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While I was delivering a course on agile fundamentals this week, one of the learners in the class asked me how the mindset and behaviors normally associated with agile teams might impact or be impacted by culture. He suggested context (low or high) as a cultural characteristic which would influence the starting point for a team and which could then change as the team matures, but the same can be said for other cultural dimensions. (So thanks, Tony, this article is for you!)

Geert Hofstede’s research into national culture identifies multiple dimensions which can be used to describe differences between countries. Some of these could be considered in addition to context when observing how such teams develop.

  • Context: When members have never worked together, a newly formed team will often exhibit low-context cultural behavior. Ground rules have to be developed, documentation needed to support delivery tends to be heavier and hand-offs are explicitly communicated. As the team matures, its culture shifts towards a higher context where interactions become more tacit than explicit. We often see this in the puck passes made by hockey players who have played together for a long time. Rather than having to yell out “Pass!” or “I’m open!”, they seem to communicated with each other using telepathy!
  • Power Distance: Formal power, titles and status will generally be of greater importance to members early in the life of a team, but as the team matures, there is greater acceptance and less attention paid to formal power imbalances. My earlier article about the television show, The A-Team, referenced this with regards to the dynamics between Colonel John “Hannibal” Smith and the other members of the team.
  • Uncertainty Avoidance: When a team is newly formed, its members will have varying degrees of comfort with risk and ambiguity based on their individual risk appetites and that of the divisions or organizations they belong to. But as the level of psychological safety within the team increases, there should be a corresponding lowering of uncertainty avoidance. This doesn’t mean that people will jump from being risk averse to becoming gamblers but rather that over time they will move down that continuum.
  • Assertiveness: Depending on the culture from which individual team members come from, they might exhibit high or low assertiveness when they first join the team. Over time, the team will become balanced between the two extremes. While higher degrees of empathy and collaboration will emerge as the team matures, we would also see all team members having the courage to speak truth to power or providing feedback with radical candor.
  • Long Term Orientation: This dimension considers the degree to which we value long-term gains over short-term ones. This may be impacted less by the stage in a team’s development but more by the shift in collective mindset from traditional delivery emphasis on big, heavy [planning, requirements, design] upfront to the lean principle of deferring decisions till the last responsible moment.

Understanding culture across these dimensions can be helpful for leaders such as agile leads and functional managers to interpret the behaviors they observe so that they can better support the development of high-performing teams.

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