Leading an Agile Team in a Hierarchical Asian Culture with Happiness

About this Publication

Leading an Agile Team in a Hierarchical Asian Culture with Happiness  

Alexandre Cuva, Finix Asia

This report presents my experiences implementing an awesome culture of happiness, result oriented, self-organizing Agile teams in a Hierarchical Asian culture.


I remember several years ago when Nguyen, Hung, Vu, Chuong, Tuan, Tai and I were at a coffee place with a dream to change the world: create an Agile offshore company where we respected the employees and had no managers. It was a dream for my Scrum Team and me. One year later the company was created. We brought all our friends into the company and we started to learn a lot from our failures and our experiments; this was our learning working environment.

In this paper, we will present our awesome adventure of the past 3 years. There were happy times, stormy times, but in the end a great adventure that we want to share with all of you.

2. Background

I had a normal life, doing normal things, working in a bank as my parents dreamed. I finished my study at the college. I never did the university, as I wanted to be part of the Internet wave as soon as possible. In 2004, 3 years after the Agile Manifesto was written, I met Marc Brown, an expert in language modeling and I had my first experience in eXtreme Programming on a critical project. A year passed. I moved from a developer position, to Solution Architect and Agile Coach around 2006. I met great people who inspired me ever since. Michel Goldenberg (NBS Consulting) talked to me about his great team in Brazil. Francois Beauregard (Pyxis Technologies) inspired me about Human working and Agile Coaching.

In 2012, I had the chance to be invited by Agile Vietnam, along with Peter Stevens, Kiro Harada, Daniel Teng and Joe Justice, to present Management 3.0 in Vietnam. I was captivated by the Vietnamese population and I had only one wish: to come back soon and create some great things there.

In mid-2013, I finally had the opportunity to come back to Vietnam. I was hired by a Swiss Startup working on a Mobile Payment Solution. They hired me as their new CTO to take charge of the Development of their product in Vietnam. One year later, my employees proposed that I take charge of a new Offshore Development center in Vietnam. As it was also for my project, they proposed that I co-found the company. For them it was a way to have cheaper teams; for me it was an opportunity to create a company of my dreams where I could apply System Thinking, Agile Leadership and Management 3.0 practices with my friends.

This report relates my experiences between mid-2014 and the beginning of 2017. My friends and I had the freedom to create Smartdev LLC an Agile Offshore Company in Vietnam. My co-investors were only interested in the financial aspect of the company as investors and first customers. In the beginning of 2017, I left the position of Smartdev LLC CEO, to concentrate on sharing that great experience with other companies, coaching and training Agile Lean practices for a new company I co-founded, Finix Asia.

In this report, I mention several people important to me and this experience:

  • Nguyen Le Vu: We first met when I started to work with Smartlink SA. He was my scrum master for my first team “Beagle” in Da Nang, Vietnam. Nguyen had already some years’ experience in facilitating teams. I brought to him a lot of practices on XP, coaching, and Management 3.0. We became good friends and we co-created the Agile Development Da Nang Community and co-organized XPDay Da Nang 2015. He is now in charge of training Agile Lean practices for a Japanese Offshore company.
  • Hung Dang Nguyen: Hung was part of my first Scrum Team in Vietnam with Nguyen. He later became the Scrum Master for the second team and learned a lot from Nguyen and me. He has now moved to Ireland and works for Galway University.
  • Francois Beauregard: I met him for the first time in Geneva when I followed his Management 3.0 workshop. Since then, when we could, we would try to meet or have a Web Call. Francois is an Agile Coach in Montreal, and co-founder of Pyxis Technology. He is a source of great inspiration.

3. Asian Culture

The first time you come to Asia, you discover a population willing to be better than western countries. They want to show the world they are the best. The mean age in Asian countries is low, in Vietnam it is around 28 years old. It means that most of today’s workers are part of the Millennium Generation. In 2013, I presented a subject at the Agile Tour Saigon on “Working with Millennium Generation in Vietnam.” The Asian Millennium Generation is not fundamentally different from Millennia Generations elsewhere. There are assumptions we make about millennial culture, but there are also some differences in Asian culture worth considering, too.

