On formality in organizations and culture

The degree of organizational formality manifests itself in the use of language, dress codes, existence and use of formal titles, the way rooms and offices are organized, seating arrangements, office design, and many, many other things and artifacts, big and small.
Formality enable some people to feel comfortable to do business in a global setting; others need informality.
• There are cultures where people need to break out of formality in order to feel comfortable enough to do business. “Just call me Bob; I gotta get this company out of the muck soon-so let’s get a move on it!”….in first meeting, with sleeves rolled up.
• There are cultures where people need to booze in order to relay messages that cannot be relayed due the formal etiquette (and linguistic structure) of everyday business. “You know Oya-san, this idea of yours really needs more work”…..after 5th drink.
• There are cultures where the only way to do business is within a framework of strict formalities. “Dr Muller, sir. I am ready to give you the report”, says Hans who has been working under “Dr” Muller for ten years.
When OD is practiced in a global setting, the degree of formality needs to be adjusted; this is often a daunting task.
Here are some rules of thumb for an OD consultant in a global diverse setting.
• As a facilitator, overdress, all the time. Many populations do not respect a facilitator who is casual.
• In a meeting, you need to relate to people as they relate to you. Call Bill by the name of Bill and call Dr Muller by the name of Dr Muller. Decide how to present yourself, and let people call you whatever they want.
• Introduce people as if you are a host; do not ask them to introduce one another before you say a few words.
• Make sure to prepare people one on one before more formal meetings as much as possible. Use more structured meetings as a default, slowly migrating to less structured as you see the level of tolerance for this developing. Unstructured meetings are harder to run in a very diverse setting.
• If there is a gap in the way people address one another, bridge the gap at the beginning. “Bill and Dr Muller, how does each of you see this issue developing and what are the gaps? Then, start to translate intent. “Dr Muller, when you call Bill by the name Mr. Thomas, he feels uncomfortable”. “Bill, Dr Muller is only called Hans at his golf club, so you make him feel out of the aquarium”..
• Avoid humour because it is too informal. (I ignore this advice all the time).
• Always issue a formal written summary, with action items and ownership.


Culture and resistance of corporate regulations-a case study

Travel policy has now been changed; business class travel is permitted only for the second trip each quarter.

Charles from Ohio complains but adheres to the policy. He has started looking around for a new assignment in the company where no travel is needed.

Edna from Tel Aviv has requested an exception, “unless the first trip is more than 6 hours”. She is presently trying to change company policy, bombarding the corporate with emails and threats.

Ratana from Huahin Thailand said nothing. Nevertheless Ratana started a job search that very evening, since all her trips are gruelling 19 hour flights to New York.

Abhay from Delhi has a friend who works in corporate travel. Leveraging his relationships, Abhay orders his first quarterly ticket at the very last second on flights where the coach class is full, and as per corporate policy, gets an upgraded flight, “if the flight is a customer visit”, which it always is.


Things are foul at this chicken farm-a case study

The heat was already over 100 when I arrived at 0730 to MBD (David’s Poultry Farm), on the Israel/Syrian Border. There was calm on both sides of the border, and one could see the outposts of the Syrian Army.  In MBD however, things were less than calm.

MBD is the largest Poultry farm in the North of Israel; the proprietor is David, a 55 year old native of Tiberius. David is trying to enjoy the fruits of his 35 years hard work by stepping back, and he has transferred almost all of the managerial responsibility to Alexandra (a native of the Former Soviet Union), who immigrated to Israel in 1973.

Alexandra is a PhD is agricultural science and served in the Soviet army in Logistics of Food Transport. Since Alexandra has joined and stepped into her role as “Operations Manager”, all hell has broken loose. Sick leave is up, the new time clock was sabotaged 23 times, and there have been all sorts of maintenance issues cropping up which are unjustified.

BUT-Production is up 75% and market share has grown drastically due to accurate shipments.

David, who remembered me from McGill where we studied in the same years, asked me to visit and make recommendations.

Alexandra said that David was soft on the workers and this is a transition period which will be painful. “It vill take a year”. David treated the Russian workers softly, so they came late, left early, and malinger when there is no work or it is too hot, claims Alexandra. The “native Israelis” workers are constantly arguing and asking “why” and David never demanded obedience. “They must stop asking “lama” (why) or dey vill be fired”

The workers from Arab villages,  come very early (515 am) after morning prayers, and David paid them for sitting around and waiting till work begins simply because David loved to banter with them-since David’s native language is Arabic. “Ve now have shifts dat start at 0700, and if they come early it’s der problem”, said a proud Alexandra.

Alexandra told me that David must FULLY step back and ” I vill whip dem into a team in a year.”

A former supervisor named  Igor (m, from Ukraine) told me that Alexandra is an OK technologist and has no idea how to manage. Igor told me that Alexandra stripped him of his title as supervisor and his peers laugh at him for taking commands from a Babushka (Russian Granny). Igor and David run together on the weekends.

Igor is married to David’s cousin.

