Lessons learned and cultural bias

Within most global organizations, the same version of a “Lessons Learned” (LL) methodology is blindly used with all populations, despite the cultural and behavioural factors which inhibits the  effectiveness of the  lessons learned methodology.

Lessons learned methodology is ridden with western biases and thus, the wrong lessons can be learnt in companies with very acute diversity. Here is a case at hand.

A “lessons learned” exercise was carried out following the 3 month delay in the release of  a software service pack ,which resulted in a severe crisis with a key customer as well as the loss of future business for the upcoming 2 quarters.

The lessons learned process was led by Ralph White, from Burlington Vermont. Ralph is SVP Special Projects and has an operations background. Main results-

  • The prescribed  process  in the ”Plan of Record” was not rigorously  adhered to. Short cuts were negotiated informally outside of the Plan of Record, which were undocumented, untested and not integrated between functions, which caused mismatched expectations between teams.
  • The role of  R&D Project Manager  and the role of the Release Manager were not clearly defined, causing conflicting input to confused developers.
  • When hard work over weekends and holidays was needed, management showed “weakness” and capitulated to “populism.”
  • R&D did not follow development methodology with enough rigor.

In other words, the “system” had holes in it and did not work. But many of the folks involved in the project do not believe that “systems” work or should work!. So there are a whole set of cross cultural issues that were untouched by the lessons learned exercise. Here are some of the real lessons:-

  • Naor Lior-Tal  (m,Israel) is the Head of R&D. Naor believes that under severe time constraints, people cover their ass in Plan of Record meetings and the only way to get more  things done is to negotiate for more aggressive commitments informally, outside the plan of record. Naor feels blocked from managing commitments the way he would prefer.
  • HR Manager Anumati Abishta, (f, India) knows that there is always a shut down in late December and early January in US corporate HQ. Every other holiday can be “cancelled” by asking for extra effort. When folks learned about the need t o work on the Chinese New Year due to the shut down in December-Jan, Anumati knew that a meltdown of motivation and a massive walk out was possible, unless she worked behind the scenes to cover up so that people could celebrate Chinese new year, causing a 3 week delay (which she said would be “ok).
  • Helmut, (m, Germany) the master planner believes that not enough data was available to access the extent of the “slip”. More data would have allowed better risk management. (Data fixes systems).
  • Vlad (m, Russia) from Sales believes the delay is no big deal. Proper relationship management could have solved the problem, but corporate is “festering with compliance officers”, and thus, Sales folks do not have tools to appease clients’ anger.

So when Ralph White presents his report to be discussed, I question if the right lessons will be learned.

Now let’s set up a few guidelines to improve lessons learned across very diverse cultures.

1) Let’s take the example of Holland, Germany, Israel and France where criticism can be well valued.

During the process of LL, overly positive statements must be avoided because they will seen as as “ducking out”;  dwelling for too long about what went well is as boy scout-ism from which little can be learnt. The result of lessons learned in these cultures  is a list of things that went wrong, why and what needs to be done differently by whom the next time.

2) In many parts of Asia, public negative statements about things that have happened are avoided to enable save facing.

During the process of LL, communication will be oblique, indirect and low keyed and one will need to understand what was not said. Apology, humility and a promise to try harder next time are the publicly shared lessons learned that can be generated within these cultures. Any other lessons must be taught discretely.

3) In the US, the overdosing on politically correct can obfuscate lessons learned because the lesson need to be cleansed linguistically. So it is very important to be crystal clear and explicit about what is really meant.


Clearly diverse cultures are ill suited to apply the same  lessons learned methodology.  Yet LL methodologies originate in western corporate headquarters and as such are based on one flavour suits all.

An interesting and value creating role for an OD consultant is to interpret the cultural script of a lessons learned exercise . Herein is a vast secret code which is fascinating to decipher.

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5 counter intuitive tips on managing Israeli engineering and development teams

1) A very aggressive demand is more motivating than a “reasonable” demand. Make almost impossible demands.

2) Let the Israelis complain as much as they want. Complaining need not be taken all that seriously. It is a stress-releasing mechanism. Unlike some nations, many Israelis are more obedient once given the freedom of speech. Once free to complain, they are compliant.

3) Refrain from overdosing on plans. Israelis may look at plans as a semi futile exercise, or worse, as a waste of time and energy. As far as process is concerned, allowing the Israelis not to follow process in some cases may better  leverage their creative capabilities.

