Agile decisions are American-style decisions

Executive summary: European executives! It’s time to rethink what you consider to be a “decision” if you want to act agile.


Decide to adapt

The reason why people care so much about Agile nowadays, is that the economic and technical environments change so quickly, that one needs to make an organization adaptive in order to attain and sustain its competitiveness. Simply put, an organization is agile if it’s able to adapt to its environment before the environment changes again.

To become adaptive, decisions have to be made very efficiently. This has been shown in the past on various levels:

  • Team level: Scrum is nowadays the most widespread team level Agile framework. A key role in a Scrum Team is that of the Product Owner (PO), who is the single, fully empowered decision making mechanism when it comes to product vision, features and priorities [1].
  • Project level: After more than two decades of researching software projects, the Standish Group has come to the conclusion that the single most important success factor of development projects is the speed of decision making [2].
  • Strategy level: In forging agile strategies it is key to be able to pivot, i.e. to change the strategy quickly if need be based on new learning [3]. For this, one needs to optimize the strategy for information inflow, i.e. learning per unit time.


Expectations on decision making depend on the culture

Most European cultures are less individualistic, more risk-averse and more long-term oriented than the American culture [4]. As a result, decision making is a careful, meticulous collective process, the aim of which is to find the perfect, long-term solution through consensus, so that everybody can adhere to it and move in the same direction in the future. If you’ve ever heard the sentence “Let’s set up a board to decide”, you know what I mean. Problem is, that collective decisions are made in a long time, while the context can change so much, that the solution that seemed so perfect yesterday is obviously flawed tomorrow.

Northern Americans have another approach. For them, decision making is an act of propelling a cause in the right direction, now. The aim is not to find the perfect solution, but to find one that’s good enough, and to find that quickly. This enables one to see the results of a decision earlier, thus to start learning earlier. In today’s volatile world knowing something earlier than the others is indeed a big deal. And if you are able to change your decisions based on the new information is an even bigger one.


To act agile, decide like the Americans!

Lean and Agile are about equipping organizations with the ability to adapt fast — that’s why they put so much emphasis on efficient decision making. At this point it should be no surprise that both originate from the United States.

The American-style decision making philosophy is the often overlooked cornerstone of Agile, and is also a major reason why you, the European executive find it so hard to adopt the agile mindset. It’s from a culture that is somewhat alien to you. But now, that you are conscious about it, it’s time to think differently about making decisions. After all, we don’t want to give up the most promising markets to the US, or to the ones who are better students than we are, do we?


Further reading

Erin Meyer, Avoiding culture clashes when making decisions; blog post, 2014; Link
Erin Meyer, Being the boss in Brussels, Boston and Beijing; HBR 2017; Link



  1. Ken Schwaber, Jeff Sutherland, The Scrum Guide, 2017; Link
  2. Jim Johnson/The Standish Group, CHAOS Report 2018: Decision Latency Theory
  3. Eric Ries, The Lean Startup, Currency, 2011
  4. Actually this is true not only for European cultures, but to most cultures of the world. For details on the research, see the works of the Dutch social psychologist Geert Hofstede. Compare countries for yourself at the website of Hofstede Insights
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