per row, and a number of stars
per cell.
I still remember how strikingly appropriate the various amounts of starts were appearing
to me, even though I only ever had vague feelings about the considerations at hand.
Unfortunately I forgot both the name of the book and who the author was.

Also making approximations related to cultural traits doesn't imply believing that
people's culture define them more than their own personality, or being blind to the fact
that you can feel much closer to someone who lived thousand years ago on the other side
of the Earth than to your fellow citizens.
To end with another french author, Montaigne:
"There is more difference from a given man to a given man than from a given animal to a given man."

All I can do is laugh by Tiger Wang

Software and Internet companies in China have never been so agile than ever...org is divided into different self-org teams to compete for the same product goal, and engineers are forced to be agile or they will fail...Did the author ever worked in China before?

Strange idea by Asad Safari

It's really strange for me why infoq published this kind of personal experience as a fact.
Your reference is an "Indonesian" guy, That I think He don't have enough experience on Agile methods and he is just a trainer.
If you don't have good experience, you can't say that anybody can't do it. It's your personal idea. You should say, "I think", "In my opinion".

If you know, roots of all Agile/Lean methods are from Japan. You can see good experiences in India, We have good case studies in Iran.

You can't assume that your own city or Indonesia is Asia :):)

Fact vs racism by Rajesh Waran

Goos post. And it's true from my experience that IT corporates are not comfortable with agile as their hierarchies are the bottle neck. I agree people are agile and can be flexible in terms of making shift, but only when asked or order by peers. And education system was classics example which I also agree partially as we always focus to be very text book oriented and never think beyond. And since the culture in Asia especially in india is more depended. Most of them are in the comfort zone. And people would not like to take chance or deviate from routine.

Its is about courage and boldness to take the ownership to be successful in agile.

Scrum ia just a playground where we need skilled layers to play the game.

Totally disagree by steve zhang

Agile does only matter with culture, not with geography. I had a bad experience of doing Scrum in Telus - A Canadian company: the experience was so bad, the manager tried to enforce hierarchy above the Scrum team - which was not Scrum at all! Does it mean Scrum not work in Telus or Canada?

There is a much better talk on this subject by Mak Steven

It's such a shame that even InfoQ editors do not aware of some previous good content under InfoQ.com. It's a talk in 2010. The speaker has some working experience in China and also interviewed several people as preparation of the talk. There's a lot more depth in this talk than such personal experience by a mere "trainer".

Despite the webpage is mostly in Chinese, the talk and the slide are in English.

www.infoq.com/cn/presentations/bas_scrum_china

TL;DR; - Asia is not that bad in this aspect.

Re: There is a much better talk on this subject by Manuel Pais

Do you know how many news, articles and presentations are posted on InfoQ per month, let alone per year?

Re: There is a much better talk on this subject by Mak Steven

That's why some good ones deserve more mentions.

Re: There is a much better talk on this subject by Manuel Pais

That's why it's impossible to keep track of all items posted in a single month, much less those posted 6 years ago.

Re: There is a much better talk on this subject by Mak Steven

If you still have time, watch some good ones then.

It does provide both argument and counter-argument by Kulawat Wongsaroj

I think it is a pretty fair article. I am an Asian Agile Coach and I had the very same question when I first learned about Agile. Henrik Kniberg gave a talk in one of a small Agile meetup in Bangkok about Culture and there was once sentenced that I remembered ... every culture has a sub-culture. Most of the time, we have to deal with organization culture rather than the national culture.

If you have been in the journey long enough, you will understand that it is all about humanization and, after all, we are human, despite the color of our skins.

Btw, in Thailand, we have been having 2 annual Agile conferences per years for the last 5 years.

Agile Thailand - www.facebook.com/AGTH66/
Agile Tour Bankok - www.facebook.com/agiletourbkk/

Come join us!

Re: facile generalization by Joshua Partogi

Before calling someone bull, please learn how to read. I wrote Scrum does not work in Asia NOT Agile can't work in Asia. In English both phrase literally have a different meaning.

Yes in the beginning of the article I did wrote that the article was an over-generalisation of Asian culture, the more specific reasons for every country are not written in the article for the sake of my safety so I won't go to jail.

How many companies in Japan actually do Lean? Even Toyota have challenges inspiring other Japanese companies to be Lean.

Re: Wow so incredibly racist by Joshua Partogi

Do you even know what "racist" mean? Go check up the dictionary before using a word you don't understand what it means. Where in the article I was being racist?

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