Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Unspoken Cultural differences in Agile & Scrum

For a while now I’ve been convinced that a lot of “Agile” is about cultural differences. In particular I believe the canonical version of Scrum, which I often refer to as Hard Core Scrum or Scrum™ is rooted in 1990’s American software management culture.

Unfortunately the role of culture behind many Agile techniques and methods isn’t really stated. This make it even more important to work out what Agile means to you and which tools work in your environment and culture.

I first started paying attention to the cultural differences around teams and Agile after Steve Freeman said something along the lines of “Scandinavian teams just do this, they don’t see much new.” The teams I’ve seen in Scandinavia, and to a lesser degree Holland and the UK, don’t need big lectures in self-organization, left to themselves they do most of it.

I’ve pondered on this for some time and at Agile Cambridge last month I got the chance to talk a little about this with Dave Snowden. We only had a few minutes to talk about this - I was about to present - but it was clear we could have talked for hours.

Take stand-up meetings for example.

When I worked in Silicon Valley I worked in a cube. I hated it. I didn’t even know if my neighbours were in the office, let alone what they were working on or if they had achieved anything that say.

Working in the UK, in open plan offices, usually sitting opposite my co-workers we would certainly know who was in, most likely they would tell me when they had done something.

I believe that stand-up meetings are a good thing in all teams. However I believe they make a much bigger difference in cube and office dwelling environments than in open plan offices. In other words: stand-up meetings have greater benefit in US offices than they do in European offices.

In the original book of Extreme Programming Kent Beck talked of a “sustainable pace” and “40 hour work week”. Beck talks about his experience in Switzerland and contrasts it with the US norm. Although European workers - particularly in the UK - frequently work more than the 40, 37.5 or 35 hours they are contracted for they work hours don’t get excessive for too long. I’m not sure that is the same in the US. Sustainable pace means different things.

Personally I’ve always found “sustainable pace” does not fit well with the Scrum idea of “commitment”. I’ve written before - Two Ways to Fill an Iteration - about the contractions I see. Culturally it isn’t hard to see how “sustainable pace” is easier to do in Europe than the US.

(By the way, I’m limiting myself to the US and European, specifically UK, cultures because these are the ones I have some experience of.)

Now lets talk about the big one: Self-Organizing teams and evil managers.

(Apologies if this comes across as Scrum bashing, I believe Scrum works, or at least Scrum-lite works, and I believe self-organization is best. I just don’t believe hype.)

Some Scrum courses and advocates make a big thing out of self-organization. Personally I don’t. In my courses I I talk about it a little, more if people want to, but I focus on giving people experience of how it works. My style of Agile - yes I’m slowly writing up Xanpan - believes that self-organization is the result of the right approach not a stating point.

Self-organization goes hand-in-hand with an attack on Managers, and in particular Project Managers. Again this theme runs through all Agile but in Scrum is particularly strong. Hard-core Scrum really has it in for Project Managers but then replaces them with Scrum Masters which most companies think is just the same job with a different name. I’ve written about Scrum’s contradictions with Project Managers before so I won’t repeat myself, When did Scrum start loving project managers?

But Scrum’s dislike of managers only goes so far. After all, Scrum is the management friendly version of XP - see Scrum has 3 advantages over XP.

Now I’m not a big fan of Project Managers, in my programming days I too suffered a few managers who tried to hand out tasks and impose their way of doing thing. And I’ve been told No when I want to spend a little money - I once threatened to leave the company if they didn’t buy more RAM for my development box.

When I look back over my career I have to say most of the (project) managers who behaved like this made themselves irrelevant. We worked around them. Certainly removing them would have made us more effective.

But, most of my experience is that managers, even project managers, didn’t behave like this. They may not have been the most empowering of people but generally they left me, and programmers I worked with, to get on and do it. We worked out what needed doing, we divided the work up amount ourselves, we scheduled at the micro-level.

In other words: we did self-organization on a day-to-day level.

Again I think there is a cultural difference here. In my experience America is a more hierarchical culture than Europe (with the possible exception of Germany). Please, I’m not talking class systems here, I’m talking command and control.

I think Europeans are more likely to question their managers to their faces - perhaps it was the 1914-18 experience - or just plain ignore them.

National characteristics are not the only basis for culture. Industries have cultures too. Here again I’ve written before: Agile will never work in investment banking - one reason being that investment banks are very hierarchical.

Most of the managers, even project managers, I meet when delivering Agile training courses and consulting, like the Agile approach and want to work with it for the benefit of their teams. Few seems to be the whip-cracking project managers of folk lore.

Jon Jagger tells a story about one of his clients in Norway. The company was bought by an American competitor. When the engineers started to work together they would convene a teleconference. The American programmers would arrive with their managers while the Norwegians would arrive by themselves. The American’s would ask “Where is your manager?” The idea that the Norwegian could talk and make decisions by themselves was a new idea.

