Friday, September 19, 2008

Culture affects your team...

Many people in the agile community agree that success rides on the team's ability to work well together more than on following agile. Communication and teamwork are critical to a successful environment. The question is, how much should we focus on individual differences when coaching a team?

As an American, I've only worked in the states; but I have worked with people from many countries (Germany, Austria, Romania, India, Russia, China, etc, etc). I've been fortunate that while working for Siemens I went through cultural awareness training to understand the differences between US, German, and Indian cultures. Through all of this, I've learned that culture affects your team dynamics in ways you'd never realize.

For example:
  • There are cultures where saying "I can't" to a request from a higher level person is not acceptable even when the request is impossible.
  • There are cultures where management isn't to be questioned.
  • There are cultures where people are trained to not think for themselves, but to follow mandates and structure.
  • There are cultures where everyone talks about their salary honestly and use it to measure who has seniority in a conversation.
  • Some cultures focus on academics, engineering, and striving for perfection while others focus on copying others and surviving.
The philosophical concepts of accountability, responsibility, quality, success, and DONE can vary by cultural group.

Don't throw a problem at a newly formed team hoping they will solve it on their own without thinking about whether there are any cultural differences influencing this new group.

The next time you have two people on your team experiencing repeated friction, think about whether they have different backgrounds that might lead to different unintentional interpretations of each other. This may provide insight to a problem caused by misunderstanding instead of an actual difference of opinion.

Note: before I'm flamed for endorsing stereotyping, let me set the record straight. Stereotyping is a horrible thing when used in a position of power to control or demean another person. But stereotypes form based on commonalities, and they can be helpful when looking for reasons behind something you don't understand. They can be used to create alternate viewpoints to investigate and improve a situation for the good of the team.

For more information/advice: If you are a LinkedIn user and a member of the Scrum Alliance, there is an interesting discussion about this in the related group.

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