This book has been a labor of love, born out of the conviction that, in today’s new global environment, all managers are now global managers. And global managers must be able to quickly make sense of situations where cultural differences add levels of complication.
Like most managers, you already know that cultural differences are significant when you’re dealing with business partners from other countries. You see what’s happening. You get that today’s marketplace is increasingly global.
But what you may not fully understand is that you need to learn and use global management skills to address these cultural differences—in every interaction you have. And, you may not realize, but you are probably already being judged on how well you are meeting increasingly complex demands.
“The New Global Manager”
As I say in my new book, “culture” is how we describe the norms, perceptions, and values that drive our behavior and that we use to evaluate the behavior of other people. We use the term “cultural differences” to refer to everything from corporate cultures, to differences in religious beliefs, gender orientations, countries of origin, ethnicity— and so much more.
And, when everyone has the same norms, perceptions, and values, interacting with others and doing business is pretty straightforward and easy. But things get more complicated when the people with whom you do business, who are your customers, employees, colleagues, or bosses, have different norms, perceptions, and values.
Why is this?
It goes back to something rooted in human nature. We all make choices based on our cultures; all of the influences that have shaped us. But the people we interact with evaluate our action based on their own cultures, which can create confusion, misunderstanding, and potential problems, at times. Especially in a global business environment.
The pressure on managers is intense. Managers must be able to work and react quickly to this rapidly changing global environment with the challenges inherent in digitalization, new markets, diverse cultural backgrounds.
Whether you are a new global manager or someone who has worked in management for the past twenty years, today you need to be able to quickly make sense of situations where cultural differences add levels of complication. You must learn to recognize, assess, react and solve complicated management situation where diverse styles, personalities, and cultures are in play.
Sound daunting? It doesn’t have to be.
I understand the dynamics at play and want to assure you that there are practical resources available to help you learn to be an effective global manager and work well with culturally diverse customers, teams, colleagues, and bosses. I use a broad range of tools and frameworks that I recommend highly, which help my clients, manage these challenges effectively.
In “The New Global Manager,” I introduce some of those including OAR™, a multi-purpose tool to help you become aware of situations that aren’t working or have suddenly changed, ask questions to help you analyze the situation, and react appropriately. The acronym, OAR, stands for Observe, Ask Questions, React. Using OAR, when someone behaves in a manner that catches you off guard, instead of responding immediately, you stop and observe the situation.
I wrote “The New Global Manager” as a daily resource for managers, to provide practical tools and frameworks like OAR and 4DCulture, and strategies and tips for successfully managing abroad and at home, face-to-face and virtually. Whether you are a new manager or a manager with twenty years of experience, this is the comprehensive resource you’ve been waiting for.
Note: I am honored to share this post on my blog, written by Karl Ostroski and my colleague, Alice Leong, and first published on Medium.com.
Agile transformations require trust and many small, thoughtful iterations to succeed. When teams struggle to communicate, you may need to dive deep into what might be the underlying issue.
“The team from Mexico doesn’t know what they’re doing.”
That wasn’t true, but it was the first thought that came to mind. The project was to transform our primary operation and billing system to meet the legal and business needs in Mexico. It worked for us, so it should work for them with some minor tweaks. We followed agile development principles, made several on-site visits and had gotten nothing but a unanimous “Vamanos” from our colleagues in Mexico. That’s why, after months of work, we were shocked when we had to roll back the project. Upon review, we missed over 40 show-stopper requirements. What went wrong — and why? We realized that what we tried to do was akin to taking a well-read book in English and translating it into Spanish — it misses the mark.
While the usual technical and personality nuances were involved, we quickly recognized a bigger problem in our approach: we didn’t take into account that there may be cultural differences in communication styles or in how members interacted with authority. We took a very American approach with the team. We assumed that everyone knew they were empowered to express disagreements and risks openly and that activities would follow a plan-do-check-adjust process as we moved along. This was not the norm for our counterparts in Mexico. Since the US team had not solicited their input in a way that aligned to their cultural style, the Mexico-based team did not bring up the many project warning signs they had uncovered.