I had a manager in California - Irish as it happened - who used to practice “management by walking around.” Every morning he would appear in my cube and chat. Took me months to realise he was my manager and when I did I wished I had been more guarded with some of my remarks.

This all begs the question, why would American management be such a hinderance to software development? (Note I’m not saying European management is better, that has its own faults, I’m just exploring different cultures.)

For many years the USA was the world foremost manufacturing nature. Part of this success was the superior management practise implemented by the Americans. Such practices made a difference on the factory floor but even here they have been .

I can, and should, write more about managers and their role in the software team. Suffice to say for now: there is an awful lot of bad management out there. I believe good managers, good management practices, can be help companies massively. But on the whole, in the IT industry, there is a lot of poor management.

Bringing this back to Agile.

I think Agile’s anti-management slant is really a reaction to bad management. Hard-core Scrum is the Extreme in this respect. Scrum-Lite, as practiced by most teams, is less so.

Agile, and particularly Scrum, is the product of 1990’s culture, and particularly American work/management culture. Since American culture spreads the fact that Europe never suffered from quite these ills may down to the fact that we were not that good at copying American ways.

There may be a silver lining here: if America adopt Agile, Scrum, self-organization, etc. then we should see it spread out to the rest of the world.

If you disagree with me I’d love to have your comments on this blog. And if you agree I’d love to hear your stories to. Please, leave a comment.


  1. Are we Germans more hierarchical? Hm, in general we are more obedient to "authority" and more rule-abiding than other peoples. Does that translate into more hierarchies?

    In my experience it depends very much on the industry you're in and the company's age. In traditional industries such as manifacturing, banking or insurance you have strong hierarchies. In startups there's hardly any. Not even in Germany ;)

    What I definitely witness is a "My job - your job"-mentality. Everybody has their own area and tasks.
    Before going agile "teams" are just groups of people that do similar things. They help each other out, but don't really work on the same tasks.
    And cross-functional teams? Only ever in companies touched by agile thinking.

    Before I read your post I'd have thought this to be universal (people working alone, in pseudo-non-cross-functional "teams"). Now I'm wondering if there are cultures that already had cross-functional teams before Agile showed up...

  2. Certainly the stereotype of Germans in the UK is that they are more hierarchical. I'm not sure this is completely true. One German company I did a little work with was very keen to plan out the whole Agile adoption up front, which is kind of hard to do.

    I also think its true to say that German's have a very strong engineering culture so it could be that its the respect for good engineering that is at work rather than hierarchy.

    Overall, I would expect the arguments about better engineering from Agile to work better in Germany and the arguments about more competitive products be more persuasive in the USA.

    While the UK has a strong engineering history (Brunel, Stephenson etc.) we don't have a strong engineering culture currently - or at least not in my opinion.

    My gut feel is that a lot of UK companies just want "better IT". They lack the ambition to be more competitive and don't pay a lot of attention to the engineering discussion.

    1. Germany may have a strong engineering culture, but software engineering? Not from what I have seen. But there's hope: Software Craftsmanship is slowly gaining traction (

    2. Afterthought: When people share their experiences with outsourcing to India, they often remark, that Indian engineers tend to deliver to spec and don't ask if they are confused, whereas German (and also US engineers) will point out, if something doesn't make sense to them and ask.
      So when I said that I don't see a great software engineering tradition I meant practices such as unit tests, pairing, frequent refactoring, etc.

  3. Dan Mezick left a bunch of comments on Twitter about this blog entry which I'd like to record.
    (His Twitter ID is @DanMezick)

    @allankellynet Yes, Scrum may be more appropriate for USA-based teams. It originated in #Boston USA, a fact the tends to support your post

    @allankellynet I like your post. In general, I think European civilization is far more predisposed to good #Agile than the USA

    @allankellynet In #Boston, we literally, annually "Give Thanks for Scrum", honoring the Tribal Elders, Jeff & Ken: …

    @allankellynet Your post is thought provoking. The #Agile world has become a diluted, polluted place. Give Thanks For Scrum !

    @allankellynet #Agile culture & Scrum (if it is in fact Agile) are both subject to the same limits, namely: the Manifesto 12 principles.

    @allankellynet Your post is good. People get bent out of shape about Scrum, while Scrum itself continues to hold its shape.

    @allankellynet Nice post! It is OK to ditch Scrum when you get competence sticking with the Manifesto 12. Most teams never get

    @allankellynet Scrum is simply a set of agreed-upon behaviors that conform to the Manifesto 12. Any practice-set that does this well is OK

    @allankellynet Yes: In other words: stand-up meetings have greater benefit in US offices than they do in European offices.

  4. It was nice reading this blog. Thanks for sharing


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