Agile and the importance of cultural understanding

Though I work in UX, a core interest of mine is not so much the practical application of tools but the importance of the organisation of the teams behind creating the best products and being aware of the cultural makeup of those teams.

Getting this right allows us to concentrate on the production of the best ideas and solutions and generates momentum and further inspiration.

Notable by its absence 
Behind all great work lies a great team. Though this is not new, the agile philosophy rightly states it is achievable with a core group of developers, technical PMs mixed with the appropriate business people. An important issue that agile does not account for, or really attempt to address, are the effects of cultural influences to ensure that work is produced in a way that is empathetic to users and good for the business.

It does well in reaching an outcome, but is it the outcome that is optimal for a user? Not responding to it will mean projects inevitably fail even if deadlines are met which eventually will harm the business. To be truly aware of a client’s needs, requires the ability to listen and structure a plan around those needs.

Internal vs external – the different cultural challenges
If you have an internal team, agile may be easier because you can adapt and control elements within that culture, the team are aware of it and they live in it daily. However you may need to deal with comfort zones, politics, inertia and lethargy.

In working with external clients and their teams, you need to work with other people with different approaches and another business culture alongside your own. Being completely aware of this and empathetic to their needs, helps for a smoother journey to the destination.

This 'destination' is the one sold to them in the pitch - the reason you got the job in the first place. You certainly don't want to sell a lie, therefore back it up with a commitment to build with consideration. Consideration to be aware of their cultural difficulties, nuances and hurdles that are present in every company, no matter what size.

Some things to look out for:- 

  • Power struggles - can result in partial collaboration between teams, departments or even offices. Becomes a bigger issue with bigger companies.

  • HiPPO mentality – the guy with the plate on his door may overrule everybody because he can. Find out if this is habitual before a project kick off.

  • Alliances and allegiances – preferential treatment can be detrimental when decisions are taken on previous work or even favours. Friendships can cloud judgment and is a risk to getting the team in the proper professional frame of mind

  • Deferring responsibility – if you get the feeling that somebody is covering their back, and avoiding making the tough decisions, you need to flag this early and make it known to the project owners.

  • Ego – when you hear something like ‘that’s just his way’ be prepared to roll your sleeves up and tackle the problem by gauging the personality and tailoring your approach accordingly

  • The committee – having numerous stakeholders, all with a say, will result in a project that goes on too long or may never reach a solution 

Mixing it up and being the guide
Spanning boundaries of job function and role, and not being reliant on a core discipline, will enable you to generate a diverse culture within the team.  Ensure you have marketing and sales involved. You need somebody representing business interests, aims and objectives. If possible this should be the client or a representative and they need to be a core part of the process. In my experience the best and most enjoyable projects have the clients very much as an integral part of developing and designing the solution.

Iteration irritation
Have you briefed the client on the journey into the unknown that they are about to take? Do they really know what a chaotic and confusing place iteration is? Iterative design is the key in reaching the best solutions and that includes iterative development – but there is a price – to a client it can feel dangerously out of control.

This is where project managers earn their crust and where a client is thankful (or regretting) that they have hired a particular group (agency or internal department).  It is so important at this stage to not only consider the users and your project team but those paying your invoice.

As a project of any scale develops they need to be constantly communicated with - weekly at least. The reason is because agile is built for speed and incremental changes. They need to be aware of those decisions that are being made on a daily basis.

This month I had an article published in Boxes and Arrows about an agile project with UCD underpinnings. It was within an internal department - before I went agency side. But the interesting thing is, nothing changes in respect to how those wanting the work done expect to be briefed and updated. Nothing changes in how you explain the design and development processes and the testing of what is produced.

Three considerations
Awareness of business culture, understanding the client situation and their expected outcomes are key:

1. Be honest. Tell the client that during the design phase things will be subject to change as a parallel tracks begin whilst prototyping starts. It is important to let them know that at times the process of design seems chaotic, and actually in the initial stages it is.

But the objectives of UX are to keep the goals tied down and keep it based on the users, whilst ensuring the corporate goals are also met. Gain a real appreciation of the culture they operate in, ask questions - get the inside angle on difficult characters or political alliances. Gain their trust by delivering transparent quotes and invoices and be absolutely honest when there are problems.

2. Be understanding. You know situations will arise where items need to be removed and changes must be made. Be aware that the client may have worked before with others and have a particular approach to how they want their work carried out. Accommodate their needs but don't sacrifice your own methods and skills that gave them the reason to choose you in the first place. Don't be held to ransom, just remember you are their guide and counsel for getting the job done optimally.

3. Manage expectations. From the very start decide on key landmarks within the project that they sign off on. They will be the points of lock down to control budget and scope creep. It is also key that they understand that building a  solution has many stages, iterations and refinements.

My main message is always that a website or online product is never finished and more importantly it never should be. The solution that is built if successful should grow and develop. Make sure they know this. If they don't want a living digital organism ask them why.

So there it is. Like social media, the success of web development is dependent on the culture that it is operating in. Being aware of it and gaining an appreciation for it upfront will make sure your team and the product reaches the best outcome.