4) Be as emotional as you want. Israelis accept a high level of emotional involvement at work. You can raise your voice, disagree without cleansing your words, and show anger openly. This will augment the level of trust people have in you.

5) Use “urgent” and “immediate” as your tools of motivation. Israelis do urgent things very well; they struggle with routine.

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Backing and culture

Adiel (m, Israel) gives public backing to his employees when they err. He will never tell an employee that he is wrong when a member of another department is present. Adiel will also take the rap from his own boss, covering for his people’s errors.

John (LA) is matter of fact and expedient with errors of his staff. If an employee of  his errs, so be it; John will not provide cover for an employee because it not mature to cover up mistakes. There is no need overly protect people who err by being “tribal”, like his peer Adiel in Israel.

Jai from Thailand will cover for her people when they make an error. She will also rarely call them to task privately, since harmony is more important that being right or wrong.

Grégoire in Paris will never “back” an employee; quite the opposite; he will often challenge his employees by attacking their logic. The employees views this challenging/combative style as a sign of professional respect. They know that in the end after the debate, Gregoire will tell them what to do, and assume responsibility.

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Should an OD consultant negotiate with Procurement

In large organizations, all service providers and vendors are sent to Procurement to negotiate contracts.

Often, due to information technology, Procurement is empowered to prevent the employment of a vendor and service provider by not issuing a purchase order, which is a precondition to get paid.

Despite the “mission statements” and b.s.,  Procurement is there to force the price down. The negotiation with them has a veneer of professionalism, but it is all about money.

My experience is that if the manager who has invited you clearly wants you, he will “take care” of Procurement for you, and Procurement will be merely a vendor-registration process. If the client is ambivalent, or if he is buying an OD product and not a service, the OD vendor will be sent to procurement.

In every instance where I was not personally sent to Procurement, the client was far more serious about getting results.

My advice to newcomers is to add 10-15% to your bid to make the folks in Procurement feel good. They will be able to show off what great business partners they are.

Personally, I do not negotiate with Procurement. Routing me via Procurement means that the client is not really interested.

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Not answering the phone

It has now become popular “in some parts” not to answer the phone, and even cancel voice mail forcing the person  who needs to establish contact to sms/text, send email or use whatsup.

While this communicational expedience appears to be a “choice” of those wishing to “maximize” their use of time, I caution how globally scalable this is in the following cases:

1-When clients or bosses or family expect accessibility  all the time, even if this may appear “unreasonable”.

2-When the accepted etiquette is such that one can always say “I”ll get back to you and  call you later”, but nevertheless this message must be given both on line and  personally…to show enough care that you are “almost” always available.

3) In cultures where plans mean less that emergencies.

4) Where respect is shown by being available.

5) Where people are expected to multi task all the time.

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Working with populations with a problematic history and/or with religious tensions and/or who are/were at war

Due to the nature of my work, I find myself in situations where I work with Palestinians and Israelis in the same team, Germans and Israelis of all generations, Japanese and Chinese,Indians and Pakistanis, Chinese Thais and Indonesians, devout Muslims and devout Jews, as well as  secularists and religious people from countries where this divide is an issue (Turkey, Egypt, Iran, Israel)

The populations with whom I work are very well educated and/or in the high tech sector.

Here are a few of my observations.

1) It is very important to know about the relevant history and religious practices, and I mean more than reading a Wiki article. It is also equally important never to initiate a public discussion on these matters.

2)  More often than not, the atmosphere in teams like this will be very matter of fact and business like. There will be an attempt to be professional to the extreme in group settings. This having been said, there is “wear and tear” on people’s psyche due to the restraint they show. It is important to gain people’s trust and work with them one on one, allowing them to express what’s on their minds, and empathise with their personal struggle to remain civil and in control.

3) There are events which occur which make the working environment volatile to the extreme: a security event, a day of memorial for the dead of one side or the other, or even a seemingly benign news event. On days like this, while often nothing is ever said, the tension can reach boiling point. Needless to say, it is important to try not to schedule difficult meetings events in this time frame.

4) Develop an awareness of how different very diverse populations and people see you in their context. While you need to be neutral, you need to be authentic.

