3 critical issues impacting dispersed development teams

Case Study

The next release of “Universal Voice to Text” for all messaging applications with translation into 120 languages is being co-developed in 7 locations by teams in a massive dispersed development effort.

Shared components are developed in Silicon Valley and Tel Aviv. The localization and translation applications are developed in Paris and Hong Kong. Noise control is handled out of Raleigh USA; there are PFDSD teams (prepare for deployment/service/ documentation)  in  Moscow and Seoul.

There are thousands of teams like this, many of whom have a common set of inherent tensions. The goal of this post is to highlight the 3 most frequent tensions characterizing geographically dispersed development  teams which co develop products. I will use the above case study as a shared platform to illustrate.

Issues to be discussed are

  1. Hidden agendas
  2. Trust
  3. Blaming and  unwillingness to share risks.

Hidden agendas are politically driven survival & control motives which impact the interface between the various components of the dispersed team.

The major hidden agendas consist of maintaining jobs, proper positioning to impact major decisions, and maintaining long term involvement in the product to ensure that the team is not easily disposed of.

In the case above, Paris and Hong Kong are adamant that their applications do not become part of share components, which will ensure the viability of their teams.

Trust is a very rare commodity in dispersed development  teams, due to cultural differences, hidden agendas, lack of personal relationships, the anomie inherent in virtual organizing and poor mutual responsiveness due to time differences.

In the case above, there are acute trust issues between the Silicon Valley team  and the Seoul team due to a 4 day turn around time on issues. Deep mutual suspicions have been developed in the last six months and the trust issues are out of hand.

Another illustration of trust comes to mind.  Mr. Lau in Hubei, China and Mr. McDougal (from Cincinnati USA ) are about to sign a contract. The contract is for 200 million dollars over the next year. Mr. Lau has one more request. “I have a son who I would like to work in your company. Keep an eye on him and perhaps he can go to US to learn English. 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.

Blaming

Dispersed development teams work in the context of very aggressive commitments with huge risks factored into customer commitments and inevitable technological challenges.

In the case of above, the Universal Voice to Text including translation has been promised to a client by November, 2016. And guess what, it ain’t gonna be ready by then. So the teams are blaming one another for late deliveries as an excuse for the schedule slips which are happening weekly. Just last night, the Raleigh team complained that some background noises come across as syllables and words, shifting the blame to the shared component group in Tel Aviv.

It is very rare that dispersed teams will share risks, preferring instead to blame one another for obvious reasons, aka hidden agendas driving long term survival.

More on the global consulting mindset here.

 

 

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Avoid using these 3 OD religious tenets in Global Organizations

Readers of this blog know that the stubborn author keeps harping on the need to adapt Organization Development to the complexities of global organizations.

Presently, I am working on a book ten exercises which will expand the capabilities of the OD practitioner to be effective not only in a parochial western organization, but also in global organizations.

Writing a book is not writing blog, and I keep forcing myself to focus on “what are the key messages that I want to make “, so as not to drive my readers crazy, like my satirical character Comrade Carl Marks.

By asking that question of myself day after day in the course of writing my book, I seemed to have also arrived at the major points I want to make in all the posts in this entire blog. So here they are:

While the tenets of OD are applicable to western organizations, their application to global organizations are ill appropriate. 3 major religious tents of OD need to be avoided, in alignment with cultural humility

  1. Avoid unpleasant interactions stemming from the authentic and open “management” of conflict. Deal with conflict discretely, quietly and try to work around it.
  2. Avoid “open and authentic” feedback, when the feedback is seen as damaging cohesion and diminishing face. Use non verbal clues and back-door obtuse communication.
  3. Avoid use of semi-structured meetings with free flowing communication when this will embarrass people who prefer to express discretely matters of importance . Prefer one on one, face to face, more structured communication.

 

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Do most people agree that telling your boss what he wants to hear, and not the truth, constitutes a lie?

In a previous post, I listed ten questions geared at assessing the question “do you have a global mindset. John Scherer, from Wiser at Work,  made a webinar about these ten questions.

In my upcoming book Global OD-Ten Exercises, I shall provide detailed answers to these ten questions.

Yet the book is months away, so in the meantime,  here is an explanation for one of the trickier questions, “do most people agree that telling your boss what he wants to hear, and not the truth, constitutes a lie?