Inam (f, Arab) told me that Alexandra installed a time clock, and checks daily if people have stamped in. This is highly insulting because David worked on the trust system “and when there were problems, we dealt with this quietly, via our oldest worker, who acted as an intermediary between David and the workers”. Alexandra does not understand that the girls need to travel ALL TOGETHER in in one truck organized by her village in the morning, or else, “there may be trouble” and added “We do not set the timetable of the village truck with the male escort.”

David had hired a consultant before me and he had done a “group discussion” and “outdoor training” which failed to produce changes.

Since each population requires a different style of management, David now needs to make some tough choices.


The power of being blunt

Michael Wu is the new EVP for Israel & Singapore Offshore R&D Division in a San Jose based software firm.

Avi is the Head of the Israel  R&D centre. Since Michael’s appointment, Avi has been in constant contact with Michael’s boss, with whom he studied at Stanford. Avi shows low responsiveness to Michael’s emails and when Michael gives marching orders, Avi argues.

Michael hired Naomi, a coach from Billings Oregon. Naomi flew to Israel 3 times, met with Avi and planned an intervention called “Mutual Adaptation in a Changing Environment” ;  Avi showed up for two meetings and then checked out.

Michael then hired a consultant who was brought up an educated in North America, but was also Israeli with a long military career. Michael had a one hour conversation, which was “ten times more expense than the hourly rate paid to Naomi” , yet proved very effective. One month later, Avi was fully aligned with and respected Michael; Mike said “we have come a long way”.

Here is an email Mike sent to the consultant,

Hi A—n,

It has been a month now since we spoke and you guided me how to deal with Avi.

I was very reticent about inviting him to fly in from Israel 17 hours on coach class  to San Jose for a half hour meeting with me. I was even more reticent about telling him that “if you mess with me one more time, you’re fucked; now my friend, let’s close this issue and move on-followed by lunch” during which I give him a major project! But it worked. We are well aligned. And as you mentioned with bluntness, he was neither offended nor intimidated. He no longer thought me to be weak.

Thank you so much.

Michael Wu


Risk evasiveness -an anecdote

Tel Aviv based start up TVS purchased a US based competitor USC in the field of IT marketing services for bloggers. TVS is fast innovative, sloppy, undisciplined and years “ahead of the curve”. Their product line is super sophisticated, yet not fully stable.

USC was solid, stable, close to the customer and moderately innovative. Slowly they were losing market share, but highly profitable when TVS purchased them.

TVS initially fired most USC US-based developers and retained their sales force. The US based sales force was reticent about pushing “half cooked crappy products” into “our sophisticated customer base. “If we sell TVS products as they presently function, we will be sued.” Slowly but surely, TVS replaced the entire US based sales force with ex-pat Israelis, who were more willing to take risks. And take risks they did, losing two thirds of the US based clientele in a year!

In Taiwan and China based clients of USC however, TVS quadrupled their sales, without “ex-pating” one Israeli, The Taiwanese and Chinese offices complained that the Israelis were still a bit risk evasive, albeit less than their former American masters. One Taiwanese salesperson said, “as long as we can maintain customer relationships as we seriously commit to increase product performance, we can help the clients drive innovation with our cutting edge products.”



Terms like Mister, Sir or Boss not aligned with the egalitarian culture of the company.

James Wight is the Head of R&D in a San Francisco based software company.

James has all his remote site managers in town for a three day planning session.

Igor heads the Ukrainian site, Jean-Jacques heads the French site, Haim heads the Israel site and Oya heads the Japanese site.

The US based senior VP of HR, Valery White, asked to address James’s global team. As Val spoke, James took a call to distance himself.

Valery made 5 points.

  1. There is a need to use politically correct terminology: chairperson, not chairman; parenthood, not motherhood;  utility, not man-hole; sexual labourer, not ho-ho; not BC but BCC.
  2. Managers should not smoke with workers in front of the offices on the sidewalks, to avoid giving a poor leadership example.
  3. Terms like Mister, Sir or Boss are not aligned with the egalitarian culture of the company.
  4. HR is your business partner. There is now a call center in Tirana Albania at your service.
  5. Even within an office, all emails need to be in English only. In the dining hall when a corporate guest is present, only English should be spoken, “in the spirit of one company”.

After 20 minutes, Valery took a short “bio-break”. When she returned, no one but James remained. They were all still out on the sidewalk smoking and James was still on his call.


Impressed by anger

Au urgent meeting was convened to discuss the ramifications of a further  2 week delay in the “go-live roll out” for a software project which was to impact 50,000 cable-TV users in Australia.  Australian cable companies are presently fielding customer anger because customers have paid for, yet not received, this delayed service.

Invited to the meeting were Arthur from the Australia (the account manager), Arturo ( a developer) from Mexico, Erez (a developer)  from Israel and Tim (master scheduler)  from Germany. Arthur is based in Australia; all the others are US based company HQ.

Tim came into the conference room 5 minutes early and mentioned that he has yet to receive an agenda.

Erez called into the meeting because he had to take his kids to a school play and one could hear his wife castigating him in the background: “why don’t you go and live at work”? The quality of Erez’s connection was also unclear and he got cut off three times.

