Socio-cultural enabler for agile project management


Hiroko Nagaya, Graduate School of Hokkaido University
Takeomi Imani, Graduate School of System Design and Management, Keio University
Seiko Shirasaka, Graduate School of System Design and Management, Keio University

The objectives of this paper are to identify socio-cultural factors impacting Agile Project Management (APM) and to present a conceptual framework for effective APM from a global perspective.

The paper begins with describing the needs of our research and then presenting a hypothesis developed through an extensive literature reviews, and continues with an initial correlation analysis between APM success and cultural factors. We then discuss a team building approach through a comparative study between the West and East as a referential framework for an in-depth discussion of APM team culture. The last section presents our conclusion and a method of our future research to verify the hypothesis.


There are growing needs to add agile principles and practices in many project professionals who experienced in traditional techniques (PMBOK® Guide, 2013) and projects with unclear goals and high volatility (Fernandez 2008). As stated in the “Agile development manifesto” below (Beck, 2001), an organization faces major paradigm shift in transforming from traditional project management to APM.

  1. Individuals and interactions over processes and tools
  2. Working software over comprehensive documentation
  3. Customer collaboration over contract negotiation
  4. Responding to change over following a plan

A report published in 2014 on APM implementation by industry and regions which covers 76 countries and 17 industries shows that overall 60% adopted traditional method while 28% adopted Agile, and the rest falls under “hybrid” methods. By industries, it is reported that 37% in the software industry adopted Agile, financial industry 15% and others 10%. (Conforto, 2014) In Japan where total sales of IT services total 5 trillion yen, Agile makes up less than 5%. (ITC Japan, 2014) From the time of that Agile was first introduced by the Illinois University's research team in 1991, (Gunasekaran, 1998) and 17 industrial experts published the Manifesto in 2001 to now, the rate of APM implementation still remains low. What are the reasons behind the low penetration rate? Are there any socio-cultural factors contributing to this phenomenon? These questions prompted the research team for further exploration of these issues.

Project management is an integrated effort of managing external and internal environmental factors impacting a project. Socio-cultural factors are one of the imperative considerations that a project practitioners need to pay attention to for the effective execution of APM.

Research questions

Insights on socio-cultural attributes that impacts traditional project management approach

As mentioned by Bredillet, “Cross cultural issues and potential synergistic and antagonistic effects on project teams are important area for research, particularly in view of the growing diversity of project teams, globalization, and global sourcing of project work.” (Bredillet, 2007), cultural norms may have strong influences on a project's ability to meet its objectives (PMBOK® Guide, 2008).

There have been various views on cultural norms. Hall for instance, compared the differences between high context cultures and low context cultures (Hall, 1976), while Brake and Walker offered a complete list of Global Cultural Orientation (Brake and Walker, 1995). From a human resources management view, Turner & Moller defined leadership styles in European and North American countries (Turner & Moller, 2006). Turner, Huemann, and Keegan, on the other hand focused on human resources management in European countries (Turner, Huemann, & Keegan, 2007). De Mascia pointed out the importance of creating a team culture identity (De Mascia, 2012). In the recently published study by PMI, “Cultural Imperatives in Perception of Project Success and Failure”, the authors “explore the effect of global cultural perspectives in perceptions of project success and failure” (PMI, 2012).

As previously described in the “Agile Development Manifesto”, APM asks for a different set of socio-cultural norms from that of traditional waterfall methodology. Existing studies so far only evaluate the impact of cultural factors on traditional project management approach from a view of a national culture. They do not; however, provide us with sufficient insights to identify positive factors impacting APM, which the authors call “Enablers.” The authors further broke down the cultural aspects into national character, corporate culture, and project management practices. A report on the study of 94,472 project management cases by Pollack indicates that key words such as “Business& Economics” and “Innovation” has become recent buzzwords of project management. (Pollack, 2014)

Agile Project Management and Development

It is widely recognized that agile methodology originated as an amalgamation of various Japanese manufacturing systems and Western re-engineering concepts. This was then adapted into a software development framework. Scrum which is one of the APM methodologies originated from Toyota's manufacturing systems. (Sutherland, 1993) (Takeuchi, 1986) Many Japanese electronics, machinery and other industries have implemented cell type manufacturing systems in order to cope with diverse needs of customers. The cell systems received attention for its superiority over the conventional division of work or large volume assembly line manufacturing due to its self-completed work systems.