Many cultures value the collective more than the individual. In such cultures, the harmony and cohesion of the collective are served by strong and powerful leaders. In cultures, authoritarian leadership is accepted, respected and deferred to. Whilst there may be complaints about excesses of authoritarian style, few would prefer the  lack of harmony which arises due to weak leadership.

Harmony and cohesion in such cultures are more valued that the accuracy of this or that factual detail.

In such cultures, it is acceptable that a boss be told in public what the boss wants to hear, even if this includes a few inaccurate facts. This is not considered a lie, because it serves a higher perceived truth, i.e., maintaining the position and face of he who maintains harmony around whom all are rallied, willingly or less so.

This position of the leader is “more important” than a few uncomfortable facts, which can and will  be relayed, but discretely.

So the answer is no to “Do most people agree that most people believe that telling your boss what he wants to hear, and not the truth, constitutes a lie? Not a lie at all for some-rather the ultimate truth, harmony and a strong boss, can naturally be maintained by a few factual inaccuracies. Yes, for others, this is a bald lie, but not for all. A split jury.

OD and change-management types may find this type behaviour offensive. Indeed OD’s development  was rooted in anti-authoritianism.

However, OD ignores these cultural genetic codes to the detriment of our profession.

Neither OD, change management nor a strong corporate culture can re engineer such deep genetic cultural codes.

So in the following case, what will you tell Art? …..Art (US) asked Wang (China) “what does this quarter look like” on a concall with 6 participants.  Wang said “looks good”. After the concall, Wang called Art and told him that the quarter looked bad. Art told himself that Wang cannot be trusted as he is a pathological fibber.

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Avoid trying to build too much “buy-in” into decision making

There are global companies that attempt to elicit “buy-in” for key decisions. There is no place for a priori eliciting of “buy-in” in very diverse global firms. It just does not work. The goal of this post is to explain why not and provide an alternative.

In many parts of the world, management is autocratic and autocracy is not a pejorative term. Autocratic management has the right and privilege to decide, and in return, autocratic management assumes responsibility and does not share blame. Autocratic management can be more compassionate than more democratic forms of leadership, because compassion comes with the territory of being an autocrat.

The autocratic manager has subordinates who feel relieved that they are asked to do, not decide. They willingly relinquish the power of decision to the autocrat, as well as the larger salary and reserved parking spot.

Autocratic management is often prompted up by religious beliefs, such as the 5 unequal relationships of Confucius. There also may be a political preference for autocracy due to a societal fear of the instability which stems from the divisiveness caused by overly democratic decision making process.

The  global companies that try to get buy-in for key management decisions believe that there is a phenomenal upside. It is true; buy-in has a phenomenal upside, in some cultures. Yet, cementing a priori buy-in is limited to very few cultures and appears to be a bit of an idiosyncratic quirk, observed in such diverse places as Japan, starts ups of a certain nature, companies with a strong participative ideology slash religion of participation, and companies which have perhaps overdosed on OD as a religion!

Too much focus on buy-in may result in a growing lack of trust in management’s ability in cultures with an autocratic streak to them. Worse, too much reliance on buy-in may cause folks to feel that management is dithering and the company is “unsafe”.

Pragmatism is suggested as the best medicine. In autocratic cultures, it is best to dress up buy-in as risk mitigation, rather than challenging the decision itself.

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When someone is professionally competent, cultural skills may be less important. (revised)

When a manager lacks professional competence, cultural competence becomes far more  important for success.

To illustrate: In 2 different companies, Lynn and Morris both lead a major Supply Chain/IT effort to regulate the suppliers to whom work is contracted.

Morris and Lynne have both been told “not to rock the boat with the remote offices too much during the transition” yet ensure that the software be deployed globally with one year.

Morris is a top notch professional with business domain knowledge as well as IT skills which garner huge respect. Lynne comes from project management. She is a manager and an integrator. She lacks the professional business and IT knowledge that Morris has.

Although their personal style is similar, there is far more noise/ rumblings about Lynne. Folks complain that Lynne “does not understand the mentality” of the local offices. Strangely, Lynne encountered the strongest resistance in France and Belgium, although she speaks French fluently!

The level of professional competence that Morris exhibits mitigates the importance of his lack of his cross cultural competence. His professional competence lessens his need even to be seen as culturally competent. For Lynne, without cultural competence to win over initial trust, she may be a goner.

I train dozens of managers yearly in “cultural literacy and competence”. Cultural competence can compensate for lack of professional competence, and professional competence can lessen the need to be culturally literate.

