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The power of agile

When I joined Ericsson in 2012, my first project involved collaborating with China on product transfer project. I was excited at this prospect of getting to know a new culture and interacting with new people. However, things did not go as expected. Other than an obvious language barrier, the team there were not aware about the product and did not really have their processes in place, creating many hindrances in the workflow.

Minna Hallikainen and Kati Ilvonen from agile leadership community in Finland, visiting Ericsson China in September 2019
Picture 1: Minna Hallikainen and Kati Ilvonen from agile leadership community in Finland, visiting Ericsson China in September 2019

Over the years, I worked on two other similar projects with teams of different nationalities. But my experience in China is what stayed with me.

That experience also made me realize that it is too common to rely on clichés; stereotyping people from different cultures or having preconceived notions.

When I relocated to China in the summer of 2018, I decided to challenge those notions and expand my CQ (Cultural Quotient)

Being agile

In the high-tech world, professionalism is related to the excellence in ways of working, which is today called ‘being agile’. So, how do we measure if China is ‘being agile’, and, what does it really mean?

Oxford dictionary defines agile as ‘ready ability to move with quick easy grace’, while agile as a mindset has four core values:

Agile value I - individuals and interactions over processes and tools;
Agile value II - working software over comprehensive documentation;
Agile value III - customer collaboration over contract negotiation and
Agile value IV - responding to change over following a plan.
“That is, while there is value in the items on the right, we value the items on the left more.”

Agile values in China

As I came to China from ETK (Ericsson Croatia), the biggest difference here was the freedom of time. Yes, you needed to stay longer hours at work because of the time difference with the West, but you could use that time by doing yoga, going to the gym, taking a ukulele class or sleeping during the break. And there were not as many meetings or agendas – this came as a shock to me since I expected the opposite.

On one hand, I had many fears regarding the lack of meetings. It had me thinking if the ‘official’ daily meeting is not happening every day, will that make us less efficient? Will the team not grow as fast? What will be with the product progress?

While on the other hand, I realized how much less stressed I felt. By becoming a PMI-Agile Certified Practitioner, I also realized that having a development team self-organize, instead of Scrum Master, PO, or anyone else lead the meetings, was at the very heart of agile.

Map of Monochronic and Polychronic cultures

Picture 2: Map of Monochronic and Polychronic cultures (click to zoom)

These differences have a lot to do with the country belonging to monochronic or polychronic culture. As polychronic, the time in China is seen as nonlinear, which considers multitasking, disruptions, and frequent change of plans normal. This also means that responding to change, agile value IV, is engraved in Chinese culture.

Other Agile values

Monochronic culture is based on individualism, that is, it appreciates individual efforts more, which makes the ‘individuals’ part in Agile value I: individuals and interactions over processes and tools. However, polychronic culture values interactions within a group and lasting, lifetime relationships, which is the ‘interactions’ part. This means that in Agile value I, both monochronic and polychronic cultures are necessary, individuals and interactions, each member and a collective.

For working software, that is software which meets the definition of done – at the least, developed, tested, integrated, and documented – it would not make sense to make an elaborate plan in advance. Unless we frequently collaborate with the customer, the software development may take much longer and not be what the customer wanted. This means that polychronic ways of frequent change are at the foundations of Agile value II: working software over comprehensive documentation and Agile Value III: customer collaboration over contract negotiation.

Other indicators

Different cultural indicators

Picture 3: Different cultural indicators (click to zoom)

We could have also looked at other indicators, such as the General Trust and Individualism (adding to Agile value I: individuals and interactions over processes and tools) or Uncertainty Avoidance, which identifies China as risk-taking culture (adding to Agile value IV: responding to change over following a plan).

Scoring high for Masculinity on Masculinity - Femininity scale, instead of customer collaboration, Chinese negotiations are more easily competition driven (Agile value III: customer collaboration over contract negotiation at risk).

Just like monochronic culture can go to extremes in linear planning, the polychronic culture is in danger of having no structure and no guidelines (for example, Agile value II: working software over comprehensive documentation at risk when some of the steps are skipped or omitted in definition of done for working software).

Conclusion

In Ericsson’s quest for easy, different cultures give us the opportunity to question our ways of working. And it often makes us question, “Can we make it more efficient, and easy?”

By coming to China, many of my notions changed and I learned to pay attention to the subtle and not-so-subtle changes, instead of rigidly holding on to the structure and a long-term plan. I also started to believe that it can be easy, or, at least, easier.

No matter our cultural differences, beliefs, or various indicators, it is to notice that a lot can be learned from Chinese’ natural tendency to adapt. To change with the flow is not just one agile value, but a very definition of the word as well as at the foundation to other agile values.

Picture 4

(click to zoom)

Picture 5: Gatherings and celebration after Chinese New Year in CBC, Ericsson China

Picture 5: Gatherings and celebration after Chinese New Year in CBC, Ericsson China (click to zoom)

References

  1. Based on Morden, 1999; Kotabe and Helsen, 2001 (picture 2, Monochronic versus Polychronic Culture)
  2. Geert Hofstede,  The 6-D model of national culture (Masculinity vs Femininity, Uncertainty Avoidance)
  3. General Trust Indicator

 

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