Joshua Partogi in his article “Scrum doesn’t work here in Asia” mentions some reasons for Agile failures in Asia:

  • Everything in life should have a hierarchy.” Something I completely agree with, from the family culture to the traditional office culture, everything has a hierarchy. I live with the family of my wife, we must respect the elders: “Ciao Ba Me” or “Hello Dad and Mom.” In Vietnam, they have words that clearly define the family hierarchy. I am maybe the elder in my family, but because my wife is the youngest, I must respect her other brothers. That brings significant complexity to everyday life.
  • “Let’s keep everything in harmony.” As Joshua says, the Asians are super good about harmony. They prefer to avoid any conflict with their peers and would most prefer to approve everything their elders will say. When in Europe, you see teams negotiate during their Sprint Planning the content of their user stories. You see in Asia teammates accepting everything, just to avoid any conflict and keep harmony.
  • “Different Education Systems.” Asian education teaches students to listen to their elder, accept everything, not be self-discovering, and avoid mistakes.
  • “Title is important.” You will hear a lot about the title culture, this is an imported cultural value from western countries. No wonder you will see the same title culture in Vietnam and France.
  • “Asian is about outsourcing.” Some Asian countries are based on an outsourcing economy and everything is done to answer the request of the outsourcing sectors. The problem we face is we find potential employees who come out of the university with no passion at all. They just studied in school to get a job with a good salary. I wrote a post in 2016 on this subject “Vietnam wakes up, we need passionate developers.”

But now, let’s discover what we did in our company, and what we learned from our great adventure in Asia.

4. Our Story

In August 2014, Nguyen Le Vu, Hung Dang Nguyen and I, after a year of working together as members of a Scrum Team in an Outsourcing company, wanted big changes. We wanted to co-found a great company where the employees felt part of great things instead of merely being hands giving birth to some code, having no interest in the product. We wanted to create a learning network where the system was considered to include humans and not just machines. We believed that a company could be organized by leaders, instead of managers controlling machines. And finally, we wanted the career of a developer to just limited to becoming a Manager, but instead a developer could also become a Craftsman.

Before starting, our new company we needed some investors. Fortunately, my current employers were interested in us, as they wanted to invest in their own software development center. So, they proposed that I be part of this new company. We took this opportunity to create our own company with this foreign investment and with a first customer we already knew.

4.1 Phase 1: Forming

This phase occur during the period from August 2014 to October 2015. At that time, we had our investors and they asked us to build the company and hire our first employees.

As we wanted to create a great company, we searched for ideas on how to build our office inspired by all the great places we dreamt of working. I had the good fortune to know the Vietnam Atlassian manager. And so, I was invited to see their brand new office and meet the Architect who built their office. We knew we wanted an office where the futures employees would enjoy coming to work. They should have their own table with enough space of their own place to put their private stuff. We needed white boards on each wall, so the teams could create their kanban boards. We needed a kitchen and a brainstorming place.

At the same time as I was exploring our future building, Nguyen and Hung were presenting diverse Agile events at the university and explaining what we were trying to achieve with our new company. I remember Hung told me that they got two kinds of feedback. Most of the students were surprised and curious that such company could exist in Vietnam. Most of the teachers recommended to not launch such a venture, as they believed this type of company could not work in the Asian culture. The feedback from the students so inspired us that we decided to proceed with our greatest venture.

Our company organization was not completely formed from our own imaginations. Before we had read extensively and met with people from some great companies to understand how they implemented such great environments. We all read Tony Hsieh’s book Delivering Happiness; we had a call with the team from Cocoon Project in Italy, and met with a Vietnamese expert in Holacracy, Hoang-Anh Phan. I also met several great people in Europe involved in Happiness at work. All these ideas were great and inspired us, but we wanted to create something great that would work with the Asian culture, not just copy practices coming from western countries. What was the most important thing for us was:

  • A Learning Network
  • Emergent Leadership
  • No Title
  • No Management
  • Results Oriented
  • No time-sheet
  • People could choose where they want to work
  • Great working environment

We designed a simple organization:

  • Facilitators: The Agile Coaches who were there to coach, mentor and mediate conflict.
  • Value Team:
    • Administration: HR, Accounting, CEO
    • Marketing: External and Internal marketing
    • Infrastructure
  • Teams: All the team working on diverse customer projects using XP, Scrum or ScrumBan.


