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Cultural Impacts in Agile

By Leanne Howard | Agile Practices Consultant

INSIGHTS // Articles

5 Aug 2014

#Agile|#ProjectManagement|#Services

INSIGHTS // Articles

#Agile|#ProjectManagement|#Services

By Leanne Howard

5 Aug 2014

Culture has significant impacts on a project, both in terms of the culture of the organisational and culture of the individuals that comprise that organisation.

Rather than focusing on organisational culture, I want to discuss how behaviour is impacted by an individual’s background and upbringing, effecting how they act and what they may feel comfortable doing. Specifically, I will examine how this impacts an Agile project, influencing all the Manifesto values and principles, most notably ‘individuals and interactions over process and tools’.

I will be sharing my experiences of four common types of team members with behaviours that have been shaped by individual culture. Naturally, some generalisations have been made for the sake of providing concise categorisation, and I certainly acknowledge that there are exceptions to these rules. These categories are:

  • Yes but no
  • The manager is always right
  • The hero
  • No manager, what do I do?

Yes but no

The first is the “Yes but no” syndrome. By this, I mean they always say “yes” they can get the job or activity completed within the timescale when really they know that they cannot. They feel that they cannot lose face by saying that they either do not have the skills to do it or they have too many other tasks of equal importance that they already need to get completed. This has a significant impact in the team as they believe that tasks will get done and then they come towards the end of the iteration to find that they are not. This then puts undue pressure on the rest of the team as they struggle to get these additional activities completed. Or it means that the team fails to deliver on their commitment. This will begin to create distrust of that person within the team which is not what we want.

It will also have a negative impact on the individual. If they have to continually have to report at the daily stand up that they have not completed the tasks on time, they are going to become demoralised and self-doubt will creep in. It also does not look good within the team or externally if tasks are assigned to you and are not moving on the task board. This may also cause them to believe that Agile is not working for them. This is of course not the case; it is just that their way of working is being highlighted due to the greater visibility. Also, the shorter timelines means that they do not have large amount of time to complete tasks and cannot hide behind the six weeks allocated for the test preparation for example.

The person will probably need some coaching on how to be more assertive in saying “No” or at least not thinking that they continually need to take on more tasks. That is OK to say “No” or another way they could look at it is learn how to prioritize better. They could say something like “I already have some tasks but I can reprioritize them if you think that the additional task is more important. That may mean that someone else will need to complete some of the tasks that I currently have”.

The Manager is Always Right

The next type of person which is often driven by cultural influences, is that the person views Manager as always being right. By this statement, I mean that they do whatever they are asked by a person they perceive to be of more importance or authority than them. This is often driven by self-doubt; they are not able to make decision themselves fearing they may be wrong. Or in their culture, they have been brought up to never question a manager just because of their title. This of course causes issues for the team as everyone within the team has equal say. If this person is not going to question any decisions or actively contribute to conversations and discussions then possible functionality, tests, defect or issues may be missed. Also, they may be the person that knows most about an area of the system and that knowledge is not going to be shared within the team. Even worse they may know that something is being coded incorrectly, for example, but not speak up.

Individuals that have this tendency need to be encouraged to contribute fully to discussions. They need to feel that their opinion is of equal value as that of their team members. They need to gain confidence that they can make their own decisions and follow those through without having a manager to tell them what to do. It is important that the team recognise these types of people so that they can make it a safe environment in which to fail, without blame being put on them. They will probably need someone to talk through with them why they made the wrong decision or that it was not the most effective or efficient way to do the activity. Giving them several opinions to improve will help them rather than giving them the specific answer so that they learn to do these themselves.

The Hero

The “Hero” type is completely different from those others. These are the people that you would think that you may want on your team. The ones that have no life outside of work, that are always available to stay late to finish tasks or volunteer to help others when it is clear that they have more than enough work of their own to get completed. Well maybe in short-term it is good to have one of those people on team, but certainly not long term.

There are several issues with a person like this. The first is that one of the principles of XP is no overtime. The reason for this is that this is not a sustainable behaviour. The person will eventually become overtired, sick or make more and more mistakes. This impacts them not being proactive for their normal eight hours’ work let alone the additional hours. If taken to extreme this could even lead to depression or severe illness. It is important to have a balance in your life between work and home life.

As well as the more obvious issues of increasing mistakes and overlooking of defects (unintentionally), there are also the impacts on the whole team. Those can be wide reaching and include some of the following:

  • The overall team velocity will be distorted
  • Allocated story points may not be accurate if based on this person’s capacity
  • Mistakes and missed defects will creep in which the whole team will need to take responsibility of
  • Resentment within the team as one person takes all glory (Likely to be initially)
  • Other team members may feel they have to check that person’s work and thereby losing trust within the team
  • Increased technical debt

These are only a few impacts on the team. The team needs to help this person to see that the tasks need to be spread evenly within the team. They also need to make sure this person leaves work on time and does not continue working after they have gone home. It is important for them to see the impact that they are having not only on themselves, but the rest of the team. Team responsibility and the group impact on the quality of the product needs to be recognised.

No manager, what do I do?

The final category of person is that of one that has never had to make any decisions previously as they have always deferred to a manager. This one is similar to the one we have already discussed, however, in that case people believe the manager is always right and follow there instructions blindly, as they have been taught that someone in authority must be obeyed without question. But this type of person has not had to make decisions at all. They will feel uncomfortable doing this and not confident in expressing their thoughts. These people maybe naturally timid or have grown in a culture where only the ‘adults’ speak and are listened to.

Similar to the saying “seen but not heard”. If these actions are observed, it is important to understand if this is simply because the person has not completed those activities before rather than due to a cultural inhibitor. For example the person may not be speaking up in the iteration planning meeting. This may because they have previously had little planning experience. In this case the blocker would be treated differently probably with some training in planning and estimation techniques. If, because culturally, they have not been asked or before expressed their opinions freely, different support is required. In this case they may just need the support of the team to feel comfortable in expressing an opinion.

For this type of person it is important to encourage them when they have valuable ideas, to voice them. Or, if they have a suggestion, to allow them time to articulate it supporting them if they do not have it quite right. Rather than provide these types of people with the answer when they are asked to complete a task, re-phrase your answer to “What do you think?” a “How would you tackle this situation?”. Encourage them to come up with the solution or idea. It is also important to support them if they fail, but allow them to fail. They will then need encouragement to try some other way to resolve the task.

Conclusion

When considering how successful your team is going to be there are many points you need to think about, as you should be aiming for high performance teams. The first statement in the agile manifesto states “Individuals and Interactions….” and it is important to ensure that you get this right. The team may have the best set of skills and competences possible which on paper would make them a super team. However if they cannot collaborate and communicate well they will not realise their full potential and in fact could fail.

It is important for the team to recognise that individual’s cultural background will affect the way they act within the team. When this is observed, such as a person not contributing to meetings, the team needs to act to support them. This may involve some coaching or facilitation techniques in order that they feel safe and comfortable to change their behaviour.

It is not just the organisational culture that will impact on success but the individual as well.

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