I read a lot of papers in the recent past advocating that Agile adoption is difficult or even impossible in Asia because of deeply rooted culture blockers including ‘face’, ‘guanxi’, respect for authority, top down culture, etc.

While the arguments developed in these papers make lots of sense, I was always unconvinced because the flip-side of those blockers shows a strong leaning towards individuals, interactions, and relationships built on non-contractual terms.

In August 2017, my colleagues Daryl, Lam and I were invited to talk at the DBS Agile conference in Singapore. It was really great to see how much emphasis the bank is putting on Agile as a key element of their BBW strategy (Best Bank in the World).

I was also impressed by the awareness of top management about Agile matters and the sense of urgency they communicated to their team about embracing Agile.

Our talk addressed the topic of whether Agile values and principles fit in Asia. The three of us combined an interesting mix of cultural backgrounds and experience of implementing Agile in a variety of countries in Asia (Singapore, Hong Kong, Mainland China, Malaysia, Vietnam), Australia, Europe and the US.

Image of office workers in Asia having a discussion with their boss

If we define Agility as the ability to embrace changes fast, where but in Asia can we observe as many radical, deep changes in the last 50 years?

How much adaptability, flexibility and ability to cope with uncertainty the Asian people have demonstrated! Leaders have used strategies that combine experimentation, inspect and adapt cycles to re-shape their countries and their societies.

Looking at the other values of the Agile Manifesto, I see more of a fit than a clash. Anybody who has done business in the region will have experienced that a contract is mainly an intent and that negotiations never stop.

Often, problems are solved by analogy, talking with many people and investigating solutions used to solve similar issues. Finding a work-around to a prescriptive process or procedure is very common.

So why do we perceive a compatibility issue between Asia and Agile? Where does the friction come from? Without pretending that I have a simple answer to these questions, I would like to share some thoughts.

The Agile movement has been initiated in the Western world. While all parts of the world need to better manage uncertainty in a rapidly changing world, the way to implement the Agile values might be culturally sensitive.

How much of what we call an ‘Agile culture’ is actually the result of combining the Agile values of the manifesto with common Western beliefs in democracy, rule of law, equality or liberty?

How much change is required to become Agile in a Western environment is strongly linked to individualism, industrial maturity, bureaucracy and rational thinking education systems?

In other words, how much of the friction we observe between Asian and Agile values is actually a clash between Asian and Western culture?

Image of office workers in Asia in a meeting with the boss

If we approach it from that perspective, then the more apt declaration would be culture eats Agile for breakfast.

The ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach has never worked.

Agile will materialize in various forms to accommodate with culture, and not the other way around. Good and knowledgeable Agile coaches need to transform an organization’s culture and there may be a dominant culture that is more to do with a team, a department or a company than a national culture.

In all cases, we need to leverage commonalities rather than focusing too much on differences. We should listen intently, understand the context we are in, identify impediments to agility and be pragmatic in the solutions we propose.

I do not believe that Agile and any one country’s (or region’s) culture really clashes but I am convinced that Agile and dogmatism do!

If you have designed or experienced non-conventional practices to address a cultural-specific challenge, reach out to us. We’d love to hear your opinion!

This article was written by Wavestone Asia Partner, Yann Hamon.

Yann is based in Singapore. If you’re interested in speaking with him, reach out to us here.