“We quickly recognized a bigger problem in our approach: we didn’t take into account that there may be cultural differences.”
We need to anticipate better how cultural differences affect communication styles closer to home, too. On another project driven by a Chicago-based team, a scrum master asked our Chicago-based South Asian colleagues if we could expand the scope and still complete our sprint. After hearing “Vinoth and I will work on that,” everyone assumed the question was answered and shared with senior leadership that we were on track. At the end of the sprint, the team lead was shocked to find out that the work wasn’t completed. Not only that, the entire team eventually realized that it would take three more sprints to get it done. Here again, we didn’t consider the potential significance of cultural differences.
In the US, direct conversations are common. When we hear someone is “working on that,” we assume it will be done and, if issues come up, someone will let us know. Where was the disconnect? Don’t we all want to get the task done and done quickly? In many cultures, there is a higher value placed on relational harmony than on the task. Telling a manager, you can’t get something done could result in the loss of the manager’s confidence and jeopardize the relationship. Similarly, bringing up unsolicited issues to the manager may be perceived as insubordination. Could we have done a better job clarifying our understanding of next steps and timelines?
As intercultural communications expert Craig Storti points out in Speaking of India: Bridging the Communication Gap, there are ways to navigate these conversations, but it requires skill and cultural awareness to do so. Just because you can speak a common language doesn’t mean you have the same perspectives or values. Have you ever wondered why someone didn’t speak up in a meeting? Why they’re not responding with the same sense of urgency as you? Cultural backgrounds may be at that heart of those differences.
The Agile Manifesto states that we should value “individuals and interactions over processes and tools.” Think of each individual or interaction on your team as an iceberg: what is underneath the surface influences what we say and do. On the surface, we see only our team member’s behaviors and overt communications; without understanding some of the experiences and values that drive the individual’s perspectives, you may miss a critical piece of the person’s work and communication style. It takes some deep diving to get the whole picture.
Key research indicates a link between culture and communication style. Geert Hofstede, a much-referenced anthropologist, and sociologist of culture published his seminal research¹ on the dimensions of cross-cultural communications, their effect on behavior, and their application in international business. Anuradha Sutharshan, in her graduate research at Edith Cowan University, incorporates Hofstede’s framework to demonstrate how this affects the implementation of agile methodologies across cultures. Sutharshan’s work aligns with the Cultural Intelligence Center’s research and Hofstede’s¹ framework to link how key cultural values and dimensions impact the effective application of agile principles.
As one example of how dominant cultural values influence teams, let’s look at how Relationship to Authority (also known as the Power Distance Indicator, or PDI) aligns to agile principles. To interpret the PDI, the higher the index number, the higher the deference to authority. The lower the index, the greater the emphasis on equality among individuals and a greater willingness to expressing one’s own opinions.
Based on this graphic, one may generalize that individuals in the US are more comfortable engaging with other team members as equals, whereas individuals in India and Mexico focus more on obtaining direction or approval from leadership. A deference to leadership may increase complexity and time for decision making which is counter to agile principles. This doesn’t mean high PDI countries are unable to work within an agile framework — it just means consideration of cultural styles needs to be built into the agile transformation process.
“Culture is not just dictated by what country issues your passport.”
You may be saying to yourself, “We don’t work internationally, so that’s not really a factor.” While geographic, cultural distinctions were noted in the examples above, challenges arise even in teams from the same location and department. Culture is not just dictated by what country issues your passport. It is much broader than that. Departments have “cultures” which drive their values (e.g., Finance — ROI, fiscal responsibility; Operations — process efficiency; IT — data integrity/integration). Generational perspectives influence communication preferences or work style (e.g., email, phone, instant messaging; traditional waterfall or agile project framework). Competing values and styles in our examples reduced productivity and suboptimized outcomes. We’ll examine other cultural factors in a subsequent post.
So where do you go from here? First, recognize that culture may be a factor. Start asking questions, pick up a book, or spend extended time being part of a group with which you’re not in sync. Dig into the culture to understand those values affecting your project. Second, if you notice your teams are comprised of members from different corporate, department, ethnic, or geographic cultures, consider using a cultural assessment tool such as the Cultural Intelligence (CQ) Assessment to learn how well your team is at engaging across cultural differences.