Figure 1: The Facilitator team during the Regional Scrum Gathering in Ho Chi Minh City, from left to right: Le Vu Nguyen, Hoang Minh Chau, myself, and Hoang Trung.

During that period, we tried several tools or practices. Below, some of them are described in more detail.

The Hiring processes. It was important for to us to hire the proper people who could create the great culture we wanted to achieve. We hired a small group of developers we knew already to answer the needs of my associate and first customer. These people had worked already for a year with me and they followed us to our new company because they liked the way I had led their teams. But for others we needed to hire, we needed to bring in new people who would not jeopardize all what was done before. So, we at first decided to have this hiring process (which we reviewed and improved every 3-4 months), which consisted of the following steps:

  1. The Job profile needed to show our true colors, we were interested in hiring any talented developers who would not worry about work in an environment where there is no manager, and they needed to agree with our company’s values.
  2. For every resume selected, we asked them to come back to us with a paper in English explaining why they think Smartdev should hire them.
  3. The first interview was to select the behavior we were looking for: passionate, team player, humble, respectful of others, and not a born manager.
  4. The second interview was about their general knowledge
  5. At that step, we asked the candidate to craft software in a new language outside of his comfort zone. We gave them a week to come back with their result and have a final interview.
  6. The last interview was mostly to assess their project, ask questions, and be sure they were the creator of their code. If everything was good, the candidate had a final talk with HR about the salary and other administration details.

People might remark that such a recruitment process seems overly long and time consuming. I agree, but let’s understand one thing. If we must fire an employee after a few weeks because what we understood about them is not accurate, it will cost a lot more. A company who fires employee is a bad company in Asia. Who will leave his company to join such a company and risk losing his new job after a few weeks? On the other hand, this allowed us to bring more attention to our company as people outside see we had a more challenging hiring process and better quality developers than typical companies. Asians like to work in companies where they can work with some super stars. This is what we were promoting.

Results Oriented Organization. We took this from the book, Why Management Sucks! In it the author explains how to improve employee’s engagement by considering them as adults instead of children. In the book, they present difference case studies from different sectors. I will say we had quite good success with hiring more experienced people who had already worked with me. They were already used to my way of working. For others, we found we needed to pass on more learning, through several phases of apprenticeship before developers could be productive.

So, we had two internship sessions.

For our first internship session, we had 6 great boys from the Polytechnic, the State University and a girl from the college. We took the option to let them learn by using a type of EduScrum, where the internship needed to learn different practices planned on a Scrum Board. Their first “product” was the internship. Two of the facilitators were acting as their Scrum Master and their product owner. The team learned fast and worked together to learn all the topics and finally created their first real project. After just three months, the team started to work on a production product.

For the second internship session, we decided that developers would be put to work immediately working on an internal production product. It was with this group that observed more how the Asian culture impacted how they worked together. After they received the vision of the product from the Product Owner (in their case a western PO), they needed to choose the language and the architecture for their product. The first sprint of one week was a disaster for the team as they ended up with nothing. The PO was acting as he was supposed to, and was not happy that they come out with nothing!! At the retrospective, the team argued that they had no senior in the team to figure out what they should do. One of the facilitators told them, “There are 30 other developers in the office ready to help if you ask; you are not alone.” We had to wait 2 more sprints to see something coming out of that team. At the end of their first release they had their first team party.

Emergent Leadership, No Title. One of the main problems in today’s organizations is we assign managers and titles where there is no need. We don’t trust our employees to be adult enough to choose among themselves who is their leader and who’s not. A leader can be a temporary role during a project. The tester could be the leader of the team and then the UX Designer. The power of great leaders is the sum of all the knowledge in the team and not expecting one person to know everything.

