I was having a chat over coffee about Scrum and Agile with an Agile Coach who works for Australia’s largest Bank at a local cafe. One of the topics we discussed was Agility and Scrum adoption in Asia. He is wondering whether there are any Asian Banks who are Agile from end-to-end — that is from the high-level management level down to the staff level. He wants to compare the level of maturity of Scrum adoption in these Asian Banks to the Bank he is currently working for. The Bank he is currently working for is opening several branches in South East Asian countries therefore, the management has asked him to fly to South East Asia to introduce Scrum and Agility to the local managers. However, he has faced resistance from the local managers. The local managers have asked him to find other Asian Banks that can be seen as a role model for Scrum adoption. Many Asian leaders believe that whatever that works in the Western world does not necessarily will work in the Eastern world.
During his research, he found that most Banks in Asia has not gone full-throttle with Agility. He was quite surprised with his own findings because most large Banks in Australia see Agility as a necessity and not an option. He was also surprised that most Scrum adoption in Asia is only done at the software development level while the management is not using Agile management methods. Most (if not all) Asian companies are very conservative and has not gone fully on board with Agility. Most Asian companies who claims to be Agile only adopt Scrum for software development while at the management level, the managers are still using traditional management.
I have been conducting Scrum trainings and Scrum coachings for companies in Hong Kong, Dubai, Indonesia, Japan, South Korea, Philippines, Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand, Vietnam over the past five years. I have seen many misunderstandings about Scrum and Agility from this part of the world. Managers who work in Asian companies perceive Scrum and Agility as a software development thing, they have not yet realised that in order for the company to reap benefits out of Agility, active participation and good understanding about Scrum and Agility from them is required. Over the years, I’ve also done mini-research and interviews with people about their local culture. The research is of course not very scientific because I want to get close and personal with these people when talking about their local culture. These local culture is preventing Scrum and Agility to be massively adopted in Asia and the reason why management is still resistant to adopt Agile management method.
There are a few Asian companies who has gone full throttle with Agile, these companies are usually web companies who are lead by the younger generations who has worked or studied in Europe, Australia or North America. These leaders are a big believer in Scrum and Agility because they have seen it work at their previous workplace. Not only local Asian companies who are struggling to understand the real meaning of Agility, multinational companies who has development centres in Asia has not also reaped the most out of Scrum and Agility because the local managers are still using traditional approaches to manage the company and the Scrum teams.
Ken Schwaber have written a blog post that people who are culturally attuned to predictability will actually see bad software, missed schedules, wasted money, and demoralized workers. Here are my additional reasons why Scrum and Agility do not work in Asia. I have put many generalisations in these reasonings. There are of course exceptions, although they are not many.
1: Everything in life should have a hierarchy
Asians believe that in order for the universe we live in to work systematically, everything should have a hierarchy. There is Yin and Yang. There is a Caste system. The younger generations should respect the older generations. Subordinates should listen to the Boss because most people believe that the Boss have all the answers. In some Asian countries where the King is an absolute monarch, the King should have all of the final answers. The same also goes in countries that adopts the single state party system.
While the Westerners believe in egalitarian, most Asian are comfortable in the presence of a hierarchy in which they know their position and the customs/rules for behavior in the situation. Having a freeform structure where everybody work collaboratively and cross-functionally in a self-organising manner is found to be illogical as it is seen to be an out-of-order system. People expect to be told what to do and people want to tell other people what to do because that is how a system that is in order works.
In most Asian cultures, the position in the company also defines the social status in the society. Asian would rather be a Project Manager because the role is clear and because a PM has authority over many things compared to an Agile coach or a Scrum Master that does not have any authority to tell people what to do. For most people in Asia being a true Agile Coach or Scrum Master looks inferior. That is why when you browse over LinkedIn, you will often see people who claim to be a Scrum Master in their respective company will also put Project Manager as a side title because they want to get acknowledgement from their friends. The reason why many people in Asia who claim to be an Agile Coach or Scrum Master still put Project Manager title on their LinkedIn profile is either because their company has not yet recognized the role of Agile Coach or Scrum Master; or because they want to be seen to have power in the company and up-to-date with the latest trend in the Agile community at the same time. Even an Agile coach who does not have a Project Manager as a side title, still can’t resist telling people what to do. Asians have not yet realised that Scrum Master is actually a Manager, a different kind of Manager.
Besides Scrum Master who still acts like a traditional top-down manager in many Asian companies, there is also no such thing as empowered “Product Owner” who I like to call as the Mini-CEO for the product she owns. Any decision made by a Product Owner can be (and most likely is going to be) overridden by anybody who has the strongest political power in the company. In Asian companies, most Product Owner is just like an accessory, he/she does not have any control over the product he/she is managing. But the funny thing is, these people who have stronger political power do not want to be a Product Owner as they are too “busy” collaborating with the development team. The word empowerment in many Asian companies mean, keeping away power from the inferiors.
Even though these social strata is not seen to be important in the Western culture, it is seen to be very important in Asian culture. In most Asian companies, programmer is at the most bottom of the hierarchy. This position in the hierarchy most of the time defines the salary level too. That is also why the majority of Asian programmers do not dream to be a programmer for the rest of their life because programmer is at the lowest level in the company. And if they work as a programmer for the rest of their life the society will think their career is stagnant and not progressing. You will often see questions in Agile or Scrum community forum around career path as a Scrum Master or a developer in an organisation implementing Scrum 99% of the time are asked by Asian.
From my observation the belief where everything in life should have a hierarchy is the major reason why Scrum does not work to the fullest in Asia.
