Cultural dimensions and Agile Adoption

Cultural dimensions and Agile Adoption

First entry on july 2, 2009

In this blog I want to prove that the extend in which Agile practices are
adopted is strongly related to a country’s culture.
On two separate occasions: Gartner Xebia Agile maturity master class and Agile consortium Benelux / Agile Holland’s conference
‘Integrating Agile’ the 2 invited foreign speakers – Dave Norton and Rob
Thomsett – emphasized that our country, the Netherlands (NL), is the ‘hot spot’
for adoption of Agile methods & practices. In their experiences and looking
at the analyzed facts and figures, many companies in the Netherlands are
practicing Agile methods or are seriously exploring the possibility to adopt
I asked both men if they thought this could have anything to do with our Dutch
culture. For some time now, I’ve been playing with the thought that culture and
agile maturity /adoption grade could have a link. They both considered this to
be very well possible.
You might know Geert Hofstede’s comprehensive study on how values in the
workplace are influenced by culture. I wanted to compare the outcomes of, this
study to Dave Norton and Rob Thomsett ‘s insights on agile adoption in the
Netherlands and other countries. Do they relate?

According to this study there are 5 dimensions on which countries can be
compared: Power Distance, Individualism, Masculinity, Uncertainly avoidance and
Long term-orientation. Hofstede indexed the differences on a scale from 0 to

Dimensions explained:
Power Distance Index (PDI) is the extent to which the less powerful
members of organizations and institutions (like the family) accept and expect
that power is distributed unequally. (This represents inequality accepted from
below, not from above)

Individualism (IDV) (its
opposite is collectivism) is the degree to which individuals are integrated
into groups. On the individualistic side we find societies in which ties
between individuals are loose: On the collectivist side, we find societies in
which people from birth onwards are integrated into strong, cohesive in-groups,
often extended families. The word ‘collectivism’ in this sense has no political
meaning: it refers to the group, not to the state. Again, the issue addressed
by this dimension is an extremely fundamental one, regarding all societies in
the world.

Masculinity (MAS)
versus its opposite, femininity, refers to the distribution of roles between
the genders. It is considered another fundamental basis for any society in
finding (other) solutions to corresponding issues. The assertive pole is called
‘masculine’ and the modest, caring pole is called ‘feminine’. In feminine
countries, both women and men have the same modest, caring values; in masculine
countries women are somewhat assertive and competitive, but not as much as men:
masculine countries typically show a gap between men’s values and women’s

Uncertainty Avoidance Index (UAI) deals with a society’s tolerance for uncertainty and
ambiguity. It ultimately refers to man’s search for truth. It indicates to what
extent a culture programs its members to feel either uncomfortable or
comfortable in unstructured situations. Unstructured situations are novel,
unknown, surprising, different from usual. Cultures that avoid uncertainty
introduce strict laws and rules, safety and security measures. On a
philosophical and religious level, they have a belief in absolute truth; ‘there
can only be one Truth and we have it’. Its members are also more emotional, and
motivated by inner nervous energy. The opposite types, members of cultures that
accept uncertainty, are more tolerant of opinions different from what they are
used to; they try to have as few rules as possible, and on the philosophical
and religious level they are relativist and allow many trends to flow side by
side. People within these cultures are more phlegmatic and contemplative, and
not expected by their environment to express emotions. Uncertainly avoidance
has a lot to do with acceptance of change.

Long-Term Orientation (LTO) versus short-term orientation: this fifth dimension was found later
It can be said to deal with virtue regardless of Truth. Long Term Orientation
is associated with values like thrift and perseverance; values associated with
Short Term Orientation are respect for tradition, fulfilling social
obligations, and ‘saving your ‘face’.

In Belgium power distance acceptance is high, in the other chosen
countries below world average.
In almost all chosen countries, except for Scan, Germany and Belgium
individuality is very high. In USA highest.
Masculinity in NL and Scan is extremely low, Germany and USA rank highest.
Uncertainty avoidance, and in my view therefore resistance to change, is
highest in Germany and Belgium, lower in the Scandinavian countries and the
other chosen countries score below world average.
NL scores about average with the world on long term orientation. Taking risk is
more applicable to UK and Canada. Unfortunately no index figures are known of
Scan and Belgium of this dimension.