As an example, here is the experience we had with our first customer who was not aligned with our thinking and truly believed that people needed titles as a reward:

He decided to grant titles to the elders of his team to thank them for following him on his journey. One of my facilitators was granted the title Head of Operations. This was a total disaster and we started shortly thereafter to get conflict and people leaving the project to work on another team. In the end, the customer lost all titled persons. One year later he tried again to grant a title to the best developer. After he offered him a trip to Switzerland with his wife, he offered him the position of Head of the operation. The developer refused and told him he wanted to stay as a developer, he had no interest in becoming a Manager. At that time, this developer was our first Software Craftsman and was getting paid the highest salary. Becoming a Manager would have been just a waste.

No Timesheet. When you consider your employees as adults, there is no need to control their time, they know better than anyone else how much they must stay and when they can leave the office. I saw too much bad management in Asia where employees were forced to stay in the office to just mark time. And they were only playing games, reading Facebook and other useless activities.

eXtreme Programming. We decided every team would use XP practices for their projects. We bought only one computer per 2 developers, and one of our facilitators mentored and guided them on TDD practices along with some senior employees. The XP experience was a 50% success, not everyone adhered to the principles and practices. The fullstack developers enjoyed and really liked XP. But we had trouble with the mobile teams. One of the teams had three elders and three youngers. Two of the elders were not accepting that the youngers were looking at their code while they were working and argued it was a total waste of time. We decided to put the two elders together, but there one of the elders took again the supremacy over the other elder. In the end, each of these two elders brought their own laptop to work alone. The other developers enjoyed working in pairs. But XP didn’t reach the maturity level we expected and most teams moved to Scrum or Kanban and didn’t fully follow XP practices.

Figure 2: Two generations practicing pair programming (The elder was previously his teacher at the university)

Internal Marketing. As there was no way to hire an HR with a Masters in “Work Psychology” or similar degree, I decided to hire an Internal Marketing person into HR and mentor her. Her job was to bring happiness into the company as well as show in the social media what great things we did.

Figure 3: A typical personalized desktop you could find in the office

The person needed to have significant happiness and be willing to do good around her. It was her first true experience of marketing after completing her studies. I asked her to take care of the internal marketing. Her customers were the employees. She quickly took care of all the internal activities, and created some fun events that everyone could enjoy. One of the good experiences we had was when we decided that every Friday people could come wearing shorts into the office. You should know that in most Asian countries it is just not allowed. Coming in shorts is considered disrespectful to others. In some companies, they even ask you to return home to change your clothes. So, we announced that starting on Friday, people could come at the office dressed however they wanted; they could wear shorts if it was hot. The first Friday only the facilitators and me wore shorts; the second Friday most people were wearing shorts. After a few months, shorts became the standard clothing for everyday. We wondered what would happen then if we would ask them to come one day wearing a suit?

4.2 Phase 2: Storming

This phase occurred from October 2015 to July 2016. During that period, we learned a lot about the Asian culture during some difficult times. Everything was going great until October 2015, when we had our first late salaries. My associates were late in the payment of their teams. We had nearly no reserve, so we could not pay everyone on time. The first time they were late by 1.5 months; we paid salaries mid-November. In December, I went to Switzerland to meet my associates and was assured there would be further late payments. Despite their confirmation, in January, when you are supposed to give the 13th Salary or the Lunar New Year bonus, we received nothing and we shared what we had with everyone. And we also promised that they would receive their bonus after the holidays.

The Lunar New Year (it’s a fallacy to call it Chinese New Year) is one of the most important events during the year. Not every Asian country has the event at the same time. But most of the time between the end of January and beginning of February are holidays. During this event, everyone travels to their hometown to meet all their families and tell about all the great things they did during the year. People buy gifts and food for everyone. Return home without anything, it’s a sign of failure. And those who need to stay at work are considered nearly the same. Most companies who fail to give a bonus or keep their employees without a proper bonus will probably lose part of their employees after the holidays. Parents are partly responsible for this, as they will say to their adult children, you need to leave such a company and go work somewhere else. It is better to have a bonus with a lower salary than no bonus with a high salary.

We lost around 20 people the first month after the holiday. And we went from 100 employees in December 2015 to 30 employees at the end of June 2016, when we finally paid back everyone. We first lost most of the employees who had their whole family (parents, grandparents included) in charge. Some tried to stay as long it was possible, but in the end, they left even though they liked the working environment.

