Agile development practices are an attempt to find a collaborative mindset that’s suitable for the types of jobs we do now. Over the last 100 years or so, industry moved from manufacturing and similar work to knowledge-based jobs, which come with their own workplace culture and mindset. The latest incarnation of our work lives? Creative working.
Creative working describes how ideas and technology come together to build an innovation-based economy that uses science and technology to develop new tools and solutions.
In this most recent phase of human industry, workers have unprecedented levels of autonomy, skill mastery, and purpose. But many organizations are still using old structures and hierarchies that aren’t suited to the new type of work being done.
Agile development practices are an attempt to overcome these restrictions and build a working culture that’s best suited to modern types of work. This specifically includes software design work, but it’s also applicable in a wide range of other types of industry, including product design and finance.
Agile development practices have changed the world of work. However, it’s fair to say we’re still in the early phase of adopting the Agile mindset. There are still many companies worldwide doing traditional manufacturing or knowledge-based work that continue to employ outdated practices.
In many cases, this new approach may work for them. But many organizations are trying to do creative work using outdated working practices that are holding them back.
Take Scrum, for example–an Agile process framework for managing knowledge work with a focus on software development. In this work approach, small cross-functional teams collaborate in a non-hierarchical way. Products are developed incrementally, so there’s less emphasis on a big final reveal and more on iterative releases of the product as it’s being built. Teams structure and manage their own work and are encouraged to self-organize using a flat structure.
Senior managers often struggle to give up control, something that’s necessary if Agile working culture is to flourish. Larger organizations often find it difficult to operate on an entrepreneur level at scale.
Swedish telecoms company Ericsson is often cited as an example that proves big companies can be Agile. It’s notable that Sweden’s working culture–flat hierarchies, lots of collaboration–helps support Agile culture and means it’s not too much of a stretch for those immersed in Swedish culture.
At the opposite end of the cultural spectrum, in many ways, are work structures found in many Asian countries. In contrast to Sweden’s Agile-ready social culture of equality and co-operative working, many Asian nations tend to have work cultures that are strongly hierarchical and conservative, where fairly rigid roles are assigned to workers.
Workers expect to be told what to do and how to do it, and bosses are expected to have the final answers. This is completely at odds with the empowered-worker approach pioneered by Agile methods.
But Asian resistance to Agile working is rooted deeper than just discomfort with working practices. In many Asian cultures, a person’s position within an organization has implications for their social role outside work. Because seniority and job title define social status in the wider world, Agile’s non-hierarchical approach is doubly challenging.
In Japanese culture, for example, it’s highly desirable to have a job title that clearly defines your career seniority, such as Manager. Having a less obvious job title like Agile Coach isn’t very appealing. Asian Agile Coaches or Scrum Masters rebrand themselves as Project Managers simply because it sounds like a higher-status position.
Asian conservatism is also at odds with the radical restructuring approach that Agile necessitates. Asian countries often have rigid cultures with many social rules that are hard to deviate from. These types of cultures tend to be risk-averse, since it’s more acceptable to adapt existing products and ideas as opposed to trying revolutionary new ones.
Japan in particular is notoriously resistant to change and culturally risk-averse, leading to some outdated workplace practices. Even Japan’s language supports cultural rigidity and inflexible social roles.
Japanese is a hierarchy-oriented language, and it’s even hard to know how to behave with other people until one figures out where they stand socially. That’s a challenge to the democratic structure Agile demands.
There’s still reason to believe Agile could flourish in Asia, based on the simple fact that culture is more flexible than people give it credit for.
Social and demographic changes, often underpinned by technological advances, are moving at lightning speed and culture is changing quickly. This is especially true in markets like China, where a young and educated generation is challenging old norms.
We’re starting to see small, new companies in Asia adopt far less rigid working structures than their more traditional and larger rivals. Often founders have experienced Western ways of working and seen the effectiveness of Agile approaches in fields such as software design.
These start-ups are likely to have influence beyond their size as they demonstrate Agile approaches can work in Asian cultural organizations.
Organizations that are culturally Western also struggle to implement Agile working practices. Humans are inherently conservative at work and tend to dislike change to established practices, yet that’s precisely what Agile demands.
There’s an argument to be made that it’s harder for some cultures to implement Agile than others, simply because there’s more cultural resistance to working this way.