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Understanding the Indian 'Yes'

My experience with the word 'yes' in India is that it doesn't seem to mean what I think it means. And the word 'no' does not seem to exist.
Doing business with India for me has always been a somewhat strange experience. As native speaker of North American English, there is a language barrier. Yes, it's English, but.... I was never really sure when negotiating with my business partners whether they were really going to deliver what they said they would. Often there would be substantial differences between what I thought we had agreed to and what was actually delivered.

Since I agreed to a four city tour in November of Scrum Trainings, I thought this would be an excellent opportunity to explore what yes really means, and why it remains such a stumbling block. What did I find out about 'yes' and other aspects of Indian culture?

Raising the question

My Scrum courses devote substantial attention to working agreements. At the start of each course, I facilitate a discussion among the participants. “What agreements do we need among ourselves so that we can work together effectively between now and the end of the course?” The participants propose their topics, and then agree to concrete actionable proposals. I might add a topic or two. Sometimes we have to modify the proposal before we can come to an agreement that everyone can really support.

Agreements among the participants make for an effective course and agreements among colleagues are an excellent tool for transforming corporate culture. You can't change corporate culture directly, but you can influence your meeting culture quite strongly, simply by making working agreements with your colleagues. This in turn influences and changes your corporate culture.

Nicolas Jene, one of my participants last October was retaking the CSPO course he had taken a year ago. Back then, we had made a number of working agreements, including being on time and ready to go after breaks, devices off or on silent, no crosstalk, the attention protocol, how to deal with questions, etc.

People are the same everywhere...

Nicolas noticed that the working agreements this time around were essentially the same as the agreements as in his last course, so he asked, 'Are the working agreements always the same? Even in different cultures?” I thought back to my the last year of courses in Switzerland, in Russia, in Portugal, in Italy, and in Texas, and replied, 'yes, pretty much. But I am not sure how that will be when I get to India, because the culture there is quite different compared to where I have been before.

So in all of my India courses, I facilitated the same discussion. What do we need to work together effectively?

All of my participants in India asked for and agreed to more or less the same the agreements, just like at every other place else I have been to. They did have some novel suggestions, but the topics and actual agreement were essentially the same.

My conclusion? People are the same everywhere. They want the same things from each other. They need the same things to work effectively: Focus, Commitment, Courage, Openness and Respect. Sound familiar? These are the Scrum values. You find all of them reflected in people's working agreements.

But cultures are different

If people are the same everywhere, does that mean everyone thinks alike? Of course not! Case in point: during my last product owner class, I showed Henrik Kniberg's fantastic video “Agile Project Ownership in a Nutshell” (watch it here). One highlight of this video is the importance of saying 'No.' “Pat [the product owner] practices [saying No] every day in front of a mirror.” After watching the video, the class wrote down their “Eureka!” moments of what they would take home from the video. Most of the participants found that 'No!' was a highlight of the film. “We are allowed to say no!?” “We're expected to say no!?” “Wow!”

One person, of Indian origin, had a completely different lesson from the video: “Sometimes it is better to say yes and prioritize down.” What?! That was exactly the opposite of what Henrik's video was trying to say, or so I thought. I even asked him about it. Yes, that was his a-ha! moment. After getting past my disbelief, I reflected on why his answer might have been different from mine and the others.

If the inputs seem the same, but the outputs are different, then there must be some other inputs I don't know about. I call these inputs 'culture' and I decided I wanted to explore that further during my trip to India.

Why is 'no' so difficult to say?

At each course in India, during the section on working agreements, I introduced the topic of yes and no, and explained why I thought there was an issue. My participants agreed that this misunderstanding occurs quite regularly when working with western companies. So I invited the participants to discuss in pairs why saying no is so difficult, then report back on to the group.

To my surprise, there was no hesitation to discuss the issue (though I had done a lot to lower the social risks in the room before asking question). The opinions of all four classes – over 100 people – centered on three issues:

  • Our upbringing discourages us from saying no. It is impolite to say no.
  • If I say no (to the customer), my company might lose the business.
  • If I say no (to a manager), I might lose reputation and risk losing my job.

