Anybody who has been to India knows how it feels to be in the midst of a real scrum. Rush and density seem to be part of Indian lifestyle. Whether you are at an airport, box office, tea stall, in a swimming pool or even in a temple at some remote place to do yoga somewhere in the Himalayas — you will always find a mass of people struggling to gain possession of tickets, drinks, attention or even silence (the effect being meditative noise!).
Often you will find that people in India are doing all this plus texting, tweeting and making phone calls at the same time. In other words, they are constantly in an attempt to creatively adapt to ever-changing complex situations. Or, in scrum jargon, managing "requirements churn."
When I visited Amazon India I had a long chat with some of their project managers and developers. We spoke about Amazon's long journey until it actually became operational in India (well, how do you keep the promise to deliver goods safely and on time in absence of precise residential addresses?), but also about tailoring the online store to local requirements. I understood this must have been quite a bumpy road, and one with many diversions, u-turns and dead ends!
But then Kartheek Peyyeti, one of my hosts, said: "This is the best atmosphere for us to work in" and "we prefer ever-changing direction to a settled path."
A Culture of Erratic Change
This reminded me of "The Argumentative Indian," an acclaimed book written by Nobel Prize winning Indian economist Amartya Sen. He describes how the traditions of debate and intellectual pluralism are deeply rooted in India's culture and mentality. Until I had read Mr Sen's essays, I had failed to understand why so many people in India debate for debate's sake and argue for argument's sake. I was always amazed at how erratically people in India would change plans and actions.
While my family's origins are in India, I was raised in a country that got itself out of the habit of chaos and ambiguity: Switzerland. Thus I grew up to believe that being argumentative was not a good choice (and my Swiss school teachers supported this notion).
On our frequent visits to family and friends back home — Switzerland was rich already in the 1970s, while India was in one of its worst phases of poverty and hunger - I noticed how much every day life was defined and dominated by continuous negotiating, haggling and reorganizing. As a ten- or twelve-year-old boy I concluded that singularity in the mind and a sequential order of action will inevitably lead to prosperity.
This was until I had another long conversation, this time with Indian mythologist Devdutt Pattanaik. He pointed out that with "diversity come arguments," but that these are not born out of skepticism but out of faith. "The argumentative Indian," Devdutt explained, "does not want to win an argument, or reach a consensus; he keeps seeing alternatives and possibilities."
This was a lightbulb moment for me to understand why people in India passionately love scrum. Thanks to scrum they can work in their very own comfort zone!
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