Agile system aims to provide value to customers by placing priority on the latter part of the manufacturing process rather that initial planning process in order to be flexible to cope with environmental changes. (Takeuchi, 1986). The Agile Development Manifesto states customer satisfaction as the first priority (Beck, 2001). Considering that some of the concepts of Agile originated from Japan, the authors wonder why the rate of agile implementation in Japan is well below the global average at less than 10%.

Taking the above into considerations, the authors raise the following questions.

  1. Are there socio-cultural enablers or disablers for APM?
  2. If there are, what are those attributes and how should the project manager overcome the disablers?

Exhibit 1 - Conceptual model of the research.

Research Method

The research consists of two steps. First, a conceptual model on the relationship between culture and project management framework based on extensive literature reviews is presented. Next, having identified the enablers and disablers of APM, a relationship mapping was created which facilitates hypothesis building. Exhibit 1 shows the conceptual model. The left side shows cultural attributes that are from Hofstede and cultural index from the PMBOK® Guide and Team Culture of the project initiating team. The right lists APM drivers and success indicators categorized by the Manifesto, APM, and development genome.

Initial Analysis and Hypothesis

Agile success factor

What are the success factors of APM? The authors posed this question by breaking down in detail factors obtained from referential frameworks of the Manifesto, agile management, and agile development. On agile management, reference is obtained from 10 Enables proposed by Conforto's study. (Conforto, 2014) On agile development, Glaiel's 7 Agile Genome was referenced. (Glaiel, 2013) It should be noted that a perspective of customer and vendor relationship are mentioned in all three frameworks. Thus, special attention is given to the attributes of customer-vendor relationship in our analysis.

Cultural impacting factor

One of the useful studies regarding the impact of culture on APM is by Hanisch, where cultural and social process are described in detail as a one of the components of project management framework. (Hanisch, 2007). The study presents three cultural dimensions. The first dimension is national culture which corresponds to the cultural dimensions by Hofstede. The second is corporate culture of where a project belongs to. And the third deals with the culture of project management and the team. The authors would include a fourth dimension on top of the three, customer and vendor relationship. These four dimensions become input in our analysis on their relationship to the agile success factors. The diagram of Exhibit 2 below shows the relationship between cultural dimensions with agile project drivers.


Exhibit 2 - Initial analysis of the relationships between culture and Agile project drivers.

Exhibit 2 shows the initial relationship analysis results. The vertical side shows the cultural factors and the horizontal agile success factors. The detail of cultural factors and some of its relationships is based on our research results between culture and project management since 2012. The numbers shows the total count of the enabler relationship and disabler relationship respectively.

For enablers, “Team spirit PM” has highest number with ten, composing five from the positive relationships with Agile Management , four from Agile Development, and one from Agile manifesto. As for disablers, “Wall with customers/vendors” got the highest score of nine. Exhibit 3 shows the summary of our hypothesis.


Exhibit 3 - Major hypothesis.

What's important to today's project practitioners and senior managers whether it is traditional or Agile methodology, is to pay considerable attention to the cultural aspects of a project and take necessary measures to satisfy stakeholders, which is the ultimate success criteria of a project.


Team Culture Identification as a Tool for Effective Agile Team Building

This section elaborates further on team culture attributes shown the left-lower part of Exhibit 1. Team formation is the one of the significant drivers for an effective APM as previously identified. Anantatmula defined organization culture as “shared beliefs, values, and practices of a group or groups within the organization. Culture is an area that has been identified as a cause of project failure” (Anantatmula, 2010). Team culture is total sum of the values or customs that each stakeholder possesses. A growing trend of culturally diverse project team makes it difficult to share a common “cultural norms”. Managing team members ‘expectations on cultural norm which are reflections of one's national, corporate and project backgrounds is not easy since most of times they are hidden as tacit knowledge. How could we ensure a team's cultural norms are aligned as APM asks for? Are our team member's expectations oriented towards low power distance or high power? In answering the question, the authors propose a visualized representation of a team's culture.

