Global OD-Lesson Eight: How various cultures view organizing

In the Western world, the assumption is that “organizational systems probably work”.
Once one has a structure, roles and responsibilities, competent people, good team work on well-defined interfaces, governance, processes ensuring work flow and management which inspires and leads- off we go to do business. (The currency is also probably stable, judges are not on the take (perhaps even empowers)
In many parts of the world however, there are several ways to get an organization to work. The importance of the formal visible manifestations of what makes an organization work varies vastly.
In small countries like Singapore and Israel, everyone knows everyone, and so “relationships” get things done better than formal systems do. For example, if I know my bank manager, he will open the branch for me even if I come late.
In countries where folks do not respect authority (Australia, Israel), recourse to “the org chart” may backfire.
In massive China where formal systems work very partially, things get done in organizations via relationships almost exclusively. People seek “safely” in folks with whom they have a friendly relationship and lots of trust. The Chinese sometimes use the term “lo pan yao”, i.e. people/friends who they know from their home town. An understanding of the lo pan yao relationships map is critical to understanding how things get done in organizations in the Middle Kingdom.
I remember I was with a client in Bangkok and a cop stopped her for jumping a yellow light. She gave the cop a hundred baht (3 USD). She explained to me that the government cannot afford to pay cops well and this informal system “adjusts” the imbalance without strikes and inflating the budget. (She called it “so called corruption”)
It is safe to say that many Westerners do business and then develop relationships, although there are many exceptions.
Many people in the East first develop relationships, and then do business. There are exceptions to this, but not too many. Often, favors are exchanged. Purchasing favors can occurs as well. (Of course this happens in the West as well, but it is much more subtle, and the West has double standards for the rich and poor.)
For global OD the above has ramifications.
To understand what is going on in many organizations and subsidiaries in the world, one must master the map of relationships, who knows whom, and have a deep understanding of what enables things to get done.
Having a team building session, a strategic offsite, changing roles, responsibilities, and issuing a revised mission statement has no impact if another system is at play.
Interventions in the Western world need to address the formal and informal structure. Interventions in other parts of the world need to address whatever system is being used, and it may well not be the formal system. A massive amount of work needs to be develop OD interventions for this context.
When doing global interventions, it is very important to have a very clear diagnosis, plan what can be done openly, and plan what needs to be done discretely.

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Global OD-Lesson Seven: The Importance of planning is not universally acknowledged

Very few organizational consultants working in the western world would pooh pooh the importance of having an OD change plan. The plan can be a grandiose master plan, or a MS project plan, or at least an excel sheet, which spells out the deliverables, roles and responsibilities and due dates.

The importance and advantages of planning appear obvious and let’s be honest, planning does appear to have a lot of value which one expects to be universally acknowledged. This is not the case.

There are folks who have taught me about perceptions that plans are “delusional control tools” of those who believe they control the environment.
There are folks who have taught me about the perceptions that plans are “traps” that ensnare creativity.
There are folks who have taught me about the perceptions that ingenuity drives change, and plans stifle ingenuity.
There are folks who have taught me about the perceptions that plans are more about control than about doing what needs to be done.
A client in Egypt taught me an Arabic saying “isal el rafik kabl el tariq”-ask with whom, not about the road to be taken.
And many many folks I work with see in planning an obsession.

Since I myself am much disciplined and work to plan, these were hard lessons for me to learn.

When I did learn them, the quality of cooperation I got in India, Taiwan, Israel, Thailand and Indonesia increased tenfold.

When working with Germans, Americans, Brits and Dutch on one hand, and cultures which value planning to a lesser extent, I was able to work on what are the assumptions that people have about planning, with very good results.

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Global OD-Lesson Six: What are the basic assumptions about how organizations change?

A new purchasing process is being rolled out by Helmut from company HQ.

Helmut from Germany believes that if everyone will follow the process with discipline and rigor, the new purchasing process will work;  folks in all departments will learn to trust one another, due to the high level of responsiveness that the change in purchasing process will achieve. He is encountering resistance in Israel and China.

Moshe from Israel says that once he trusts the agenda of those in corporate implementing the new purchasing process, he and the team may  follow the process. Until then, they will work around the process to ensure plenty of escalations- to shake apart the rigid process. They will make Helmut crumble under the number of exceptions, generated by the Israeli proclivity of doing things at the last minute.

Bai from Shanghai does not plan to use the purchasing process. The level of transparency will enable people in corporate to “stick their nose into my territory”. He does not plan to allow the system to be implemented. Bai will, however, express his commitment to “roll out the system, adapting it to the reality of the Chinese market over an eight year period.

These are not minor differences and Helmut feels he is failing- and thus Helmut has requested an OD intervention.

The consultant’s choice of a path of intervention is complex. I would imagine that a Western traditional OD intervention would have the ideological preference of making this into a “group grope, by examining the resistance to the change by putting all the folks in the room to create alignment and build commitment to make it work. This may not be effective, and this is an understatement.

