Do self-organising teams work well in all cultures? – PolyU student question

One of the questions asked by PolyU students is:

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My personal experience with different cultures in combination with Agile is limited. I’ve worked in Agile context with Dutch, Serbs, British, Americans, Australians and Hongkongers. Through collaboration with Agile people from many more cultures, I have learned about their challenges.

It seems that culture plays much less of a role than we often think. Certainly, in cultures with rigid hierarchy, there are number of specific challenges to be aware of and which might make things a bit more difficult.

For example, in order to get feedback from teammates in Scandinavian countries or Netherlands, it is enough to ask a question like: “Please tell me, one by one, how last 3 weeks felt to you.”. In those countries, it is important to add: “and please, keep it within 3 minutes per person”. Otherwise, there is a chance meeting will take too much time causing all kinds of discussions. In Hong Kong, on other hand, effect of this question is usually that team members don’t really know what is expected, or don’t feel encouraged to give honest opinion in front of everyone. The meeting will likely result in an awkward silence.

We often play games in order to experience what Agile is. In some of these games, participants – girls and men – hold their hands, sometimes in awkward positions. You can image that this is unacceptable in certain countries.

Still, these challenges are easily solved. The people who facilitate this process, only need to be aware of these differences and figure out practical solutions to each of them. In above case with Hong Kong, it works much better if everyone is requested to place their feeling on paper or some scale, like Happiness Metric. This is a good stepping stone for starting an open discussion.

Embracing self-organisation is a lot about letting go of many things we take for granted. One of these is the power and privileges of managers. This one seems to be a bigger challenge in Asian countries than Scandinavian countries. But, other things are quite the opposite. E.g. Agile is all about never-ending learning process for everyone involved. Hongkongers are really eager to learn new things and change is part of their existence, while Dutch are often eager in having and stating opinions before properly acquiring knowledge about the subject. Also, managing constantly changing company is often considered as chaos and something bad.

So, rigid hierarchical structures are still less of a problem compared to a whole set more difficult challenges, which have very little to do with specific cultures. These are the biggest challenges I come across:

  • Official and unofficial titles, power and careers people have. When introducing Agile, these are largely broken down, which is often unacceptable for people who spent many years to achieve certain levels. It might surprise you that people without managers’ title have more difficulty accepting this.
  • Exposing real capabilities and personality of every team member. Some can’t handle this and leave their team. In this case, managers who don’t directly contribute in value stream are most vulnerable.
  • Having a clear goal, feeling proud in achieving this goal as a team. Too often, the goal is unclear, too far in future or not worth spending 40 hours or more every week for a long time.
  • Treating people as resources. In any country, managers are still calling their workers resources. This is a really bad and old-fashioned practice and should be stopped as soon as possible.
  • Achieving brutal honesty can be very difficult. If not achieved, people will keep speaking behind the backs or withhold crucial information. This can become a big problem for a team or an organisation. Honesty and transparency are two of the pillars Agile depends on heavily.

Most of cultural challenges and differences are solved by creating open, honest, respectful and trustful environment. Once people feel this, they usually lower their walls defined by their cultural preconditioning.

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