Arturo came into the meeting 20 minutes late, asked everyone how things are going. Then  just as the meeting was coming to end, Arturo said, “I have a few important issues that are not on the agenda which impact the estimation of readiness for deployment”. Arturo then communicated really bad new of even a further delay of 6 weeks. Arturo suggested that Arthur “bargain for an extension”.

Account manager Arthur maintained his cool until Arturo suggested bargaining for an extension with Australian client. “Listen mate, you can bargain in Mexico, but not in Australia!” Arturo fought back; Arthur got furious and lost his cool. Erez added: “This is the first time I see you really care about the delay, Arthur; we can help you by working weekends!” Both Erez and Arturo had been really impressed by Arthur’s anger.

Tim mentioned that the plan would need to be adjusted to reflect reality. “We need to be transparent” stated Tim, who seemed irrelevant in the semi Levantine reality in this post modern team. Arturo and Erez just don’t get Tims’ hang up on transparency. Erez and Arturo view transparency as counterproductive to managing (not meeting) customer expectations.


An interesting clash of values blows up a deal

Mr. Lau from Hubei China and Mr McDougal (from Cincinnati) are about to sign a contract. The contract is for 200 million dollars over the next year, with Mr Lau purchasing equipment from the American McDougal.

Mr. Lau has one request. “I have a son and  I would like him to work in your company. Keep an eye on him;  he can go to US to learn English if you sponsor him”.

Mr. McDougal thinks: I cannot trust this guy. He is totally corrupt.

Mr. Lau thinks: I cannot trust this guy. I give him 200 million dollars business and he does not value our relationship.

The deal falls apart.


On dysfunction of very senior teams

Lots is written about the dysfunction of the team that Trump has assembled: backstabbing, turnover, intrigue seem to be common. Not very surprising and not very new.

This post will spell out a few reasons why I believe that dysfunction is so frequently  “built into” the genetic code of very  senior teams. Severe dysfunction at the most senior level is something that I expect. I am very surprised when this is not the case.

First however, a small historical anecdote.  At the beginning of the 20th century, very senior competing officialdom in England botched up the middle east for more than one hundred years by issuing in parallel conflicting and diametrically  opposed policies such as the  McMahon-Hussein correspondence  and the Sykes Picot agreement. This dysfunction has caused endless chaos and countless wars. We are not anywhere close to extricating ourselves from this mess which was caused in great part to the most severe senior dysfunction at the senior level of the British administration.

Jumping forward in time, I will provide my observations about why very senior teams have such severe dysfunction.

  1. Senior leaders have limited time, so gatekeepers have more power than experts, a critical component for creating severe friction.
  2. It is VERY common for the guy at the top to be an extremely paranoid player who plays one team member (and interest) against the other as a default. It is very hard to get to the top if you don’t have this skill. Those who float to the top are a special breed; they are extremely adept political animals who shift blame with great skill. The glory (when created) goes to the leader; the blame is shifted downwards. So there is often nothing to gain and much to lose by being a team player. 
  3. People who work with senior leaders learn to be sycophants who please the leader almost to the exclusion of all others.
  4. Many senior leaders want the people around them to churn  out of the organization every so often, thus eliminating the creation of alternative power bases. So they create a rotating exit door to keep the power of others at bay.

The sun rises, and the sun goes down,and hastens to the place where it rises.


From Wiki-Help Britain fight Turkey and gain independance


Sykes Picot (from Wiki) Divide the Middle East between England and France per “areas of influence”




How well do we get to know virtual colleagues?

Eleanor Rigby…
Waits at the window, wearing the face
That she keeps in a jar by the door
Who is it for
All the lonely people
Where do they all come from?
                                                  (lyrics from The Beatles)

There are many tools that enable people to communicate/work together in a virtual environment. Personally I have used Skype, Whats App video, and many other high quality methods of video conferencing. And yes, these tools work, but how well do they work for everyone? How much depth is lost when we use gadgets to communicate?

It has been claimed that it is possible to get to know and trust ones’ colleagues very well, without any  face to face contact. Even the renouned psychiatrist Irvin Yalom now touts the virtue of psychotherapy via texting in his latest book Becoming Myself.

However for me, nothing but nothing replaces face to face contact.

There was an Israeli prime minister (Eshkol) who wisely warned against making “a tragedy into an ideology”. So whilst virtual communication is now the norm, it sure isn’t the “communication venue of choice” that brings out the best of me.

I have been told by people who have met me after years of virtual communication that they are surprised that I am a warm, compassionate person. Until we have met,  I often come across only as brash, bright and/or an aggravating contrarian. And yes, I do have a good sense of humour and write a satirical blog, but I am rather a “serious type” in conversation. And I had another surprise last year when a client with whom I had worked remotely told me that “I am surprised how much I like speaking with you face to face; sometimes I tried to avoid the calls we had scheduled .”

So while global configuration mandates constant virtual communication, I’m not done travelling yet, despite the delays, security checks, loss of baggage and horrendous hours of take off and landing.