What are the right conditions for agile adoption?

Posted on September 01, 2008 by admin

For several years, I've been promoting the notion that "Trust is the essence of agile." Others like Clarke Ching have joined that chorus [See Carnival of Trust]. This year, I've been articulating that the statement "[We value] Customer Collaboration over Contract Negotiation" was the statement in the Agile Manifesto that really captured this concept. High trust, high social capital cultures allow the overheads of contract negotiation, commitments, audit and arbitration to be eliminated - saving time and money.

But it was back in December 2007, when I was in Belgium for the Javapolis event, giving an evening talk to the Belgium XP Users Group that some of the Dutch attendees came up to me and said, "So, if agile is all about high trust culture and Holland is one of the highest trust countries in the World, why is agile adoption in Holland so slow?" This got me thinking.

The answer came to me early this year, while I was reading Collapse by Jared Diamond. This is a book many claim to have read. It is a best seller. You can get it in many airport bookstalls. But it is one of the most dense and detailed texts I've undertaken to read. It took me about 4 months to read it through. But it was worth the effort. The most valuable and relevant insight for us, in the Agile community, I would suggest comes in Chapter 9 during the discussion of the demise of the Greenland Norse.

The Norse were actually in Greenland before the Inuit. They were eventually displaced by the Inuit who were moving south as the Earth cooled in the early part of the 2nd millenium AD. The climate change eradicated the Greenland Norse. The Inuit were not native to the region. They had moved in and displaced the Dorset people to the North some centuries earlier. They rarely encountered the Norse but when they did it led to fighting. Eventually, the Inuit eliminated most of the Norse population in a battle one summer. The following year the rest of the population appears to have perished in the winter. So what went wrong?

It seems the Greenland Norse would not change and would not adapt to changing conditions around them. They remained European. And practiced European farming methods. They had a European structure to their society including a cathedral, bishop, and tribal hierarchy associated with government. They took their lead from these civic and religious leaders. It seems they stopped eating fish early in their tenure in Greenland. Why? No one knows. They maintained a mainly European diet, consisting of animals and crops they farmed. As the climate cooled, the yield from the land would not sustain the animals and crops and they eventually starved to death.

Meanwhile, the Inuit thrived. The Norse had the opportunity to observe the Inuit. There are writings. In fact every Norse encounter with the Inuit appears to be documented. It seems the Norse believed themselves superior to the Inuit who were savages and heathen as they were not of the Christian (Roman Catholic) faith. Hence, the Norse did not value the Inuit or their methods. But the Inuit were thriving. They had fast canoes. They could fish. They ate fish. And they had survival techniques that allowed them to cope with changing conditions. But as the Norse slowly perished they did nothing. They refused to change.

To (perhaps overly) simplify, the Greenland Norse were a conservative culture. They stuck to what they new. The continued to do things the way they always had and they hoped it would see them through adversity. In the end, this conservative approach that was resistant to change and preferred the status quo was what killed them. Had they been a liberal culture, ready to embrace new methods and open to the influence of other people and their ideas, then the Norse may well have adapted and eventually assimilated with the Inuit and lived harmoniously with them. But they didn't. Refusal to adapt to change killed them. They ceased to exist in the 14th Century.

So, this brought me to the conlcusion that the ideal circumstances for Agile to thrive and gain adoption were in cultures that have both high social capital (high levels of trust) and are liberal (small "l") in thinking and open to new ideas, new thinking and influence from outsiders. While Holland is seen as a liberal country in several social ways - soft drugs are legalized (regulated and taxed) and so is prostitution - in business Holland is a conservative country. Any Dutch people I've discussed this with have tended to nod vigorously.

The other very high trust culture where Agile has struggled for adoption is Japan. Again, despite the goths in Harijuku on a Sunday, in business Japan is truly a very conservative culture.

So where is the broadest Agile adoption in Europe. It's mainly in Britain, and the Nordic countries. The Scandavian countries (Norway, Denmark, Sweden) are all high trust cultures, though not (I believe) just quite as high as Holland or Japan (or perhaps it is the length of track record that matters - as Holland and Japan have been recognized as high social capital countries for as much as 300+ years). Anyway, why is Agile adoption in the Nordic region higher. Is it because businesses in Finland, Sweden, Norway and Denmark are more open to change? more open to ouside ideas? more open to influences? and generally more adaptable in their outlook to process and business methods? [I'm asking the question. The Scandanavians and Finns reading this can tell me if they agree.] As for Britain, it's a pretty liberal culture despite its reputation. It isn't a particularly high trust culture but neither is it a low trust culture.

Meanwhile, the low rate of adoption in southern Europe and Latin countries does seem to be predicted by a lack of social capital in society and/or a conservative approach to business.

What I'm wondering now is whether Agile can become established in low social capital, conservative cultures and it simply takes time, or whether it simply will never be adopted. This would beg the question, will the economies of these countries suffer, as they fail to adapt to change. Will they economically suffer a similar fait to that of the Greenland Norse? As the climate changes will they fail to adapt and instead of being eliminated, simply become 2nd or 3rd rate, with greatly reduced relative economic performance significant drop in GDP per capita ranking compared with other countries, as the 21st Century unfolds?

It will be interesting to watch.

Trust by Francis Fukuyama

Collapse by Jared Diamond

Related Articles
Trust is the Essence of Agile, June 25th 2005

Clarke Ching, Carnival of Trust, June 2008

Pascal Van Cauwenberghe, David Anderson on Trust, December 15th, 2007

You are What You Read, December 29th, 2005

Naked Review, Feb 5th, 2006

Dennis van der Stelt, Trust is the Essence of Agile, July 5th, 2005