Eee Bah Gum...How Important Is Culture?

May 6, 2023
Eee Bah Gum...How Important Is Culture?

I received a question from someone recently and it's something I've been asked in various guises over the years. It effectively relates to geographical cultural differences and whether a certain culture is more or less open or suited to agile approaches. I will paste the question below:

"Does where you are from and your upbringing determine your behaviours in the workplace? For example I am always critical of some of the large orgs I work for because I am from Yorkshire where we are always moaning and searching for perfection." 

Now we could replace Yorkshire for any other county or town in England or any region or country in the world and ask about their particular cultural peculiarities. I find this question difficult to answer because I don't consider myself knowledgeable enough about cultures, traditions or regional etiquettes to be a credible analyst or commentator. However, do I believe that your geographical background and upbringing can contribute to your behaviours in the workshop? Absolutely.

I'm just not sure they determine them. To take Yorkshire as an example. I know Geoffrey Boycott is a Yorkshireman, as is Joe Root (two past England cricket captains past). To me they are very different in character, outlook and behaviour yet both are from Yorkshire. You might be able to fit Boycott into the description in the question above but not so much Root (IMHO).

Yorkshire culture

Of course, you can disprove any generalisation with an outlier and we may be able to statistically prove that Yorkshiremen (and women, perhaps) are generally "tight", "stubborn" or "cynical". Stereotypes may even be part self-fulfilling [link]. And cultural traditions will almost certainly play a part in behaviours as, from an early age, certain values and principles will be embedded firmly into our psyche from the groups, families and communities of which we are members.In the past I have been asked whether I am aware of countries and cultures where I believe agile is more or less likely to be successful; sometimes I am asked if I believe there are countries or cultures where I believe agile values and principles would simply be too much of a clash to have a chance of working.Another example often given to me is the Subcontinent of South Asia. I hear things like:

Our offshore team don't like to say "no" - it's a cultural thing - so getting them to take ownership of their planning is almost impossible.

Another equally common statement I hear in this demographic is:

Culturally it's unacceptable for those from the subcontinent to contradict or challenge those higher up in the hierarchy which makes the prospect of getting honest views in things like retrospectives or real self-organising teams impossible.

My (honest) response to these types of statement has always been, I don't believe the hype around culture. I don't believe it has as big an impact as many others believe. Of course there are challenges based on what we have grown up to believe and the habits we have acquired over many years. It's just that I don't see it to be massively different in the cultures who are pointing out these so-called cultural challenges elsewhere.I may be wrong, of course, and I only have my experience and my perception of reality to base this on. However, I see far too many "western" teams who find it just as difficult to challenge authority and shake off the habits of a waterfall mindset to think it is simply limited to certain cultures.My argument is that I have seen some teams and individuals in EVERY country and culture who see agile values and principles as an absolute no-brainer. I have also seen some teams and individuals in EVERY country and culture who are incredibly passionately contrary to agile values.

I have met positive Yorkshiremen who aren't perfectionists; happy and optimistic Scotsmen; and grumpy Scandinavians; people from all political persuasions. The only consistency I have seen is that, no matter how thick and deeply-rooted the culture, there is always diversity in it. It would be naive of me to say that cultures that have hundreds, or perhaps thousands, of years of tradition based in hierarchy and deference are equally as likely to embrace agile methods as, for example, an average Scandinavian team. It's an easy thing to look to, I just don't think culture is the full answer.

What do you think? Tweet me @geoffcwatts.

A friend of mine recently wrote about culture and cricket so check out this fun blog post.


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