Agile Methods and Cultural Impacts, Written by Phil Ventresca, M.B.A.

Do geographically dispersed teams impact the way we collaborate while working with Agile methods?

The essence of global projects is such that we must accept indirect contact points and various cultural norms within the project environment, thus the cornerstone items that support the Agile method (stand up meetings and frequent collaboration) are inhibited by time zone challenges, communication styles and decision-making protocols.   Additionally, we have less time to develop working relationships within the project teams, ultimately adding another challenge to quality communication.

In order to accomplish our goals of higher productivity, less defects and sustainable quality within the Agile environment we must first normalize the environment that will frame the project behavior and contact points.

Consider the following when you set down the path of Agile Project Management:

  • Establish the best technology platforms to collaborate in the Agile environment.
  • Identify the cultural impact points that could inhibit dynamic communications.
  • Design a robust protocol within the project construct to support the Agile requirements of Participation, Inclusion and Purpose.
  • Proactively create an expectation of behaviors through the dispersed teams to align with the Agile environment.

What technology resources can we use to collaborate in an Agile environment?

Keeping in mind that Agile projects require access, and to that point, access requires we reach across many boundaries with a sense of instantaneous contact.  The following are some tools global organizations are using to bridge the gaps on agile projects:

  1. Cisco TelePresence™ is a wonderful tool to bring real-life imagery to meetings.  The platform can be accessed internally at organizations, through outside vendor locations such as FedEx Office™, select Marriott™ properties and Regus office locations.  The downside is availability and scheduling open rooms due to high usage.  We recommend that when able, the TelePresence option is a good one, yet the reality is that we should use it during initial team building sessions as the “best in class” method of digital video communication platforms.  This limited approach helps control cost and overcomes the need to overbook rooms only to be met with scheduling challenges.

 

  1. Video and web-based platforms such as WebEx™, Live Meeting™ and Go to Meeting™ are other open platforms means to make desktop interaction a reality with both video and VoiP options.  There is less of an investment than TelePresence™, and the only scheduling necessary is based on personal calendars.

 

  1. Text based communicators such as MS Instant Messenger™ or Office Communicator™ allow us to stay connected with teammates and provide for immediate access to decision makers and colleagues.

 

  1. Other less immediate contact tools such as collaboration sites, file sharing portals and open calendars (as found in SharePoint™) are a sub set of these tools and are good support mechanisms to build a multi-dimensional set of tools and best practices that guide their use on an Agile project.

Do Agile Project Management methods heighten the impact of having (or not having) cultural awareness?

In standard projects, configured with traditional methods, cross cultural issues are always a challenge.  Utilizing the Agile method which calls for shortened decision-making cycles, and little to no adherence to hierarchy, protocol or time zone concerns will undoubtedly increase the challenges we already face. It is critical as a global leader of Agile projects that you inherently understand the needs of your various project constituents.

Think about enhancing your CQ by embracing the following:

  1. Read books such as Kiss, Bow or Shake Hands prior to engaging geographically dispersed teams.  Also, consider web sites such as GlobeSmart™, travel sites and regional information portals to build your knowledge of behavioral norms associated with your regional teams.
  2. Plan open communication sessions to share expectations between your teams and overcome some of the communication challenges in a proactive way.  These sessions will also provide a platform to build relationships and establish better ground rules between teams.

Become aware of how different cultures interact, communicate, make decisions and respect hierarchy.  This understanding will help you to avoid breakdowns in these areas when the Agile environment is demanding high energy and performance within shortened project cycles.

What are the core ingredients for an Agile team to be successful?

Probably the most difficult aspect of managing global teams in the Agile environment is maintaining continuity through purpose, participation and inclusion.  It is a critical success factor to be mindful of how we help our teams to stay connected and empowered, and even more so in an Agile project setting.  Remembering that our goal in an Agile environment is to be flexible and adaptive, the importance of a well-connected team is obvious and possibly paramount to the effort.

The following depicts the high impact points to accomplish this:

Purpose

  • Meaningful Work
  • Visible Outcome
  • Contribute to a Bigger Cause

Participation

  • Seat at the Table
  • Empowerment/Distributed Work
  • Global Cross Functionality

Inclusion

  • Decision Making
  • Change Management
  • Collaboration

Behavior for the Agile Environment

To this point we have been discussing the tangible elements of constructing a productive Agile environment.  However, in order to generate sustainable and measurable actions we need to model such behavior and promote it throughout the organization.

Organizational culture has proven to be just as important to supporting the Agile Method as the process itself.  In fact, I would suggest that without the consideration of organizational culture, the probability of global acceptance of the concept is greatly minimized.

Consider the following when leading your global resources:

  1. Promote cross functional activities and assign work across cultures.
  2. Allow time for learning and mistakes as a way to foster real empowerment.
  3. Create an environment that promotes interactivity outside of the email world to promote relationships.

What can you do to impact your global agile environment?

Monitoring and developing the people the process and the technology associated with the Agile environment is the paramount action which will lead to the success of your efforts.  Any project including one that is associated with the Agile Methodology needs clear expectations and ground rules.  The agile environment exaggerates the need to be flexible, accept change openly and recognize that real-time interactions are the cornerstone of success.

If we, as mangers, overlook the cultural aspects of interactions we could very possibly be putting ourselves and our teams in jeopardy of missing our Agile project objectives.

Research

  1. [1] Alleman, G. “Agile Blog” email to Yahoo Groups, Agile Project Management group, March 1, 2005
  2. The Blending of Traditional and Agile Project Management – Hass, K., PMI World Today – May 2007 (Vol. IX, IssueV)
  3. Scaling Lean & Agile Development: Thinking and Organizational Tools for Large-Scale Scrum – Larman and Vodde, Addison-Wesley Professional, 2008
  4. Agile Project Management  – Agilisn Versus Traditional Approaches – Daniel J Fernandez; John D Fernandez – The Journal of Computer Information Systems; Winter 2008/2009; 49, 2; ABI/INFORM Global
  5. Barnevik, Percy, Kanter, Rosabeth Moss. “Global Strategies.” Boston: Harvard Business Review, 1994.
  6. Morrison, Terri and Conaway, Wayne A. “Kiss, Bow, or Shake Hands,” Avon, MA: Adams Media, 2006.