In short, it's about fear. It's about the challenges of living in a developing nation. It's about the fear of becoming part of the 60% of the population that lives on $2/day or less. Saying yes is an accommodation. You may lose the business or your job later, but you do have it today, and that is perceived as much lower risk than saying no right away. Given that upbringing appeared so often in the list of reasons, it looks like the accommodation is deeply ingrained in the society.

What does 'yes' really mean?

What does 'yes' really mean in India? It depends. It might really mean yes. It might also mean “I'm saying yes to satisfy your expectation” (but without committing to actually deliver on the expectation). More likely, it means, “I'm going to do my best, but there may be outside forces that I cannot control which will prevent me from succeeding.”

How to bridge cultural differences?

I don't pretend to have the definitive answer to this question. I found being in India, talking face to face with people and learning to recognize their body language were both very helpful. I found it easier to work with people while I was there than over the phone from Switzerland.

Is there really a conflict between being polite and setting realistic expectations? I think this is a false dilemma. Henrik Kniberg pointed out that Autonomy and Alignment are not opposites, but independent of one another. People can be aligned and autonomous. Steve Biddulph wrote that parents can be both firm and loving with their children. How can you set realistic expectations and be polite? I think that is a fair question for any team to ask of itself.

Conflict avoidance is not evil

Many facilitation techniques avoid using the word No. In a retrospective, we first identify possible topics for improvement. Then we identify the most important items, and say yes to a few of them. We don't actually say no to anything. Just yes. Dot-voting is classic consensus-building tool. Identify the most important, start there. And Rod Collins' Work-Thru also focus on identifying where we agree, so we can start here, and deferring points of conflict until later, when trust is higher and the situation is clearer. (Read more about Work-Thru's...)

Are there patterns here which could be applied for other kinds of collaboration? I have seen evidence that working agreements can be extremely effective at transforming corporate culture. Can working agreements be the basis for bridging cultural differences within a project? I believe so. You create your own culture through your working agreements (among other things – good stories are vital!) within your project so that you and your on-shore and off-shore collaborators can work together effectively.

Finally I believe that one day, people in India will let go of their fear. It is not weakness that makes people afraid, it is fear that makes them weak. India has strong abilities and great prices. There will always be a demand for that combination. If this customer gets away, there is always the next one. Once people realize they don't need to be afraid, they will have the courage to say no and to say a yes that really means, Yes!


Peter, I've been coaching and living among people in southern India for most of the past year, and haven't had the experience with "yes" or "no" that you've described. There are a few things I'd like to point out from my experience:

1. There is no such thing as an "Indian yes". India is a civilization made up of 1.2 billion people who speak hundreds of different languages, and have cultural traditions that can change significantly every few hundred miles. I don't expect my experience of the words "yes" or "no" to be the same in the next southern Indian state, let alone in a different region of the country.

2. I've never experienced "yes" representing fear in India any more that I experienced it in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, where I also spent many months coaching. What I do experience in India is difference, and it's difference that I deeply appreciate. It's difference between a civilization that's developed over thousands of years, rather than the last few hundred. It's difference in a society where spiritual devotion is much more present in daily life than it is in the West. It's difference in a country where the 60% of the population with an income less than $2 per day can live deep lives of contribution to their communities, despite our Western notions of what it may be like for them. It's not about fear or accommodation, it's just different.

3. The people I've lived among in southern India have a much greater comfort with chaos and ambiguity than anywhere else I've ever been. I've experienced a significant ability for self-organization and flow, whether it's in Bangalore traffic, or walking around a mountain in a rural area with 100,000 spiritual pilgrams. Needing clarity around "yes" or "no" is a choice, and in my experience, that choice isn't as important in southern India as it is in the West. Many Indian business writers have called this out as a quality of Indian civilization that's very different from the West, and I encourage anyone wanting to train and coach agile here to explore it.

Like anywhere, there are cultural influences can cause big impediments, but no culture is immune to those. The India I've experienced has great zest for learning, and conditions within the civilization that are very fertile ground for Agile.

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