.A global OD consultant would probably work with HQ and ensure alignment of policy, structure, culture, and staffing. If the new purchasing process is to be deployed in China, the staffing for the initial few years should be a German-Chinese expat with vast China experience. Moshe  needs to be replaced by another manager with more global experience who has learned that one cannot argue with everything. Since Helmut is working with Chinese and Israelis, the tools of implementation need to be aligned.Helmut needs to ensure that he is equipped with sufficient sanctions, and not a bag full of processes and the assumption that folks do what they are told.

Perhaps the Global OD consultant will try and change the purchasing process itself, if it creates more damage than good.

Because global OD assumes that group discussions, team work and better communication do not solve everything, Global OD often focuses on the decisions/policies themselves, appropriate  staffing, and different roll out strategies for different geographies.

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What is Global OD-Lesson Five: When is communication not at all beneficial

This will be a controversial posting.

Improving communication is a cornerstone of Western OD. Interventions target improving communications; OD believes that good communication can compensate for structural flaws, and process without good communication can’t make things happen.

OD also thrives for more authentic communication.

All the above is true in certain contexts.

However in many cultures, talking and communicating makes problems get worse.

Amaya from Osaka taught me that once she gets angry at a colleague and expresses the anger, the relationship will break down.

Miyazaki from Tokyo  taught me what he says when he is silent.

Kalpana from Bangalore taught me that inferring things with a superior is better than saying them. I learnt that communicating “openly” means people will not hear you.

Daw from Bangkok taught me what klenjai is: klenjaiing is “always make the other person feel comfortable, at all costs”, klenjai is the ultimate way of communicating, avoiding unpleasantness AT ALL COST.

What does this mean when Moshe, and Pierre and Hans and Daw and Kalpana and Amaya and Miyazaki work together?


Does it mean that OD shoves western values down everyone’s throat?

What it should mean is that an OD consultant working in a global environment needs to understand when it is preferable to mediate and serve as a go between, instead of forcing people to talk. It means that group dynamics and having people “talk things out” is severely culturally biased and certainly not the default choice in a global environment,

And it means that the OD consultant must be able to get things to work, by augmenting or avoiding communication, without our present western biases.

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Teamwork is a quirk; some do it. Some don’t. So let’s get real. (revised)

Different cultures gets things done differently.

It is true that Sam (US) from R&D and Cheryl (UK) from Sales can work things out between them in the spirit of teamwork and escalate only the very contentious issues to their bosses. But Paco (Spain) from R&D and Yi (Shanghai) from Sales will be castigated by their bosses if they work out issues between them without the explicit apriori agreement of their bosses on almost every detail. Paco’s and Yi’s boss do not get things done the way that Sam and Cheryl’s boss get things done.

Teamwork in global organizations presents a challenge because the values needed to drive teamwork are not universally shared. In some languages, the work “team work” does not even exist. In many places in the world, bosses expect that subordinates do what they are told and not “accommodate” their peers from parallel organizations.

Attempts to force feed western style teamwork backfire all the time in the global work place.

Authoritarian managers kowtow to HR and corporate campaigns to improve teamwork, and then go back home and they continue to behave as they have been programmed to: directive, authoritarian and compassionate.

While there is a lot to be said for establishing across the board corporate values and desired behaviours, these artifacts are rarely implemented.

I suggest that attempts to drive behavioural uniformity be more pragmatic. Deeply ingrained cultural behaviours cannot be defined away by empty slogans such as “teamwork” is our middle name.

Teamwork is a quirk; some do it. Some don’t. Now let’s get real about how to leverage the talent we have in the global configuration of organizations.


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What is Global OD-Lesson Three: Different types of truth

Many OD consultants assume that there is a shared view of what is truth.

Nothing can be further from the truth!

Boss John asks Bill (in a concall) if the quarter looks good. Bill gives bad news. Bill is telling the truth, i.e. representing the facts; while Bill may fear  how John may act, Bill is not fearful as being seen as a liar.

Boss John then asks Som (in the same con call) if the quarter looks good. Som says that the quarter is looking fine. After the concall, Som calls John and says the quarter is horrible. John calls in an OD consultant because Som is lying and “ we need to have full transparency”.

Do most OD consultants understand this? My experience is that they do not. In cases like this, the western educated OD consultant will work with Som “to be more transparent”. Som will agree, but for the wrong reasons.

The global OD consultant needs to understand that Som has a different hierarchy of truths. Som believes that relationships need to “appear” harmonious, bad news news to be given discretely, and all effort must be made not to give the boss bad news in public because it makes the boss look bad.

The global OD consultant will provide John with the right context to elicit “
accurate” news from his direct reportees.

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OD Diagnosis in non Western Environments

I want to get practical very quickly.

Interviewing in the East and in the West is very different. While in the West you can introduce yourself as a consultant and start bombarding the other side with questions, this is not possible or desirable in the East.

In the East, an interviewee will give information if there is a degree of personal trust, and if he feels his “opinion” does not make him stand out like a sore thumb, if he does not lose face, or if he needs not feel he is critical of someone in authority.

One of the first things one notices outside the “western world” is that there is an expectation that a consultant should be an expert; experts need to know and not ask so many questions. Asking too many questions is seen as “trickery” or “game playing” or “feigning weakness”.

