Problematic Agile Adoption in Chinese Markets

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08th Jun, 2022
Problematic Agile Adoption in Chinese Markets

During my tenure as a trainer, a number of trainees came to learn because their organizationshave failed to adopt Agile. I learned from those trainees that their organizations once tried to adopt Agile, but eventually failed. A large percentage of those failures was caused by organizational and cultural issues, i.e. people’s mindset.

For most of the time, the initiatives were kicked off when the business units were briefed about the advantages of Agile project management and how it can be helpful in the current project. But in such cases, only the bright sides of the plan were highlighted.  Consultants, whether internal or external, usually hide the potential issues of Agile. Everyone aims for great success; there is no one willing to highlight the possible threats and pain points when converting to Agile.  Before actually joining the Scrum Planning meetings, Daily Scrum, reviewing intermediate products, many of the stakeholders are not aware what they need to do when jumping into the agile wagon & Implementing Marketing in Agile

Apart from the above technical implementation issues, cultural issues in Chinese markets or organizations that consist of mainly Chinese are also inhibiting the adoption of agile methods.

Skeptical of Change

Chinese in general strive for calm and peace. In their culture, including some religions, change brings uncertainties. They are skeptical about changes. A lot of organizations,while implementing Agile, proceed with high precautions, which sometimes gives rise to constraints.

A good plan, ramping up from small, less critical projects, will help organizations to implement Agile. Short term, intermittent degradation of the teams’ productivity are expected and should be well alerted to stakeholders before the project starts. Open, honest and continuous reviews, together with a “no blame” perspective, help the teams to improve and move to the next stage of agility.

Slow Decision Making

Chinese were brought up in an environment where people respect social hierarchy.  The same mindset is developed within companies. Workers take order from their supervisors; managers get instructions from senior management. This cultural value impacts the Agile project environment where team members are in-charge in their area of expertise and must be able to make prompt decisions to move things fast. However, in Chinese society, hierarchical mindset makes people avoid decision-making processes.  When you ask a Chinese for a decision, a very standard and yet annoying response is “Let me talk to my manager first.”

To resolve this, companies should initiate formal delegation rules.  The upper management should explicitly authorize their project team members when working on Agile projects. Managers should make their subordinates aware what kinds of decision the subordinates can make and to what authoritative level.  For example, a manager can delegate his/her authority to a supervisor by saying- “You can make any decision so long all the ‘Must Have’ features in the coming release are not affected.”  By doing this, the supervisor can make trade-offs, counter proposals to ensure the team can complete most valued features on time and bring maximum value to the organization.  Implementing best practices like PRINCE2 Agile would help in defining appropriate tolerance level and exceptions from the onset.

Demotivated Project Managers

When organizations move from traditional to Agile processes, sometimes they follow the standard practice to rename job title of project managers to Scrum Masters.  This should be done with great care.  Chinese people consider job titles as rankings and a measure of seniority.  I have seen quite a lot of organizations virtually naming everyone managers, at least for the title printed on name cards. For example, “Vice President” is not an uncommon title in customer-facing departments. But at the same time, it should be kept in mind that people treasure their “manager” title more, and might consider this title change a demotion or loss of authority.

At the same time, when developing in Agile, project managers will turn into servant-leaders. They have less duty to manage the team and might become less influential. Many project decisions now become group decisions, made by the Agile project team including developers and business owners.  The definitive power of project manager in traditional projects is distributed among many others. All these changes might make the project managers dislike or even despise the transition from traditional to Agile project management.  With the key personnel who is supposed to drive the Agile transition demotivated, how can the Agile projects deliver better results than previous traditional projects?

To minimize the impact of organizational change, the management could consider retaining project managers’ title in the new agile team instead of renaming to something like Scrum Master.  On the other hand, offer formal training to enable them with all necessary skills to become agile PMs.  Might be even further, fund and help them to acquire public agile certifications.


It is never easy to effect changes which are against people’s beliefs and values.  Cultural issues are harder to solve than technical ones.  Define-and-plan actions for quick wins, active engagement with stakeholders along with continual improvement will help remove the roadblocks to agility.



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