Training departments would be wise to take this into account instead of “across the board” one size fits all.

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Dealing with the feedback loop: Traditional and Global OD

One of the major changes that Traditional OD needs is a remodelling of the underlying assumption that feedback and discussion generated by feedback serve as the ultimate platform to make organizational  improvements and create behavioural change.

Within cultures, there are certain things that are not discussed, from taboo to giving feedback about a characteristic that cannot change. The content of what is not discussed may change from culture to culture, but all cultures have the category of things that are not discussed. There is phenomenal variance between cultures on what is not discussable.

Cultures have different ways of discussing discrete & sensitive issues in what they see in an appropriate manner. For some cultures this may in a  very closed forum, or with close friends that you trust. Other cultures prefer management meetings.There is phenomenal variance between cultures about what is discrete and sensitive.

Cultures have different ways of viewing emotions including anger. In some cultures, emotions including anger must be part of a discussion to prove you are genuine. In other cultures, you must smile when you are angry to repress any emotion. And strangely, in another culture, one must speak in a civil manner, yet to write flaming emails is ok!

In the global organization, we can see a lot of these differences coming into play. Western cultures have almost a religious belief that discussion creates an opportunity to improve. In many other cultures, the price that is paid for disrupting harmony by having a such a discussion is so high that the risk is not worth taking.

Western OD promulgates genuine and authentic feedback and discussion as platforms for improvement. Clearly as someone raised in Traditional OD, I believe in the power of genuine and authentic feedback. However, as a global OD consultant, my beliefs are irrelevant and I need to ensure that I do not use my position to push people to take risks that they think are not worthwhile.

So, the global OD consultant often work behind the scenes to deliver messages and “make things happen”, whilst external harmony is maintained.

The Traditional OD consultant will continue to be a missionary of discussion Uber Alles. And when work dries up, he or she  will wait till the market gets better.

PS-Example I shared with my friend Peter A

Bill is Asia Pacific Area Manager. Som is Thai  Area Marketing Manager. Bill wants to tell Som that his resistance to a certain marketing idea is unacceptable. Bill told his consultant that in the past, Som has “yes yessed”, then Som feels insulted. Allon suggest that Bill call Som’s colleagues in Viet Nam and the Philippines, and praises them for accepting the marketing idea. Bill then ensures that Som’s colleagues update Som that Bill has called. Bill talks to Som via his colleagues.

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Aligning the Feedback Loop to Global Organizations

Feedback consists of information about an organization, a group and an individual which is “recycled” to provide a basis for assessment, reflection and as a basis for corrective action.Feedback is one of the  building blocks that OD introduced into organizations.

This posts related to how can feedback be integrated into organizations given the many cultural constraints that the global organization faces, for example:-

  1. In some cultures, it is easy to talk about the future, but if the past is discussed, there is/may be a  loss of face.
  2. In some cultures, corrective action may be more effective if positioned as adaptive change,without use of explicit lessons learned from the past.
  3. In some cultures, direct and authentic feedback of any kind is seen as extraordinarily rude.
  4. In some cultures, the essence of leadership is to “protect employees by assuming responsibility for their errors” and keeping it all hush hush.

The feedback loop must retooled for the global organization.

As we align organizational design and development to a global configuration, here are a few emphasis worth changing.

1. Develop and legitimize opaque communication tools that allude to the past in order to plan corrective action.

2. Develop and legitimize indirect and “back door” feedback so as not to cause any perceived discomfort whatsoever, yet enable change.

3.Develop a contingency feedback model that allows a legitimate trade off between the feedback and the perceived harmony of relationships.

4. Budget much longer time cycles for giving feedback so as to allow face saving.

OD consultants who want to remain relevant would be wise to  stop drinking academia’s warmed over cool aid, check their western biases, step away from force feeding western values when inappropriate, and get real.

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OD need not straggle behind

 

Almost every aspect of organizational life has changed beyond recognition in the past decade.

  • People who share neither values, culture or language work together. (new diversity)
  • Global organizational politics is riddled with complex, survival site agendas. (new conflicts)
  • People “message”/ email more than they talk, because teams are mainly virtual. (new communication)
  • Management is all about task promotion and self-survival. Employees are far less engaged. (new values)
  • The human resource is seen as dispensable. (new motivations)

What has changed in the way OD is practiced?

In my opinion, very little. OD is tap dancing and dithering on the stage, with lots of internal focus and debate about side issues as organization life is reconfigured.