5) Sometimes, although very rarely, everything explodes in your face. This has happened to me 3 times in 35 years. Someone flips, and the you-know-what hits the fan. Stop the meeting immediately if you can. Reconvene with context about losing one’s cool, an apology from the protagonists, and right back to business. Any attempt to process this blow up in a group context goes nowhere and is far too dangerous and counter productive.The most appropriate processing of such events is done one on one. As the group reconvenes, the facilitator should be ultra vigilant and directive, maintaining civility with a heavy hand until the group returns to do so on its own.

6) Some people are too opinionated or passionate for these types of groups. Remove them immediately. Not to do so has devastating consequences.

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When escalation is a modus operandi, what are the cultural underpinnings?

1) There is a “psychological” sense of urgency, unrelated to real needs.

2) Speed has become default  strategy; sometimes, it does not even matter what is being done, it needs to be done quickly. This is often survivor-based mentality.

3) There is a generic low level of trust that others do their jobs well.

4) There is a belief that ingenuity and drive gets things done, whilst structure and process slow down things down.

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Why people from some cultures do not escalate issues

Often, managers ask my why people from certain cultures are reticent or refuse to escalate issues via email/phone call when appropriate.

Let us  take an example.

Tada from Chang Mai is a product manager for Product Q 4 in Asia Pac. Recently, a leading VP from HQ returned home with a long list of issues to be fixed. Tada had shared the list of  concerns only after having been asked. Let’s see why Tada never escalated  before he was asked.

1) Tada prefers harmony to conflict. Tada believes that conflict or bad feelings need to be avoided at all costs because these unpleasant  states are almost irreversible.

2) Tada believes that the role of his boss is to know things and act. If he does not know, he should know. If the boss does not know, he should ask. If the boss does not ask, it is not  Tada’s role to tell him and “upset” him or disrespect him.

3)  Tada believes that maintaining hierarchy is more important than resolving specific issues.

4) Tada believes that he will be “stick out as a trouble maker” is he escalates, and while escalation may solve a specific issue, his  reputation within the organization will be tarnished.

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Hallucinatory commitments to the market-a case study


Corporate HQ is not happy about the expected 8 month delay of an upcoming critical product. There is fear that a window of opportunity will close in the next quarter, which may render the product irrelevant.

In a lesson learned exercise done by an outside consulting firm, the report said “ there is too little transparency between development teams, located in San Francisco, Tel Aviv and Beijing. More transparency and better team work between the teams will drastically accelerate development”.

The truth is that transparency between the development teams is not the issue; there is fierce competition between the teams on who will be blamed for the obviously hallucinatory  overly aggressive commitments which were made to the market. The fact is that the delay will be 2 years, not eight months! (The external consultant never got it).

San Francisco based team members have “placed the résumés” on the web, to bail ship. In the meantime, they claim they are “waiting and waiting” for the Israeli designers to translate business needs into product architecture. The Israelis claim that the “business needs as described by the SF team are empty platitudes”.  In Beijing, developers who are supposed to be designing building blocks for the product are fooling around  on Facebook all day, whilst providing progress reports on non existing building blocks.

The external consulting firm not see the  root cause of the dirty politics as a derivative of the  hallucinatory commitment to the marketplace. The external consultants were too ideological about the need for transparency and team work in global teams. The external consulting firm worked with a productized OD model on “how to succeed in global development”. The consultant had 3 years experience. His last project was improving supply chain issues in the frozen meat industry. The consultant has never travelled outside of the US, yet the firm for which he works is “well-branded”.

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Why some global organizations buy simple and useless productized OD “solutions” for complex problems

The cooking class post of a few days ago illustrated the purchasing of a simple and useless solution for a complex problem. My Gloria Blog provides many examples of this.

While many organizations do handle problems of global organizing  appropriately by leveraging OD, this post will relate to reasons why lots of companies do the wrong thing.

1) OD has become productized, having migrated from solution-based projects. This is good for large consulting firms who can then hire new college graduates who learn to “administer” the products quickly.The firms charge high prices using their brand name, and “clip a coupon”.

2) The death of professional standards has been replaced by commercial standards, i.e., making the client “happy”. This client is often from HR or represented by HR. Threatened by their low status and the derivate need to perky and pleasing, the HR manager wants wow results from nifty products. This is even worse if the consultant is hired by Training.

3) Many inexperienced global organizations want “one size fits all”, because they do not understand the need to differentiate between a shared “core” and specialized applications. For example, the core may be “we want transparency”: this should NOT lead to “running better meetings”, because information is not shared in meetings in many parts of the world.

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