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InfoQ Homepage News Making Agile Software Development Work for Multicultural Teams

Making Agile Software Development Work for Multicultural Teams

While equality provides team members with the same opportunities and allowances, equity is about creating an environment where individual and unique needs can be met. According to ElMohanned Mohamed, communication in multicultural teams should be precise and clear with low dependence on the context. He gave a talk about agile and cultural diversity at XP Conference.

Agile has originated and primarily evolved in a Western cultural context, Mohamed said. Although it promotes a fairness equal opportunity paradigm, agile practices can be at odds with norms and behaviours that are rooted in non-western cultures, he added.

Mohamed referred to the Business Agility Institute study Reimagining Agility with Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion which states that:

Many agile practices, processes, and rituals are built to suit the majority, which excludes team members with diverse attributes.

Agile ways of working are not consciously designed to create, encourage, or support diverse and inclusive teams

Equality describes systems and situations where every team member is provided with the same opportunities and allowances, without accounting for individual circumstances, Mohamed explained:

It is a common practice to bring the whole team into one room and ask them to share their thoughts, ideas, and feedback. This is viewed as an act of giving everyone an equal opportunity and this is correct in a sense.

Equity in an organisational context refers to the creation of an environment where the individual and unique needs of every team member are met, allowing all to reach equal levels of success, as he explained:

A more equitable approach would be to find a way to allow everyone to share their feedback, for instance, through anonymous ideation and voting.

Agile puts people first, Mohamed said. The first value of the agile manifesto emphasises the value of "Individuals and interactions over processes and tools". Mohamed mentioned that people from different cultures vary in their attitudes, beliefs, behavioural norms, and basic assumptions of the world, for instance when it comes to team communication.

Some cultures favour implicit high-context communication, Mohamed said. In high-context cultures, good communication is sophisticated and layered. Messages are between the lines and are best understood in terms of the context.

Other cultures prefer low-context communications, Mohamed mentioned. Messages are explicit. Communication is expected to be precise and clear with low dependence on the context.

Mohamed advised to lean towards low context communications when working with multicultural teams. This includes setting clear expectations, social contracts, rules, and ways of working:

If you are a member of a multicultural team, ask yourself: Is communication in my team clear enough? Are we communicating at different levels? Are we asking enough questions to help clarify the context?

InfoQ interviewed ElMohanned Mohamed about agile for multicultural teams.

InfoQ: How might we apply an agile value like communication to multicultural teams?

ElMohanned Mohamed: Going back to the first value of the agile manifesto, agile teams rely heavily on good communication. A difference in context level can impact team effectiveness. A friend of mine, from a high-context culture, felt offended when a colleague asked him to do a specific task and gave him detailed instructions. For him, it was a sign of a lack of confidence. For the other colleague, who came from a low-context culture, it was merely good communication.

The opposite scenario also often causes damage. In one of the teams I worked with, a senior team member was frustrated she had to repeat herself several times. She had just joined a team that is majorly from a low-context communication. She thought people ignored her views. In reality, in many cases, she expected the team to be able to read between the lines. The team on the other hand struggled to understand what she wanted.

InfoQ: How can cultural differences impact agile teams when it comes to giving and receiving feedback?

Mohamed: Some cultures, the Dutch and Germans for example, prefer direct and blunt feedback and even citicism. Others, like the Americans and Australians, prefer to wrap negative feedback with positive messages. On the other end of the spectrum, for Arabs and Asians, direct negative feedback in public can be considered rude. Saving face is important in many cultures and criticising a person or their work in public can be very embarrassing.

One can imagine how a regular agile practice like a sprint review can easily go out of hand, especially if it is a newly formed team. I remember how an Egyptian friend was shocked by the feedback received from his Western client in the first sprint review. Receiving direct feedback was something he was not used to. Working as a remote team probably made things even worse.

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