2: Let’s keep things in harmony
Asian are very good in keeping harmony. Asian tend to avoid conflicts in order to maintain harmony with their peers. There is nothing wrong with this but it is quite different to Westerners who aren’t afraid to face conflict, confront directly, criticize, discuss controversial topics, press personal opinions about what they consider the truth. Having the courage to face conflict is encouraged in an Agile organisation but it is rarely seen in Asian companies, especially having a conflict with the Boss. Having conflict with the Boss will be seen as something that is rebellious.
This habit of not getting used to face conflicts impact the way Agile teams in Asia run their Sprint Planning, Sprint Review, Sprint Retrospectives and Daily Scrum. And don’t even mention about Pair Programming. People tend to hold back their opinions because they are not accustomed to a safe environment to make many mistakes. Retrospectives become dull and boring because people will say there is no problem at all during the Sprint when the reality is people are afraid to see problems that will be exposed if everyone speak up and after a while people will say their Retrospectives are useless and they should stop doing it. Sprint Planning becomes monotone where most people will just follow whoever have the loudest voice. Sprint Review just becomes a one-way demo and a project status update for the management. Sprint Planning just becomes a contract, no information exchange, no negotiation, no difference to the way it is done with Waterfall. Daily Scrum becomes a routinely held status update meeting for the managers instead of a daily collaborative plan adjustment.
At the end of the day, it is very hard to see transparency, one of the three legs in Scrum, from these kind of teams because people will do anything to tell you what you want to hear. People have fears to face conflict and get into trouble. It is also common that people will work longer hours without the Boss knowing to cover the issue that is currently happening. People don’t question why Scrum becomes a micromanagement tool because people like to keep things in harmony and because people would like to secure their job because the management thinks that they are replaceable.
3: Different education system, different school of thoughts
Asian education system is very much different to the Western education system. Just as the Boss is seen to always have the answers, the same also applies in the classroom, the teacher and the lecturer is seen to be the smartest person in the room. While most schools in the West are moving towards active discussion using case method that involves everyone in the room, schools in Asia still emphasize on rote method. Such an approach will build strong test-takers, but it also puts huge pressure on students and discourages independent thinking. Asian education system is all about high grades and ranks, not about experimenting, self-discovery and making mistakes, which is what Agility is all about.
Having been taught in school and university where people are not encouraged to make lots of mistakes and encounter their own teachers and lecturers for almost sixteen years, Asian do not feel safe to make mistakes at the workplace.
Asian education system impacts the way people think and behave in the work environment. Self-organisation, the key tenets of Scrum is difficult to be done in Asian companies because self-organising is not what people have been taught in school and university. Asian have been taught to follow the rules and follow the system, breaking it would be seen as rebellious. Asian want to be told how to be Agile and how to do Scrum properly by the trainer or consultant rather than discovering the answers themselves. Educating Asian about self-organisation and self-discovery means undoing what people have been taught in school and university for almost sixteen years.
4: Outsourcing — everything comes down to reducing costs
The last reason why Scrum and Agility is found to be difficult to be done in Asian companies is because Asia is an outsourcing heaven. You may be questioning: Why is outsourcing even an issue?
Companies in Europe, North America and Australia outsource to other countries in Asia to reduce cost. Unfortunately, this also comes with a cost. Just because these companies have seen Scrum and Agility work at their part of the world, it doesn’t mean it is easy to implant the culture of Agility in Asia. Even though with Agility you can save development cost, it doesn’t mean building the culture of Agility is also cheap. In fact Agility expects great team members and the best software developers most often are not cheap.
Because of this cheapness mindset, I’ve seen it too many times where people take the cheapest route to be Agile: go to the cheapest training that teaches Scrum as a prescriptive solution, take online training, get the cheapest Agile certification, even pay for a test jockey to do their Scrum Master certification assessment, etc. Many Asians still think that Scrum is a project management methodology that can just be installed without any hard work and everything will be fixed the following day. This cheapness perception also comes from some (dodgy) Trainers and Consultants who taught them prescriptive Scrum and “Agile Project Management”.
Going to Scrum training and getting Scrum certification will not automatically make any organisation Agile. Moving into Agility involves hard work, patience, breaking the silos, putting aside pride, management involvement, trust, courage, many organisational changes, many experiments and many failures (that may involve experienced Agile Coaches) over many years. And all of that can be quite expensive. If building an Agile organisation is expensive, building an Agile organisation in Asia is even more expensive because of the two other reasons that I have mentioned.
Scrum does not work here in Asia as long as people still think that transitioning into Agility is cheap as chips.
Is that all? How can it be so hard?
There are actually many other reasons why Scrum and Agility do not work here in Asia and why many Asian companies can not reap the most out of Scrum and Agility but some of my friends have advised me not to write it in a public space as many people will find it very sensitive and offensive. Even when writing this took me some courage as I expect some people will feel offended.
Will Scrum ever work in Asia? Can things change?
Agility is still like an accessory in the majority of Asian companies, people don’t really do it for the value behind it but for the sake of staying cool amongst the world. Asian companies don’t want to look left behind in the Agile bandwagon, but instead of going full-throttle with Agility and making changes in their organisation, they sugarcoat whatever they are currently doing and call it Agile.
I personally think it will take a revolution to have Scrum and Agility to be massively adopted by Asian companies and well understood by Asian leaders as there are many fundamental cultural barriers that need to be removed first to make Scrum fully works like in the Western companies, especially the hierarchical top-down management approach that is still very thick in the majority of Asian companies. But there is hope as many newer generations in Asia want to change how the organisation should be run in the 21st century. I am hoping that I am still around on the day where Scrum and Agility become the norm and no longer an option in Asia. I am hoping while continue sipping my last bit of coffee.