I have been told time and time again: “you are asking questions me instead of telling me’!

Since OD starts with a diagnosis, it is very important to gather data, so the question arises, how do you learn about the organization without asking “too many questions”. And what are “too many questions”?

Here are some practical guidelines that I have found useful:

1 A diagnostic interview is not a one hour slam, bang, thank you maam. Diagnosis is a series of many meetings where a relationship is established and information starts to leak out. It takes a long time to diagnose in Asia, for example. I use lots of informal discussion to learn about the organization. I go drinking at night with the salary men in Japan; I take long lunches with lots of chit chat in Thailand; I listen to the gossip in a Singapore office. I build very friendly relationships in India. I rely far less on formal interviews.

2 An expert can get input from others, but this must be done with a lot of context: “I am trying to understand. On one hand, Ethan seems to get the business right yet I have heard that other things need some improvement, especially the way he talks to customers! Or I am wrong? Help me understand this.” The point here is that you need to put words into peoples’ mouths and then asked them to ok it or elaborate.

3 Often one needs to use external attribution to interview. Let’s say you want to know if the customer respects Ethan. You can say: “I have heard that the customer respects Ethan” and also “I have heard that Joe has a better relationship with the customer than does Ethan”. Using attribution, an interviewee can join a group and not stick out like a sore thumb.

4 Another useful tool is to use non-existent rumours and see what people say. “I have heard that the customer would do more business were Ethan not managing the account….but this may be wrong”. Then, just wait.

5 Another useful tool is to use futuristic events, because they have not happened yet and thus, there is no loss of face, so interviewees can speak up easily. “Management is thinking of giving Ethan a huge role as Key Account Manager in a new huge deal. Is this a good idea?” The expression of an opinion in this case is easier because nothing has happened yet, i.e., there are no face issues.

6 Yet another tool is to not to let go. Let’s say X says he does not know how effective Ethan is with customers, yet you need his opinion because he has critical technical input. It is acceptable to apply pressure as follows: “try to remember; I may fail if I do not have your input and the CEO would not be happy with me; I understand that you cannot answer me today. We can talk about this tomorrow”. Then, ask others what X thinks and confront him with that: “I heard that you are shy when Ethan makes technical errors at the customer site. Am I wrong? This manipulation (which would rarely work in the West) works wonders…and you make a smile. You have become a “persistent” expert”.

7 Try as much as possible to discuss, and not ask questions. There is much more openness to discussion than to questions, where answers are needed.

8 If accents are hard to understand, apologize profusely for not being fluent in your interviewees’ language. Then use a whiteboard, and ask him to write words you do not understand. Do not give up because this shows lack of respect, even if it takes all day. I have sat with Koreans and Japanese for 7 hours each on an interview I could have polished off in an hour in Canada or Israel.

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The biases of Western OD

I practice OD all over the world. I work with Thais, Japanese, Israelis, Russians, Indians, Americans, Canadians, Brits, Dutch and Germans. I initially  tried to use classical, Western OD and failed. As a result, I have adapted OD to global practice, basically by letting go of the western basic assumptions on which OD is based.

Western OD focuses on  humanistic values, and endeavours to  realize the full potential of individuals. Western OD puts emphasis a wide and complex set of peoples’ overall needs, which are important in work and for life in general.

Western OD focuses on creating an inclusive and empowering environment in which leadership shows the way, inspiring and empowering  people to fulfill their mission.

When working in groups which are truly global and encompass a wide range of cultures and very acute diversity, there are many differences that one notices immediately, which questions the universal validity of OD’s assumptions.

1) In many parts of the world, group identity is far more salient than individual identity.

2) In many parts of the world, power is not at all shared, the ability to influence is very safeguarded as an extremely rare resource. In short, leaders and followers have mutual expectations in their genetic code which cannot be changed, even by classical OD.

3) The organizational needs of human beings’ vary all over the world. ( Bill may want his boss Fred to consult him before acting, yet Song may expect Sumchai to dictate with compassion).

Given the above, the very foundations and basic assumptions upon which Western OD is based, are not universally applicable. And this is not “cultural diversity”; what I claim is that people do not share the same genetic code about organizing.

This makes the art of communicating about organizing so challenging, especially since the massive use of English makes a lot of things sound “apparently similar”. This apparent similarity is very shallow.

While all folks use the same words, deep differences appear under the surface. A few examples will suffice.

1-The West values partial transparency the East values discretion.

2-In some places, teamwork is seen as “cool”; in other places it is betraying your boss.

3- In some quarters, win win is something to strive for; in others, win win is stupidity at best and suicide at worst.

3-Empowerment provides an opportunity to develop others; empowerment means giving away the crown jewels of a rare resource.

4-Participatory decision making makes better decisions; top down dictates sweetened with compassion is the way to best make decisions.

The role of value-flexible, global  OD consultant is  to ensure that one set of values does not over rule the other. In other words, OD should not purvey its own values, but rather  enable a dialogue between contradictory values within organizations.

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