Even carousels are affected by different cultures.

Even carousels are affected by different cultures.

Cultural differences between members of distributed teams can substantially impact productivity and degree of difficulty. Therefore having a common way to talk about the impact of culture can help a team work as single unit. A model of culture that I have found useful in coaching teams is the Hofstede’s cultural dimension theory. Hofstede’s theory uses a set of dimensions that have measurable impacts on behavior. Hofstede’s dimensions include: individualism, power distance, certainty, achievement and time orientation.  Using these dimensions can be helpful by providing that common language. The descriptions below of each of the dimensions will help frame how we use the word culture.

Individualism describes the degree to which decisions are made that benefit the whole team versus the individual.  Agile teams make use of collective techniques such as swarming (I help you and you help me) to the work in order to get it done.  Other techniques, like sprint planning, leverage group-think techniques, which again, are collective behaviors. Team members from individualistic cultures might have difficulty adopting these types of Agile techniques.

Power distance describes the difference between a hierarchical and participative management structure.  Agile teams encourage participation through self-organization and self-management.  Cultures that value a more hierarchical orientation will view the participative management styles of Agile teams as ineffective. As a result, they will tend to seek out a strong leader, which can lead to non-Agile behaviors.

The certainty dimension describes the dichotomy between the need for firm conviction and ambiguity. Agile techniques, while disciplined, require a degree of comfort with more fluid scenarios where planning, re-planning and communication are required. Cultures that prefer structure, rules and certainty will need coaching as they begin using Agile frameworks, or they tend wander off task.

Achievement discusses the continuum between goal orientation and quality of life. Agile tries to balance the two by coupling the value of a sustainable pace with the the use of time boxes and public commitments. Mixing teams with members that are polar opposites on this dimension will create tension as commitment of work within time boxes pulls against the concept of a sustainable pace and quality of life.

The time dimension represents the dichotomy between a long-term and short-term orientation.  Agile techniques use of time boxes to artificially force a short-term view for a project, which can be at odds with how some cultures want to approach projects. Release plans can provide team members longer-term orientation that can meet some of the cultural needs of this dimension.

How can we leverage an understanding of culture to make distributed Agile teams work together better?  Start by finding a mechanism (or mechanisms) to create interaction so that team members can get to know each other at work and on a personal level, while learning about their cultural differences. Make sure everyone is trained on the type of Agile the project will use.  Do not assume that all team members will have the same experiences and interpretations of Agile. A team that understands how it will is going to work will be better positioned to recognized the remaining differences and address them. Discuss topics like leadership to ensure that everyone understands the concept and how the team will deal with it. Repeat those discussions as needed for other sticky topics. While cultural differences can occur with co-located teams, distance only exasperates cultural issues. It also makes them more difficult to spot until they are real problems.  The only way to mitigate cultural issues is to actively take steps to look for them and take action. Talk, listen, repeat and re-phase; test that communication is actually occurring.