Friday, 30 January 2015

An Optimistic View of Agile Adoption in Asia

To address the potential for Agile adoption in Asia I will look through the lens of multiple Agile methods. The methods considered will include Scrum, Kanban, XP, SAFe, and other Agile Scaling approaches. Asia is a very diverse region, and has to be looked at from many angles to get a picture of the potential for Agile adoption. With this in mind let’s take a look at Agile adoption in Asia.

Asia is not monolithic
It is important to remember that Asia is not monolithic or homogeneous. China is different from ASEAN, India, Japan, and Korea. Countries in ASEAN differ, Singapore is not the same culturally as Thailand or Indonesia. To look at Asia as one monolithic place is not an accurate or informed view.
If we take some examples: Singapore is actively moving towards Agile methods and new technology in its “Smart Nation Initiative”. Thailand has a very active Agile community and many companies have already adopted the use of Agile methods.
China has massive companies and IT departments in the thousands of people. While this can be a challenge for launching a Scrum team, Agile Scaling methods like SAFe have the potential to do very well in the China market. I liken the “leapfrog” potential in the China market to what occurred in Africa in the adoption of cellular technologies and “leapfrogging” over land lines.
Malaysia and Indonesia have been slower in movement towards Agile methods. Korea and Japan have very strong and unique cultures that make it difficult for outsiders to introduce new methods, but the potential for Agile still exists in these markets as well. Japan is the home and originating point of Lean (the Toyota Production System) after all, which is a key foundation for Agile methods.
In South Asia India has been working with Agile methods for years and outsourcing for US and European companies. Many Indian companies establish dedicated teams for Agile methods and adopt Agile methods quite successfully. Sri Lanka is also coming onto the world scene since its internal environment has stabilized and there too some early Agile adoption is taking place. I encountered several companies from Sri Lanka that were very familiar with and / or using Agile methods at the 2014 Gartner Gold Coast IT Symposium in Australia.

Education system in Asia
A criticism of the education system in Asia is that it focuses too much on grades and rank. The argument is that this means there is a lack of creativity which is needed for business agility, Design Thinking, and creative solutions.
My wife a teacher by training in the US came to Singapore on a Fulbright Fellowship to study the education System. One of her findings was that even though in past generations the education system was very focused on grades and rank, that there is more of a move now towards creative thinking and creative problem solving in the schools.
In fact innovation in Asia overall is on the increase. In 2014, China actually accounted for some 32.1% of worldwide patent filings. This can be taken as an indication of innovation and creativity, which is required to create new patents. Shenzhen in southern China is a good example of a Chinese modern hub of innovation.
The overall trend in Asia is toward greater creativity and innovation. This also follows from ancient culture and history in Asia. In China much innovation originated including: gun powder, the compass, paper, and golf among many.

Outsourcing – Reducing Costs
There have been some interesting points made on this topic in an article I recently read. It is interesting to note that in the US outsourcing and cost reduction are a constant focus in companies and IT (which is often viewed as a cost center). In particular a point was made around a low cost Scrum / Agile adoption mentality in Asia. Another point was made around “Agile Project Management” methods being taught as a low cost low effort way to try and adopt Agile.
I think it is valuable to address these points. From experience in the US market I know that it is true that low cost, low effort transitions to Agile are often attempted by simply training Project Managers and developers on Scrum, and changing little else in the organization.   However, I want to point out that Scrum actually includes a project management framework (managing risks, updating on progress, etc…). This is important because it points to the alignment of managing projects and using Agile methods, these two are not contradictory but rather an evolution of methods.
When done properly it is quite possible to help those who have been traditional project managers to work in the context of an Agile organization, and in fact in many cases this is very necessary. For example in the SAFe framework for scaling Agile the role of the Release Train Engineer (RTE – Uber ScrumMaster) can often be effectively played by someone with traditional project management experience (skills like seeing dependencies, and coordinating large groups). The approach to leading becomes a servant leadership approach.   But, the skills obtained in a project management context are still valuable.

Culture
I have seen many comments that suggest that culture in Asia is not compatible with Scrum and Agile. A focus on what is best for the community over the individual is a feature of Chinese culture. This focus on community lends itself to the team aspects of Agile. As I have mentioned in prior blog posts on my Blog AuspiciousAgile.com the community aspects and focus common to many Asian cultures lend themselves very well to the team focus and empowered teams of Agile and Scrum.

Hierarchy
A common observation is that the hierarchy that exists in much of Asian culture is a challenge to Agile adoption. I think this is a valid point. However, I think this is a challenge but not an insurmountable one.
Let’s take the US where Agile adoption is high and steadily increasing as an example. In the US individualism does not align with the team focus of Agile. Many developers and others are focused on what is best for them before they are concerned about what is good for the team. But Agile is still workable in the US. Organizations are able to overcome this challenge in the US and successfully adopt Agile.   Similarly Asia’s social hierarchy does not lend itself to Agile’s servant leadership model, but it is not insurmountable.
In a “Leading SAFe” class that I was teaching recently one participant commented that they have experienced many very successful Agile adoptions in Asia. The comment was that success really depended more on the individual organization than it did on only the broader cultural factors. While I don’t want to downplay broader cultural forces, I think that organizational culture and values can still provide for successful Agile adoption in most countries in Asia.

In Summary 
While there are challenges to adoption of Agile in Asia, I do not see any of them as insurmountable.   Similarly in the US there were cultural aspects (individualism) that are not necessarily aligned with Agile adoption. However, in spite of these cultural challenges Agile adoption has still moved forward in the US. I see no reason that the cultural challenges to the adoption of Agile methods in Asia can not also be overcome.