In the Garage

Why Agility Works Better with Multicultural Teams

July 24, 2019 | 5 Minute Read

A friend sent around Luis Gonçalves’ article, “5 Crazy Reasons Why Agile Does Not Work in Germany,” which sparked a discussion in an international group of product people who have all worked in Germany. We agreed with a lot of the points and this got me thinking about how I’ve experienced agility in two different countries (Germany and China) but have a cultural mindset from a third country (the United States). Although I’ve never worked in software development in the US, I daresay I know enough that I can make a fairly general comparison, especially based on my discussions with friends in the industry there.

Originally I was going to write what I experienced in each country as a counterpoint to Gonçalves, but after drafting a post, I came to the conclusion that agility is really dependent on the people in the team and company. Sure, there are cultural aspects that help or hinder developing the mindset, and this is why I realized that agility works better with multicultural teams.

Definition of “Multicultural Teams”

When speaking of “multicultural,” there’s a lot of things that come to mind. Here in Germany, “multikulti” means a mixing pot of cultures, like Turkish and German cultures coming together. However, I mean much more than just cultures on a national, international, or ethnic level.

I really don’t want to get into the nitty gritty anthropological and philosophical views on this since I studied it for two years during my master’s, but put simply, I mean it broadly as a set of shared attitudes, values, goals, and practices…

For me, a multicultural team means a team consisting of people with a wide variety of experience and ideas, as well as different personal backgrounds on every level.

How Multiculturalism Helps Agility

Gonçalves’ article details some stereotypical German traits that really do hold true why agility won’t work:

  • Strong hierarchies;
  • Siloed society;
  • Infinite years of planning;
  • Perfectionist mentality;
  • Very traditional society.

If you threw a bunch of Americans into one room and all of them had characteristics like the ones listed above, agility still wouldn’t work even though they’re American.

But this is where multiculturalism comes in.

By having a diverse team, everyone is forced to think about what others are saying because there is not one prevailing thought or attitude. I’ve worked in teams where everyone in the team is very similar to one another and I’m the exception. Being the exception sucks and it feels like swimming against the tide— I have been the lone voice for trying something new, and my opinion is discounted because everyone else is fine with the status quo.

Agility is Like Learning a New Language

And yes, everyone agrees that agility is a mindset, and in terms of multiculturalism, it’s kind of like learning a new language or being in a new country. You’re not going to learn the exact grammatical points before you can say, “I’d like a beer, please” or how to tell someone off. You learn the most important things first (i.e. the things that are the most valuable in your situation), and you can improve your knowledge with every new situation that arises (i.e. your increment or iteration when you have to deal with bureaucracy). More importantly, you learn it when you need it; why invest the time and effort learning words and grammar when you don’t need it?

The most agile teams that I have worked with have consisted of people that go outside their comfort zones and have lived abroad, even for just a semester or for a year. If the people haven’t lived abroad, they’re the type of person who isn’t afraid of trying to speak a foreign language and messing up if they’re not speaking it perfectly. Going out of their comfort zone and just figuring it out is a key trait.

Agility isn’t supposed to be comfortable, just like being thrown into a new linguistic environment isn’t all fun and games. It’s not about planning everything down to the last detail and it’s not about constantly being successful. In fact, if you’re not continually learning and adapting, then you’re not doing it right. And in order to learn, you’re inevitably going to make mistakes along the way. Working agile is about minimizing the risk, maximizing the value, and being able to adapt quickly, regardless of what happens.

It’s a Mindset That Can Be Learned

Learning a specific mindset can be more challenging than learning a specific skill. While learning a skill, there’s certain steps and it is often measurable in some form. In contrast, learning a mindset requires change which isn’t always measurable. Using the same metaphor above, there are two ways of learning a language—in a way that is useful and applicable to every day life or you can just learn it via rote, memorizing phrases and parroting them back to someone, but not being able to hold a conversation. The mindset and approach of learning a language is similar to agility, but it can be learned.

For me, I believe learning a new mindset is more difficult than learning a specific skill, and this is why it takes time with company transformations from a non-agile to an agile environment. It took me some time to adjust and understand a German mindset when I moved here; there are so many examples of this I’ve written about, from going to the movies and going to shows to the time I wrote my entire undergrad thesis about attitudes towards pornography because hey, that’s actually a learned attitude.

Despite what Luis Gonçalves outlined in his article, I do believe that agility can be learned, even in Germany with its hierarchical and siloed society and tendency to plan everything to the most minute detail that probably doesn’t work out anyway (eh hem, Berlin Brandenburg Airport, I’m looking at you). The world is becoming a smaller place and ideas are more easily exchanged, and it’s visible in the tech industries here at certain companies.

Someone put it to me succinctly in a conversation the other day: we may be admiring the speed at which things and technology are moving now, but we will never be moving this slowly ever again. Introducing an agile mindset may take time and the companies that foster it are the ones that will be ready for the future ahead.