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Cultural dimensions and Agile Adoption

AgileGeplaatst door Mary Beijleveld zo, april 24, 2011 13:03:49

First entry on july 2, 2009

In this blog I want to prove that the extend in which Agile practices are adopted is strongly related to a country’s culture.
On two separate occasions: Gartner Xebia Agile maturity master class and Agile consortium Benelux / Agile Holland’s conference ‘Integrating Agile’ the 2 invited foreign speakers – Dave Norton and Rob Thomsett – emphasized that our country, the Netherlands (NL), is the ‘hot spot’ for adoption of Agile methods & practices. In their experiences and looking at the analyzed facts and figures, many companies in the Netherlands are practicing Agile methods or are seriously exploring the possibility to adopt them.
I asked both men if they thought this could have anything to do with our Dutch culture. For some time now, I’ve been playing with the thought that culture and agile maturity /adoption grade could have a link. They both considered this to be very well possible.
You might know Geert Hofstede’s comprehensive study on how values in the workplace are influenced by culture. I wanted to compare the outcomes of, this study to Dave Norton and Rob Thomsett ‘s insights on agile adoption in the Netherlands and other countries. Do they relate?

According to this study there are 5 dimensions on which countries can be compared: Power Distance, Individualism, Masculinity, Uncertainly avoidance and Long term-orientation. Hofstede indexed the differences on a scale from 0 to 100.

Dimensions explained:
Power Distance Index (PDI) is the extent to which the less powerful members of organizations and institutions (like the family) accept and expect that power is distributed unequally. (This represents inequality accepted from below, not from above)

Individualism (IDV) (its opposite is collectivism) is the degree to which individuals are integrated into groups. On the individualistic side we find societies in which ties between individuals are loose: On the collectivist side, we find societies in which people from birth onwards are integrated into strong, cohesive in-groups, often extended families. The word ‘collectivism’ in this sense has no political meaning: it refers to the group, not to the state. Again, the issue addressed by this dimension is an extremely fundamental one, regarding all societies in the world.

Masculinity (MAS) versus its opposite, femininity, refers to the distribution of roles between the genders. It is considered another fundamental basis for any society in finding (other) solutions to corresponding issues. The assertive pole is called ‘masculine’ and the modest, caring pole is called ‘feminine’. In feminine countries, both women and men have the same modest, caring values; in masculine countries women are somewhat assertive and competitive, but not as much as men: masculine countries typically show a gap between men’s values and women’s values.

Uncertainty Avoidance Index (UAI) deals with a society’s tolerance for uncertainty and ambiguity. It ultimately refers to man’s search for truth. It indicates to what extent a culture programs its members to feel either uncomfortable or comfortable in unstructured situations. Unstructured situations are novel, unknown, surprising, different from usual. Cultures that avoid uncertainty introduce strict laws and rules, safety and security measures. On a philosophical and religious level, they have a belief in absolute truth; ‘there can only be one Truth and we have it’. Its members are also more emotional, and motivated by inner nervous energy. The opposite types, members of cultures that accept uncertainty, are more tolerant of opinions different from what they are used to; they try to have as few rules as possible, and on the philosophical and religious level they are relativist and allow many trends to flow side by side. People within these cultures are more phlegmatic and contemplative, and not expected by their environment to express emotions. Uncertainly avoidance has a lot to do with acceptance of change.

Long-Term Orientation (LTO) versus short-term orientation: this fifth dimension was found later It can be said to deal with virtue regardless of Truth. Long Term Orientation is associated with values like thrift and perseverance; values associated with Short Term Orientation are respect for tradition, fulfilling social obligations, and ‘saving your ‘face’.

In Belgium power distance acceptance is high, in the other chosen countries below world average.
In almost all chosen countries, except for Scan, Germany and Belgium individuality is very high. In USA highest.
Masculinity in NL and Scan is extremely low, Germany and USA rank highest.
Uncertainty avoidance, and in my view therefore resistance to change, is highest in Germany and Belgium, lower in the Scandinavian countries and the other chosen countries score below world average.
NL scores about average with the world on long term orientation. Taking risk is more applicable to UK and Canada. Unfortunately no index figures are known of Scan and Belgium of this dimension.

