Is Germany Bad at Agile?

Jamale and Gabriel against the German flag

In November last year, Old Street’s Jamale Harris and Gabriel Wielkopolski touched down in a land of beer, bread, Oktoberfest, football, and castles, including the one that inspired the castles in all the Disney parks, Neuschwanstein. There to meet a bunch of our lovely partners to demo our apps, discuss sales and marketing tactics, co-host an Atlassian Community Event, and soft-launch our newest app, Planning Boards for Jira.

We also tasked the boys with some research: find out if this article, 5 Crazy Reasons Why Agile Does Not Work In Germany, is smokin’ hot bullshit or, in fact, bears some truth.

Basically, however good Germany might be at footie (racking up four World Cup wins), they’re apparently, well, not the best when it comes to agile working. At least, according to Luis Gonçalves. By way of summary, Gonçalves says that agile working is more difficult to implement in Germany for the following reasons:

  • Hierarchies are too strict in German organizations and employees don’t have much autonomy or courage to say no to their bosses.
  • There is a “silo mindset” in Germany that comes from a factory management system called Taylorism, where people work in functional departments with silos in between and little communication. This mindset is taught from an early age and feeds into most organizations, making them agile-resistant.
  • There’s way too much long-term planning.
  • There’s no room to make mistakes because there’s a perfectionist culture whereby everything should be perfect and complete before hitting the market. This is compounded by a great fear of failure.
  • German society is very traditional and resistant to change.

The reason we wanted to test these claims is because Germany is Old Street Solutions’ third biggest market. And we’re an agile company making add-ons for an agile platform, Jira, targeted at companies that are either agile already or want to become more agile. An interesting bit of data for a country that’s bad at agile.

Now, I assumed Jamale and Gabriel would engage our German friends in friendly conversation over a German beer about the history of agile in the country and gently gauge their impressions and experiences. I wasn’t expecting them to gather a load of people in a room and put all these potentially scurrilous and offensive claims to them outright because, you know, that’s how people get punched.

Of course, the latter is what they did. No blood was spilled, but a lot of heat was vented, even with Gabriel using “allegedly” in every sentence. It was one Pole and one American versus a dozen angry Germans shouting over one another. Shit got real.

But, despite the anger at Luis Gonçalves’s sweeping claims, are they all smokin’ hot bullshit? No, in fact. According to our German friends, there’s actually a fair amount of truth here (peppered, of course, with some massive generalizations).

Map of the trip to Germany
The stops on our German tour

Saying no to the boss

One of our partners said that their people absolutely can say no to their CEO. Others pointed out that most modern tech companies in Germany, and beyond, don’t have hierarchies. Certainly not strict ones. Sure, Germany has some traditional companies that aren’t moving very fast because of their hierarchical structures and non-agile ways of working, but so does every other country. It’s not a German thing.

The perfectionist culture myth (and fear of failure truth)

The idea that Germans are perfectionists is a bit bullshitty. Germans are embracing of the fact that they can and do make mistakes. However, they admit to being slow and dogged by bureaucracy – not because they’re perfectionists, but because, and it’s true, they do fear failure.

In other words, they don’t want their mistakes getting found out. It was pointed out that Uber only came to Germany a year ago because the country uses bureaucracy as a shield. They’re willing to make mistakes, they just aren’t willing to let those mistakes bugger everything up. So they have a million checks and balances in place to guard against them.

To me, to embrace mistakes but not failure is interesting but somewhat contradictory. Perhaps it means: we’re willing to make little mistakes, but not big ones. Thing is, a truly agile mentality means being open to the possibility of a whole project failing, and knowing how to respond quickly if it does.

Long-term planning and fear of change: yeah, those ones are true

The Germans in the room did admit to the very traditional and conservative nature of the country, but with the caveat of it being a generalization. They’re not all resistant to change, but they do value their security very highly. They want to be safe, and sometimes that involves playing it safe.

For sure, though, Germany’s a country of planners. “What you doing tonight? Wanna go for a beer?” isn’t something you’ll hear over there (despite their proclivity for the brown bottle). Friends don’t meet up on the spur of the moment. Rather, they plan a month ahead. This comes back to the security thing. If they plan ahead, they feel safer than if they’re winging it.

Silo mindset?

This time one of our German friends actually admitted, “I don’t think it’s bullshit to be honest.” According to them, Germans can sometimes be narrow-sighted and have difficulty thinking outside the box, and by extension, going outside the scope of their job if needs be. This creates silos. One told the story of a Scrum Master for a German bank, who saw that one of their projects wasn’t progressing because somebody didn’t get an answer from a colleague, but was too afraid to approach the colleague to remind them. So the project stalled over a communication block.

Another barrier to agile in Germany is that it’s super-difficult to get fired; there are many laws to protect you. That’s great for the individual, not so great for innovation and progress. It’s hard to make changes if somebody senior and long in the tooth can’t be cut loose once they become a hindrance. Sometimes in order to fire a senior employee, German companies will restructure their entire organization to make it happen. It also means German companies are slow to hire new people because they know how difficult it will be to fire them later, making change and progress even harder.

Okay, but that all makes it sound like Germany is bad at agile

Although our German friends wanted their overriding message to be, no, they’re not bad at agile, they actually ended up admitting quite a lot of what Luis Gonçalves said in his article.

I guess the problem is in saying that they’re bad at it. To be fair, Gonçalves never said this exactly. His article just implies it.

But saying someone is bad at something suggests that they’re inherently bad at it, and won’t ever develop a talent for it. This isn’t like saying, my brother sucks at singing. If your brother sucks at singing, your brother suck at singing, period. Even if Germany’s bad at agile now, because of the obstacles that continue to block truly successful agile operations, that doesn’t mean it’ll always be. Our German friends were keen to emphasize that the country is such a big market for agile tools because they want to embrace agile in spite of those obstacles. And because many agile platforms, like Jira, let organizations introduce agile in a gradual and methodical way that is more accommodating of entrenched systems of working. A lot of this, they admitted, is because of the massive changes of the past couple of years and the shift to remote working, which just wasn’t a thing in Germany before 2020.

What Gonçalves actually said in his article was that he didn’t think agile was going to be fully implemented in Germany within the next few years. Since he wrote his article back in 2017, our findings support him. But given the enormous popularity of agile tools in the country thanks to recent changes that have been forced on the entire world, give it a few more years and the German agile landscape could look totally different.

Christopher is a self-confessed nerd who’d probably take the cake on Mastermind if Star Trek: Voyager was his specialist subject. He writes fiction about time travel, conspiracies and aliens; loves roller coasters, hiking and Christmas; and hates carpet, rom-coms and anything with chilli in it. He’s written extensively for technology companies and Atlassian partners and specializes in translating complicated technical concepts, specs and jargon into readable, benefits-driven copy that casual readers will understand.