A strange thing we noticed during that period; we could hire some new people despite the really bad situation we were in. Some people wanted to come to join us because of our working environment and were ready to have a late salary, just for the opportunity to work in our environment.

Despite those hard times, and the loss of many of our employees, most of them, even if they left the company continued to enjoy events with us like the Soccer championship, my wedding, and other social events. In most other companies, when an employee leaves, he never come backs, even for external events.

During that period, we mostly tried to keep the tools and practices we had put in place. But it is hard when you are at the bottom of the Maslow hierarchy of needs. In this model, people have several motivations, both extrinsic and intrinsic. The first two and most basic are Physical needs and Safety needs. It was Safety needs that were not met for most of the employees during that period. They needed job security where they could bring enough money to support all the members of their extended families. This was something that was hard to make my European associates understand. In western countries, most of the people take care only their immediate family, their spouse and children. In Asia, most wage earners must take care of 3-4 generations, not only their immediate family but also their parents or even their grandparents. When the salary is not coming for several months, a lot more people are affected. And the pressure to change your work place is even stronger.

4.3 Phase 3: Norming

This phase was between August 2016 and Dec 2016. After the previous 7 awful months, we were happy to finally receive our salaries. We needed to bring the company back on track immediately to show to the world we were not dead. The few employees who stayed with us wanted the same and to my biggest surprise, some of the employees who left came back to work with us. In August, we were already up to 40 employees. We knew we needed more than 6 months before more people would be willing to come back to work for us. We needed to show to everyone that everything was fine. So Nguyen and I decided to put different new tools in place, to boost the environment, and put those bad times behind us.

Hire a CHO. First, we needed someone dedicated to the happiness of the employees, and that person needed to have the power to do it. We had already an HR Manager and having someone else with nearly the same title we needed something stronger and who would make a maximum of buzz. So, we decided to hire the French wife of my COO, who has a Masters in Working Psychology. This idea is thanks to my friend Francois Beauregard who gave me that idea several years ago and also when I met Helen Legate in Amsterdam who worked at Pyxis as an Agile Organization Coach. I really liked her ideas about how to coach employees. So, we hired Severine and at first gave her a position of Happiness Officer. We then we moved her to Chief Happiness Officer, CHO, to give her more power to do whatever cool things she wanted to keep employees happy and engaged. Why a CHO? For a simple reason, we had some conflict with the Vietnamese HR. They argued the position was useless, that they could do the same job without her. We let HR show us what they were capable of, but in the end, there was nothing they could do. But Severine showed us that she could empower the people around her to make things happen.

Figure 4: The yearly company trip to Da Lat, employees along with their families

The career plan. We needed also to put in place a structure where people could feel they had a career here. But we needed something that would bring some change from the traditional career plan. I wanted something that would allow the developers to be able to continue as developers, and not having only the choice to become a manager. I wanted to give them the choice that I didn’t get in my own country. Nguyen wanted something that could promote the learning behavior instead of fixed results. So, we decided, Nguyen, Severine, and I to put in place a quarterly assessment on knowledge instead of on individual objectives. What we wanted to achieve was an improvement in behavior and knowledge instead of focusing on personal performance. We came up with the following career path:

  • Learner: All the employees start at this level. They are learning the way to work in the company; they learn not only the good behavior but also the good practices like craftsmanship.
  • Maker: The employee is considered a good employee. He knows the technical domain, does his daily job and has some basic knowledge of Agile Development practices. A tester is recommended to work with a maker.
  • Craftsmanship: There are three steps to craftsmanship.
    • Journeyman: The employee is starting his Craftsmanship or equivalent journey. They already practice TDD; they proactively review code of others, share knowledge, and help others. In some fields, they become emergent leaders.
    • Disciple: The employee excels in craftsmanship. He is not learning from others but mostly pair-coaches others; others consider him their emergent Leader. They present subjects at different events.
    • Master: This is the goal no one has reached yet. We will define this when someone reaches it. Craft authors like Andy Hunt, Bob Martin or Sandro Mancuso are examples of masters we aspire to be like.