When we take into account what is said about the Netherlands in relation to Agile adoption / maturity and look at the differences between the cultural dimensions of the chosen countries we can cautiously come to a conclusions.
The chances for successful adoption on Agile methods & practice are obviously strongly related to a low masculinity index and low acceptance of power distance index (NL and Scan) and uncertainty avoidance (NL and Scan lower than world average)

In Belgium (high power distance) for instance, it’s much more important to first gain executive support for Agile practices. In the Netherlands you have to prove that Agile works and gives sustainability.
Belgium’s higher score on uncertainty avoidance suggests less acceptance to change. Belgian decision makers might have a higher need for clear measures, rules and more waterfall-like project methods. NL and certainly the UK and USA will be more open to other solutions. Germany is -’in between’.
In the Northern European countries, the practice of one of the Agile methods – scrum- is very common. Could there be a link between MAS score to the fact that in Norway 25% of the executive board is female? And in Denmark about 40%? This is a challenging idea. The degree of masculinity may be muted by a larger feminine participation and sponsorship from the boardroom for Agile development methods (executive support is in the top ten success factors for a project: No. 2 on the list in the studies of Standish University)

In conclusion, we can agree that, based on cultural differences in Belgium and Germany, chances for Agile project methods to be adopted are less than in the other six countries. Also the UK, the USA and Australia seem culturally less inclined to adopt Agile practices.
I think, keeping the cultural differences in mind, it can help us to find ways to tailor (training in) Agile methods and practices to fit within a culture.

Your opinion:

Now what do you think of the relationship between agile adoption and cultural differences? Do you work in one of the countries mentioned here? Did you actually experience the assumptions just mentioned, or do you have a different experience of your own? Please feel free to share your thoughts with me.


1.Machiel Groeneveld 9 July 2009, 10:27

You might be reversing cause and effect here. Most, if not all, Agile methods have an Anglo-Saxon origin. Agile is clearly a cultural artifact. To understand the link between Agile and culture you would have to look at the reasons why US, Dutch or Scandinavian people adopt Agile and specifically what elements. I imagine concepts like impediments and velocity are more favorite in the US because of their problem-fixing nature and love of statistics. In The Netherlands, the autonomous teams, anti-management vibe and respect for the working people is probable the reason why Dutch people are fond of Scrum. The team work and organizing of personal freedom might fit the Scandinavian culture.

In any case, Agile is not the same Agile in all countries. Agile might even be twisted and turned so much to fit a culture, that I wouldn’t call it Agile anymore. It would be even better if this analysis included data on how Agile is adopted per country.

2.Mary Beijleveld 13 July 2009, 12:54

Great response Machiel, thank you.

To the reversing cause and effect bit: I’m more incli­ned to think it is reciprocal. My feminine mind thinks more circular, perhaps that’s why.

Let us remember that the Waterfall method was invented by an American computer scientist. (W.W. Royce) PMBok comes from the USA, Prince II from the UK. So what’s coming from where?

Although contemporary Agile methods come from Anglo Saxon (US, UK) countries they can well be inspired by insights that come from the Far East or Europe. When we take LEAN methods into account and think of them as Agile as well, we have the Japanese to thank for a lot of inspiration. Also for elements you would consider ‘real’ Agile methods.

Good point to explore and discuss: attractiveness of the elements in a method to a specific culture. I will give this a thorough ‘think thru’. If you have any prove whatsoever about this, please disclose them to me.

Data on adoption of Agile methods per country are known to Gartner and other research companies, I guess.

Gartner says that the Netherlands is the ‘most hottest spot’ in the world. Also ‘hot’ on adoption are UK and US and ‘warm’ is Australia.
The Agile market share is divided in 30-35 % scrum, 20-25 % XP, 5-10 % LEAN, RUP and FDD and 3-8 % DSDM.
Haven’t come across more facts and figures myself.
Thanks again for your reply.

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