Agile adoption in Asia faces tough obstacles

Claudio Caballero looks at why the high level of interest in agile methodologies in Asia isn't resulting in a slew of agile contracts.

Agile methodologies, in particular SCRUM, are at least as hot a topic in Asia as in the rest of the world. Agile-related meetups, wikis, social media mentions, user groups, training courses, conferences, and other similar activity abound. More importantly, agile job postings seem to be brisk. Search trends also corroborate it is a major trend.

Those meetups, courses, and conferences clearly show there has been a huge increase in interest in agile in recent years, both for India and Singapore (China omitted for language and opacity reasons). However, it also seems clear that those metrics don't tell the whole story.

While Asia is famous for often leapfrogging the west in adopting certain technologies (in many cases because there isn't a past installed base to worry about replacement and/or compatibility), it seems the adoption of agile approaches may face even tougher obstacles than in western countries. Anyone who has ever tried to convince someone with P&L responsibility about the virtues of agile knows how difficult it is to sell the concept of fixing resources and time rather than requirements/features. No matter how many case studies you show that this approach yields more value in the long-run, it's a difficult concept for many to grasp.

Cultural realities in most Asian countries amplify this effect even more. Firsthand accounts (as opposed to rumors and urban legends) of providers getting Asian companies to sign an agile-style contract are nearly impossible to find. Either the clients are western companies already familiar with agile, or the contract winds up being a traditional fixed-price one, with the development shop using agile internally to manage the delivery.

This effect appears universal, regardless of the size of the companies involved. One attorney I spoke to who specializes in large IT contracts said he doesn't know of a single agile contract being signed anywhere in the region. This corroborates what I have learned from both providers and customers in SMEs.

Even for in-house software development shops, the larger cultures in Asia (in addition to the company cultures) stymie the agile approach. Agile requires an ability to tell hard truths to those controlling the purse strings, which is decidedly difficult in Asian cultures that place a much higher premium on deference, respect, and "saving face" than is the case in the western cultures where agile techniques were pioneered.

So, while many software development practitioners in Asia are interested in agile, it appears to be in for an even tougher road to successful adoption than the already hard road in the west.

That is not to say there aren't similarities between agile adoption in Asia and the west. Both regions, for instance, see a mix of both bottom-up and top-down drives for implementation that depends on the individual persons who get fired up about the benefits agile frameworks like SCRUM bring to developers and users.

Still, in all cases, good change management practices remain the key to making sure the benefits accrue in the long run to the enterprises adopting agile, whether directly or by purchasing services managed with agile methodologies. As with most cultural differences, what unites us is always broader, deeper, and more pervasive than our differences.

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By Claudio Caballero

Claudio Caballero is COO of Palomar Systems, a software development and systems integration firm in Bangkok, Thailand. Prior to returning to Asia from his native New York City, he was an IT consultant for 12 years, beginning as an Engagement Manager ...