Misdiagnosing Culture as root cause of a problem

Bill is US based SVP for Integration of  Acquired Companies for a large enterprise which acquires 30 start ups a year that his company buys, mainly from Taiwan, Hong Kong, FSU and Tel Aviv.

Bill now needs to integrate an Israeli/Russian start up and over the next 3 years, merge them into corporate R&D.

Bill has assigned Fred as Integration Project Manager.

Three months into the integration, there are crises everywhere. Fred has locked horns with the founders of the start up, and ever small issue entails long email threads with mutual finger pointing.

  • The Russian co founder claims that Fred is “clueless” technically, and has never been to Russia so he “makes cultural faux pas every step he takes.”
  • The Israeli founder claims the Fred is a process freak and “manages by email and process, like many HQ US based managers”. The Israeli founder claimed that Fred had no understanding of the “cultural differences” between Americans and Israelis.

Fred claims that the founders are “cowboys-in-cahoots”, who wanted to sell the company, yet maintain control. Furthermore, Fred claims that the founders have no discipline whatsoever and act “like Mafia”.

Bill spent half a day with the founders and half a day with with Fred.

Bill concluded that the founders were just like any other founders he had worked with: ambivalent about the sale of their firm and cocky; they nonetheless have huge added technological value that must be harnessed.

Bill  concluded that Fred‘s lack cultural skills were merely a symptom. Fred was simply incompetent; he was over his head with the 2 brilliant founders. Fred was not technically astute; he was slow; he lacked common sense and flexibility. Fred hated to travel.

And faced with his incompetence, Fred retreated into over dosing on process and management by email, which made it easier for him to try to build a case against the founders.

Bill replaced Fred with Paul, who was very technical, and who had far better trust building skills; quickly, the integration went much more smoothly.

Fred’s incompetence had manifested itself as a cultural “symptom”, yet it was not the root cause. At most, it was a mild contributing factor.

Before playing the culture card, look deeply at root causes such as personal competence, corporate culture, and dysfunctional system politics. Then, culture can be factored in more realistically.

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2 thoughts on “Misdiagnosing Culture as root cause of a problem

  1. This article makes an excellent point. Often in these situations, a non-cultural problem will have a cultural “flavor” which is what people focus on, obscuring the other factors. This is a challenge for us in cross-cultural consulting. And it’s a reason that I make sure that everyone on my firm’s team has business skills, so that they can look at problems not just through the cultural lens but through a business lens.

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