This is happening because the gatekeepers of OD are holding back. As OD lost  ground,  OD guidelines became an orthodox religion.

This is why the battle for globalizing OD is an uphill run. The hill is steep and the wind is blowing in our face.

My advice to OD people who want to remain in shape and relevant is to learn about Global OD instead about how to market yesterday’s produce.

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What is to be done about Organization Development?

Organization Development has 4 major threats.

  • Change Management presents a more concrete perceived value  proposition in  the change domain
  • Coaching has encroached on group and personal consulting
  • IT technology has a eliminated a lot of issues OD dealt with because of the manner in which people interact
  • A very threatened HR is closing the door and “throwing blocks” at OD work.

Some folks in Organization Development are waiting for market reality to “go back” to what used to be. Others suggest a return back to OD’s humanistic roots, in a weird “back to basics” syndrome.  Others moan and groan about a “bad market conditions” and hone their OD “marketing skills” in a failed attempt get work in a tough market.

I have chosen the road less travelled, focusing my OD work to address the unique challenges of global organizations. OD’s western set of humanistic values and tools is irrelevant for many of the issues and challenges global organizations face.  Yet OD can be, and is, in the process of being redesigned and retooled to support inherent problems of global organizations.

The pragmatic, eclectic and skilled OD practitioners, with advanced cultural literacy and cultural humility, probably need about ten days of retraining to jump start professional capabilities to be effective in global organizations.

And the hardest part is not the learning, but rather the un-learning of OD “orthodoxy”. The OD establishment has a lot to lose if OD becomes “too flexible”.

Redesigning and retooling OD is a bit of a rebellion. Those who do not rebel against traditional OD and its establishment will fight a battle of retreat.

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Avoiding authentic discussion in order to be effective

 

Alfred is a product manager, based in the Philadelphia US HQ. Alfred’s role is to ensure that the global sales force sells what is on his products’ road map, in order to ensure that the product will not “disassemble” into hundreds of diverse versions.

Som is a Thailand based Sales Manager in the same company. When Som looks at Alfred’s product, she believes it is overpriced and has too many features for the cost sensitive Thai market. There is also a color issue, because the red logo of the product has political implications. Som thinks that if she exposes Alfred’s product to her customers, she will be accused to trying to rip them off. She will lose friends and face. Furthermore, Som believes that Alfred superlatives about his product are “demeaning” and make her clients feel talked down to.

Alfred is coming to Thailand to promote his product and wants to meet “directly” with Som’s Thai customers; Som is doing everything she can to block Alfred’s meeting with them. Till now, Alfred’s 12 meeting requests have been turned down by the customers.

Business unit manager Karol Plessis (my client) has asked me to “patch up” the relationship “ between Alfred and Som so that “we don’t look like a bunch of clowns”.

Alfred wants a 3 way meeting (Allon, Som and Alfred) to work out the details of the visit.

Som wants “not to discuss this issue with Alfred, because I need to keep working with Alfred”. Som told me that if she loses her temper with Alfred, “we will never be able to work well again”. (I did NOT tell Som that she is not working well with Alfred, because she thinks that she is… by NOT telling him her concerns directly).

Som told me to “tell Alfred what I think, and propose a compromise. I agree to any compromise you make.”

My belief is that someone from a traditional OD background would explain to Alfred the sensitivities of Som and in parallel, explain to Som what she needs to change in order to be effective with Alfred. Then in a facilitated meeting, Som and Alfred would meet to discuss the issue, meeting somewhere in the middle.

The global OD consultant would probably assume that the possibility of building healthy communication between Som and Alfred in a short period of time is low and thus, their communication should be “mediated” as much as possible. A Global OD consultant would prefer work out a compromise between Som and Alfred in separate meetings to cement a very detailed agreement on Alfred’s upcoming meeting, including ground rules in the unfortunate case that they decide to go to clients together. When the consultant has a meeting between the two, everything will have been agreed in advance.

The global OD consultant would not automatically prefer direct dialogue Som and Alfred because forcing Som to be open means, for Som, that she may not be able to continue working with Alfred.

The nightmare scenario of the global consultant is “apparent agreement” whereby Som agrees to compromise, but only verbally. The global OD consultant does not want Som to tell her clients that she is bringing a big shot from HQ; please meet him but don’t worry, he does not really make any decisions.

The traditional OD consultant on the other hand believes that direct communication is best; when people have disagreements, they should talk things out and meet in the middle.

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