Archive for September, 2010

Culture or distance? That’s the question

September 23, 2010 3 comments

My earlier blog (right below this) was about myths in cultural cooperation. I highlight there several times that culture is not the cause for problems. However, culture is very often a cause for making problems worse.

Why culture, or cultural differences, are making the problems worse if culture is not the reason for problems? The answer is in the fact that culture often seems to be the problem. When cooperation fails, we only notice it when it is too late. When trying to fix the issues we are already walking on a thin cultural ice. When this fails the entire issue is labelled a cultural problem.

I do not have any statistics but my gut-feeling is that this is a variation of “80/20”

80 % of problems at workplace are caused by people working for common goal in different locations or different languages. Only 20 % of issues are really caused by cultural differences.

However, 80 % of problems are labelled to be “cultural problems” and remaining 20 % is admitted to be caused by geographical separation.

Typical issues caused by geographical separation are: lack of common time for meetings, narrow-band communication (email, phone), people forced to speak non-native language, tacit (spoken) information is lost, need for waiting for another party to respond.

Typical cultural issues are interpretation of words, gestures and symbols, for example: meaning of “yes”/”no”, being on time in meetings, how to deal with silence in conversation, how close a deal or reach agreement.

What happens typically in work place is the following: Teams have pressure to complete project on time. While doing this, their need for communication increases. The communication bandwidth does not increase with same rate, so information gets lost. Use of “lingua franca” (non-native English) narrows the channel even further. Working on different time zones make it difficult to find meeting times, so much of decisions are made without the other team. Quick hacks are put in project deliverables.

Bang! Things explode. All because “80”, i.e. geographical separation.

Then starts the fixing. Already frustrated, teams do not trust each others. When asked about the cause for problems, people are already trying to “find the guilty”. Instead of analysing the situation, they start to seek for others to blame. Then the cultural issues surface. Teams often comment on how the others “cannot be trusted” or “are always late” or “show no initiative” or “don’t tell the truth”.

It is important to understand the cultural issues; behaviour, language and reactions of “the other” culture. Even more important it is to understand own behaviour, especially in crisis situations. Working on the cultural issues alone is not sufficient.

The most important is to analyse the system: why did we have the problems in first place? How much of the problem is related to geographical separation and how those could be eliminated?

It is important to keep in mind that people are pretty much the same in all corners of the world: they have feelings, dreams, needs and own personality. The best advise I can give is: treat others as you wish yourself to be treated. If this does not help, then look into cultural patterns and see if a culture-specific approach would help better.

Categories: Cross-cultural, Team work

Four myths in cross-cultural cooperation

September 11, 2010 Leave a comment

People are more frequently working in environment where their team-mates are abroad. They work in different timezones, different languages and have different culture. Although geographical difference has the biggest impact in cooperation (I will blog this later), culture too has impact at workplace.

When I work with teams that need to collaborate accross geographical and cultural borders, I often see the following myths to appear in discussion. I will cover these in more details in my trainins classes and here is a just a brief list.

Myth #1: “We’re just working here, everyone knows what good job means, no need for this cultural awareness thingy here”. The truth is opposite: everyone does know what goob job is, but that definition is different to everyone. While we can easily measure results of good job (e.g. revenue, profit or ROI), the most significant aspects can not be measured. These include trust, communication and conflict solving during the project. And these are the issues where cultural background shows: how you act to show trust (or lack-of-), how do you deal in conflicts etc.

Myth #2: “If we behave according to the other culture, we can avoid problems”. The truth is that we can not emulate or imitate other culture — we can imitate the visible signs but we can never fully understand the underlying thinking. The cultural iceberg shows that visible behavior is only a small part of culture. More important is to understand own behavior and its impact to others (what would others think if I remain silent/keep my hands crossed/do not return calls).

Myth #3: “Understanding cultural issues will solve most of the problems in our work”. The truth is that only small part of problems are cause by cultural differences. Problems usually get worse, if the related conflicts are fueled by different cultures approaching the problem in a different way. Most of the problems are caused by separated location, time difference, language problems. Pay attention to cultural issues but put a lot of effort to get people work together.

Myth #4: “This thing <X> is not possible in our/their culture”. You can replace <X> with any working practise or paradigm (“team work”, “self-organization”, “Agile”). Truth is that while culture may in general conflict with certain working style (e.g. “large power distance” vs. self-organized teams), each individual has their own choise. With careful recruitment and proper coaching, companies can establish the needed working practises in any country.

Culture and especially culture in working place has significant impact on the results of team work. However, culture is not usually the most significant factor for success or failure. Nor it is the starting point for problems, but rather a contributor to make problems bigger. Paying attention to own behavior and own culture brings the best results. Understanding cultures has value and the biggest value is in understanding own culture.

Categories: Cross-cultural, Team work


September 5, 2010 Leave a comment

Collaborate: To work together with others to achieve a common goal.

When setting up my company back in March 2010, I needed to do some paperwork for all kinds of registrations (taxation and other authorities). While the papers were not difficult to fill in, one part seemed to halt the process: What would be the company name?

My company offers training and coaching for Agile/Lean, team work and cross-cultural copperation in workplace. I tried to think something about agility and adaptivity (“Inspecta” — taken, “Adopti” — sounds like adopting babies) but could not get anywhere.

Then it struck me: I am passionate about getting people work together! That’s it, everything I teach and coach is about cooperation and collaboration. My company would be a collaboration-oriented training and coaching firm.

Oh, but then why did I mis-spell the name (“K” instead of “C”). Well, basically to have something unique and also emphasize that I come from Finland. We don’t use C’s in our language, so “Kollabora” looks Finnish.

I plan to write my experiences in this blog: my observations from trainings and coaching and interesting findings from books and other resources.

Have fun

Coach and Trainer at Kollabora

p.s. A sidenote about Finnish people trying to use English. Back in 1980’s one rockband became very popular in Finland. They were called “Hurriganes”. Years later, an interviewer asked why they mis-spelled “hurricane”. The lead singer said “What, mis-spelled? No, I think that’s how it’s written”.

Categories: Company