Project Management

Cultural transformations of high-performing teams

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Categories: Agile, Team Building

While I was delivering a course on agile fundamentals this week, one of the learners in the class asked me how the mindset and behaviors normally associated with agile teams might impact or be impacted by culture. He suggested context (low or high) as a cultural characteristic which would influence the starting point for a team and which could then change as the team matures, but the same can be said for other cultural dimensions. (So thanks, Tony, this article is for you!)

Geert Hofstede's research into national culture identifies multiple dimensions which can be used to describe differences between countries. Some of these could be considered in addition to context when observing how such teams develop.

  • Context: When members have never worked together, a newly formed team will often exhibit low-context cultural behavior. Ground rules have to be developed, documentation needed to support delivery tends to be heavier and hand-offs are explicitly communicated. As the team matures, its culture shifts towards a higher context where interactions become more tacit than explicit. We often see this in the puck passes made by hockey players who have played together for a long time. Rather than having to yell out "Pass!" or "I'm open!", they seem to communicated with each other using telepathy!
  • Power Distance: Formal power, titles and status will generally be of greater importance to members early in the life of a team, but as the team matures, there is greater acceptance and less attention paid to formal power imbalances. My earlier article about the television show, The A-Team, referenced this with regards to the dynamics between Colonel John "Hannibal" Smith and the other members of the team.
  • Uncertainty Avoidance: When a team is newly formed, its members will have varying degrees of comfort with risk and ambiguity based on their individual risk appetites and that of the divisions or organizations they belong to. But as the level of psychological safety within the team increases, there should be a corresponding lowering of uncertainty avoidance. This doesn't mean that people will jump from being risk averse to becoming gamblers but rather that over time they will move down that continuum.
  • Assertiveness: Depending on the culture from which individual team members come from, they might exhibit high or low assertiveness when they first join the team. Over time, the team will become balanced between the two extremes. While higher degrees of empathy and collaboration will emerge as the team matures, we would also see all team members having the courage to speak truth to power or providing feedback with radical candor.
  • Long Term Orientation: This dimension considers the degree to which we value long-term gains over short-term ones. This may be impacted less by the stage in a team's development but more by the shift in collective mindset from traditional delivery emphasis on big, heavy [planning, requirements, design] upfront to the lean principle of deferring decisions till the last responsible moment.

Understanding culture across these dimensions can be helpful for leaders such as agile leads and functional managers to interpret the behaviors they observe so that they can better support the development of high-performing teams.

Posted on: December 01, 2019 06:59 AM | Permalink

Comments (9)

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Dear Kiron
Interesting perspective on the cultural transformations that happen in the teams and the dimensions analyzed

Thanks for sharing

I tried to get more information about the research conducted by Geert Hofstede's but unfortunately could not get more data

Thanks Luis - yes, Hofstede has a commercial company which has productized the cultural dimensions into a "compass" for profit...

Dear Kiron
The 5 dimensions selected are very interesting, as well as an analysis of the performance evolution in terms of maturity.
Thanks for sharing

Thanks, Kiron. Good stuff. We just went through an exercise of assessing team's cultural state, if you will.

There is value in performing team assessments which can garner a team's perception of where they currently sit across a set of pre-determined dimensions (may not be the same as you share above) with an associated introspection on strengths and opportunities. These assessments can be done quarterly or semi-annually.

These assessments can also help provide a sense of how teams feel in their journey across the organization.

Additionally, there can be organizational level assessments to garner insight at a leadership level, which can be both eye-opening and enlightening.

Thanks Andrew - it is definitely wise for teams to assess where they are at from not just a capability perspective but also a cultural perspective as the latter will influence the former.

Thanks Kiron. Some good things to think about for my next team forming.

I'm interested in the "Uncertainty Avoidance" dimension. I've certainly noticed this development in teams I've ended up working with over a few years. I'd put this a little differently in that the teams I've worked with become more comfortable with high levels of uncertainty because:
a. they feel confident they can (as a team) assess the risks so know which aspects of the uncertainty need more information before proceeding to the next phase/iteration/sprint etc
b. they trust that the team as whole will be able to deal with issues that arise ie they trust each other

Thanks Ashleigh -

As a team spends more time on a given product or domain their overall confidence will increase, but the high performance ones will exhibit the second attribute you have provided re: resilience to be able to deal with unexpected changes.


Hofstede's studies were revealing. I included them in one of master's dissertations on the Philippines BPO industry. Many of these things he concluded about that region were spot on.

Thank you Kiron for sharing your insights on cultural transformations.

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