Karl Ostroski is a Consultant in Slalom’s Business Advisory Service practice and is based in Chicago. He’s been delivering successful IT changes around the world for over a decade. Certified in Scrum, SAFe, and CQ, Karl loves helping cross-cultural teams drive success. Follow him on Twitter: @karlostroski
Alice Leong is a Consultant in Slalom’s Business Advisory Service practice and is based in Chicago. She has extensive experience establishing and leading cultural transformation initiatives for global companies across different industries. Her focus is on coaching companies to leverage the power of diverse teams across their organizations.
A version of this post was first published on Medium.
Thus, it’s often hard for me to give gifts that they will find special amongst the plethora of Xbox games, sports equipment, and train sets they receive. Last year, though, I nailed it.
I was in South Africa and saw these handmade drums. They were beautiful, so I knew they wouldn’t be stuffed in a closet by their parents but instead put on display. And, they were functional. I could see the boys having jam sessions for hours. And, (bonus!) the money I spent went back to help a local community in South Africa.
I’m sure we all have those people that are difficult to buy for–including family, friends, colleagues, and clients. Instead of trying to buy the latest gadget or trend, try opting for something with meaning, sends a message, or has a positive impact.
Here are a few international gift-giving hints for the notoriously most challenging people to buy for.
People who have everything.
People who have everything don’t need more stuff, so don’t even try.
Instead, give a gift that gives back. Here are a couple of ideas–give a microloan in that person’s name. You can loan a small amount of money to someone in a developing country to help jumpstart their business.
A hundred dollars can help a woman in Africa, for example, open a store in her community. The recipients have to pay the loan back over time, but the small amount can make a huge difference in helping them self-sustain.
You can also make a donation on someone’s behalf to a cause they care about or to a charity that supports global issues such as Oxfam or Children International.
Gifts for people who care.
Many people are becoming more aware of where their goods are coming from and are careful not to support unfair labor practices or production that negatively impacts the environment. Thankfully, it’s easier now more than ever to consume responsibly.
There are many companies out there that share where their products are sourced and have a mission to not harm the environment, like Uncommon Goods, for example.
Also, most cities have stores that only sell sustainable and organic products. (I love my hometown of Phoenix’s Local Nomad shop which sells jewelry, clothes, and collectibles). Go this route, and you’ll feel good instead of guilt with the things you buy.
Gifts for the people who want unusual things.
Not everyone wants to be part of the latest trend. They want something that’s unique and different.
To get ideas, tap into the experiences of your friends who travel. Ask them what they’re seeing on their trips that may be popular in other cultures or indigenous to other lands. If they’re close enough friends, they may even be able to make some purchases for you that you can reimburse them for later.
Gifts for the globetrotter.
Speaking of people who travel a lot–it seems like they can get anything they want since they seem to go everywhere.
Instead of trying to dazzle them with something unique, make what they do more pleasant.
This holiday, I’m giving essential oil sniffers as stocking stuffers to my fellow global travelers to help revive themselves when crossing many time zones. Other ideas include lightweight travel blankets, compact luggage, and silky soft pillowcases. Check out this past post for more ideas.
Gifts for everyone.
Finally, food is always a crowd pleaser. To add a twist, go international.
Shop at a local foreign restaurant or food market to assemble a basket of interesting treats from around the world. I like to hit a local Mexican restaurant to share with friends the Mexican Christmas tradition of tamales (knowing they can enjoy them during the holidays or freeze for later). Even chains like Trader Joe’s feature special European cookies and chocolates that you can sort and share with colleagues or clients.
When in doubt, go for the stomach. Food is a gift that is universally enjoyed. It can be fun, neutral, and shareable.
Make this holiday season special, fun and unique with gifts that give back or presents with a multicultural flair. Your colleagues, friends, and family will appreciate the extra effort and thought put into your holiday giving.
A version of this post was first published on Inc.