4.4 Phase 4: Performing

This phase occurred from December 2016 onward. We had mostly recovered from all the problems we had the previous year and the company was starting to perform quite well. We hired a Business Developer who shared the same values and beliefs we held. Not the kind of Business Developer ready to sell his mother for a few coins. And this was great. It was also the time where I was mostly doing only boring administration duties. The company needed to have a new breath of fresh air to perform even better and grow more. So, I decided to resign from my CEO position and concentrate on sharing my experience with other companies in my role as Agile Coach.

At the time I wrote this paper, I knew this personal choice was good one for both my former company and me. The company continues to perform well. Severine is still looking out for all the employees’ happiness. Our Business Developer continues to bring interesting new projects, about 100,000 USD in the first quarter.

5. What we learned

It was a great experience; we learned a lot, Nguyen and me. One thing we agree about is that in another life we should hire more slowly. At the beginning, we quickly hired all we could without considering if they were a good fit for the culture we wished to attain. This brought some conflict at the beginning, with some people wishing to obtain non-existing positions and titles and others just wanting to have fun while working.

Despite everything people say about Asian culture, I believe you can create a working environment, where Hierarchy is not the absolute. The HR team was the most difficult team to put in place. In Vietnam, this position is clearly a position of management and they know only a word “Management.” Despite that we clearly told them there are no Managers in the company, they came back many times with things like, “Everyone should respect the managers…” It was like that word was written in the stone and no one could erase it. In one of my travels I met a CPO (Chief People Officer) in Bangkok; she was just great. I enjoyed talking with her and the other executives a lot. Bringing a young HR without this word written in the stone, meant I let loose a person who knows the law and all the administration nightmares. Bringing Severine into the company was a source of conflict since the Vietnamese HR didn’t see any value in what she was doing. There was another problem: she was a foreigner. It took few months before we started to have some traction between her and the native HR.

Select customers who share similar values and is aligned with your company’s culture. There are plenty of companies looking for talented developers working in an Agile and Happiness environment. You don’t need to take any customer who will bring more pain than anything. Other outsourcing companies wishing to bring Agile in their project without changing the mindset of their company contacted me more than once. Just have the strength to answer no to this kind of potential Agile customer. Leave the bad customers to the traditional outsourcing companies.

Implementing XP is hard work, even more so if the people on the team are not passionate members. Our first attempt was a disaster and we brought the team back to Scrum. Last year I created a team of passionate developers, I took the time to teach them XP, TDD, Clean code… I can say now we have a success with that team. So yes, XP works in Asia.

6. Acknowledgements

I wish to thank many people, without whom our adventure would be impossible. Some of them helped me at work, some indirectly, but they all were important. First, I will thank my wife Le Hong Hanh, who supported me during all the times I was working at Smartdev LLC. She supported me during the good times and the great times. She was my counselor on Asian culture. And then I would like to thank Le Vu Nguyen, my best friend and my first Asian Scrum Master. Thanks for reviewing this paper and adding the parts I missed. I also wish to thank my mentor Francois Beauregard who made several web calls between Vancouver and Vietnam. And thanks to all my co-workers for the great adventure we achieved together: Chuong, Tuan, Bon, Huy, Thai, Hung, Vu and Jean-Jacques Elong who allowed me to be part of that great adventure. And of course, many other people that I didn’t mention.

I also wish to thank the Agile Alliance for giving me the opportunity to share my great adventure. Last, but certainly not least, thanks to my shepherd Rebecca Wirfs-Brock. This paper would not have come together without her keen insights, questions, and edits: Thanks, Shepherd, we couldn’t have done it without you!

Copyright 2017 is held by the author.

About the Author

Alex is a passionate, agile problem-solver. Curious by nature and with an insatiable appetite for learning. He is motivated by facilitating the kind of organizational change that has the great impact on individuals to the top line. He has lived and worked across the world as an agile coach, scrum master, product owner, CIO, CEO, and trainer. Whatever the focus of his work, he has always been a team player, quickly embracing new situation and challenges hove experience in agile and traditional software environments. He is also known in Asia for his real experience applying flat management and happiness culture in his Offshore agile company base in Vietnam.