Four types of team culture

The authors propose four types of project team cultures as an analogical tool for accessing a team culture as shown in Exhibit 4. They are orchestra team, street solo musician, jazz jam session team and a Gagaku team. The orchestra team symbolizes process or task oriented team (high in hard skills) whereas Japanese Gagaku team is human-oriented (high in soft skills) team. Process skill is to ensure delivery of the desired product in the most cost effective and efficient manner. Human skill is to ensure team members maintain harmony and teamwork. Gagaku is Japanese court music established in Japan 1200 years ago, mainly performed during imperial festivals. Gagaku team is characterized as a self-organized team with no conductor to direct the team, musical scores are not depended on, relationships to the other instruments are sensed and remembered, and are highly goal-oriented while maintaining each member's autonomy and self-leadership.


Exhibit 4 - Four types of project team.

The Exhibit 5 below describes some of the team culture characteristics of Gagaku and Orchestra in line with some of the significant attributes in the Exhibit 2. Exhibit 2 shows that Low context of National culture indicates one of the Enablers; however it is noted that this applied in early stage of team formation where clearly defined communication management process shall be placed in order to ensure customer or vendor engagement in the project. A culturally diverse team in particular, requires explicit communication rules and tools, even for an agile team. Once a team acknowledge the rules placed in the initiation stage of a project in form of the “Team charter”, the commonly accepted rules becomes the basis for accelerating the team to transform into self-directed friendly Gagaku type team where each individual team member think and act in a self-managed way while keeping high team work spirit. The authors believe that the low context communication style in an initiation stage and high context style, the Gagaku style, in the following stages is the clue factors for successful creation of agile team. This transformation process is also applied to defining role and responsibilities. In earlier stages of a team formation, clearly defined role and responsibility shall be implemented. Once team members accept this, the team moves to latter stages of self-directed team, i.e., the essence of Gagaku team.


Exhibit 5 – Team culture characteristics.

Team culture profiling

How could we identify each member's tacit expectation on team building while reaching a rational conclusion on what team culture should be? We will answer this by visualizing cultural norms of project teams which we refer as “Team Culture Profiling”.

  1. Conduct a survey of major stakeholders of the team.
    The survey questions consist of team culture characteristics as shown in Exhibit 5. Members select one's expectation of each attribute.
  2. Through a qualitative and qualitative analysis, the survey result creates a team profile in the form of radar chart as shown in Exhibit 6

Exhibit 6 - Sample of team culture profile.

This profile serves the purpose for team member to review the cultural norms of the team. Is our team more Gagaku oriented or Orchestra oriented? This profile then is used as a tool for a facilitative workshop on how the team can overcome the weakness in order to form an ideal APM team. Upon a consensus made through constructive facilitation, a “Team Charter” is created to ensure buy-in from the major stakeholders participating in the project.

Conclusions and Future Direction

One of the critical findings of our research is that when discussing the impacts of socio-cultural factors on APM, it is imperative to expand its scope to include the dimension of corporate culture, business practice and project management practices in addition to the national cultural. With this in mind, the authors conclude that for an effective execution of APM, the factors outside of the team such as corporate culture and business practices, vendor-customer power balance or a business owner's PM literacy should be reinforced by the APM initiated enterprises in order to maximize team performance. With these internal and the external factors combined, a chance for successful APM becomes high.

Our proposed framework would serve as catalysts for a more extensive study of program architecting with APM and traditional project management, whilst a more detailed modeling may be limited by the lack of available research in this field. The authors will present in the Congress verification insights of our hypothesis by analyzing a global survey result.

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© 2015 Nagaya & Imani
Originally published as a part of the 2015 PMI Global Congress Proceedings – EMEA