A few days ago, I joined a meetup about distributed agile: cultural differences. It was hosted by Cognizant and Agile Holland.
Two people shared their stories on distributed agile and culture. In the break, I spoke to Cristian Mihăilă, a scrum master from Liberty Global. He had joined the company only one month ago. His team consists of some locals and some team members in India. Most team members are hired from consultancy firms. I asked him whether he feels the distributed aspect of his team’s situation made things more complex. He looked at me with a frown and said ‘should they’? I went on to explain that in many teams, the intercultural differences influence the collaboration. And he mentioned that the only thing on his mind now was the accent of his Indian team members which he could hardly understand. But otherwise, he didn’t identify any differences so far.
That made me wonder if the differences really play a big role or whether we attribute too much to them. Especially in larger firms, team consist of people from a wide variety of cultures. In the Netherlands, companies hire globally and ‘import’ a lot knowledge workers. This makes teams by default multicultural. Because of that, people are more used to the differences and it might be easier to add some remote team members to the equation.
A funny anecdote. One of the presentations was by Niaz Syed and Chetan Amale of Cognizant. Niaz gave an example of high context versus low context cultures… ‘So when I, as an Indian, try to explain you to you that I can’t do it; I will tell you blah blah blah and use a waterfall of words; you’ll need to pay attention to what I am saying because somewhere midsentence I will mention that I cannot do it!…that’s a high context culture. By contrast, a low contrast culture like the Dutch culture would say ‘I can’t do it’ and deliver the message without any blah blah’.
He also mentioned that he believes scrum teams should fail within the first 2-3 months. Because if they fail, they’ll learn faster and perform well after this initial period. On the way back, Bert van Hijfte drove with me in my car. He’s a senior culture coach and specializes in India-Dutch culture training. He explained to me that in Indian culture, time is perceived ‘circular’. People believe that time is something that comes back. In the Netherlands, we see it as linear: once time has passed, it’s not coming back. When I thought of the 2-3 months investment period, I thought ‘this must be circular time. If I explain to my customer in the Netherlands that I’ll need 3 months to get my team up to speed and he might expect a couple of bad deliveries in that period….I am pretty confident that he would say: great, so I assume you’ll start charging me after the 3 months, right?’ I think cultural differences do matter after all….
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