When we take into account what is said about the Netherlands in relation to
Agile adoption / maturity and look at the differences between the cultural
dimensions of the chosen countries we can cautiously come to a conclusions.
The chances for successful adoption on Agile methods & practice are
obviously strongly related to a low masculinity index and low acceptance of
power distance index (NL and Scan) and uncertainty avoidance (NL and Scan lower
than world average)

In Belgium (high power distance) for instance, it’s much more important to
first gain executive support for Agile practices. In the Netherlands you have
to prove that Agile works and gives sustainability.
Belgium’s higher score on uncertainty avoidance suggests less acceptance to
change. Belgian decision makers might have a higher need for clear measures,
rules and more waterfall-like project methods. NL and certainly the UK and USA
will be more open to other solutions. Germany is -’in between’.
In the Northern European countries, the practice of one of the Agile methods –
scrum- is very common. Could there be a link between MAS score to the fact that
in Norway 25% of the executive board is female? And in Denmark about 40%? This
is a challenging idea. The degree of masculinity may be muted by a larger
feminine participation and sponsorship from the boardroom for Agile development
methods (executive support is in the top ten success factors for a project: No.
2 on the list in the studies of Standish University)

In conclusion, we can agree that, based on cultural differences in Belgium
and Germany, chances for Agile project methods to be adopted are less than in
the other six countries. Also the UK, the USA and Australia seem culturally
less inclined to adopt Agile practices.
I think, keeping the cultural differences in mind, it can help us to find ways
to tailor (training in) Agile methods and practices to fit within a culture.

Your opinion:

Now what do you think of the relationship between agile adoption and cultural
differences? Do you work in one of the countries mentioned here? Did you
actually experience the assumptions just mentioned, or do you have a different
experience of your own? Please feel free to share your thoughts with me.


1.Machiel Groeneveld 9 July 2009, 10:27

You might be reversing cause and effect here. Most, if not all, Agile
methods have an Anglo-Saxon origin. Agile is clearly a cultural artifact. To
understand the link between Agile and culture you would have to look at the
reasons why US, Dutch or Scandinavian people adopt Agile and specifically what
elements. I imagine concepts like impediments and velocity are more favorite in
the US because of their problem-fixing nature and love of statistics. In The
Netherlands, the autonomous teams, anti-management vibe and respect for the
working people is probable the reason why Dutch people are fond of Scrum. The
team work and organizing of personal freedom might fit the Scandinavian

In any case, Agile is not the same Agile in all countries. Agile might even
be twisted and turned so much to fit a culture, that I wouldn’t call it Agile
anymore. It would be even better if this analysis included data on how Agile is
adopted per country.

2.Mary Beijleveld 13 July 2009, 12:54

Great response Machiel, thank you.

To the reversing cause and effect bit: I’m more incli­ned to think it is
reciprocal. My feminine mind thinks more circular, perhaps that’s why.

Let us remember that the Waterfall method was invented by an American
computer scientist. (W.W. Royce) PMBok comes from the USA, Prince II from the
UK. So what’s coming from where?

Although contemporary Agile methods come from Anglo Saxon (US, UK)
countries they can well be inspired by insights that come from the Far East or
Europe. When we take LEAN methods into account and think of them as Agile as
well, we have the Japanese to thank for a lot of inspiration. Also for elements
you would consider ‘real’ Agile methods.

Good point to explore and discuss: attractiveness of the elements in a
method to a specific culture. I will give this a thorough ‘think thru’. If you
have any prove whatsoever about this, please disclose them to me.

Data on adoption of Agile methods per country are known to Gartner and
other research companies, I guess.

Gartner says that the Netherlands is the ‘most hottest spot’ in the world.
Also ‘hot’ on adoption are UK and US and ‘warm’ is Australia.
The Agile market share is divided in 30-35 % scrum, 20-25 % XP, 5-10 % LEAN,
RUP and FDD and 3-8 % DSDM.
Haven’t come across more facts and figures myself.
Thanks again for your reply.

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