Cultural aspects of managing a software Plan of Record

Stanley manages a weekly PORM  (Plan of Record Meeting) where very aggressive software commitments are formalized with developers and project management.

Stanley has discovered that many people view commitments made at the PORM very differently.

Yaniv (Israeli male) believes that planning should be very aggressive and “even 90% success is good enough”. Yaniv’s peers think he is out to impress management and show other people up.

Arabella (German female) believes than planning must be accurate to the extreme because it is the ultimate control device. Arabella asks endless questions and piles on the facts high; her peers think she is stalling and foot dragging because it is very hard to get her to commit.

Jacque (French male) views planning as a logical and “non emotional” exercise. Jacques refuses to “negotiate” deadlines; he analyses things and is seen by his peers as “stubborn and unmovable”.

Tanaka (Japanese male) sees planning as what need to be done by whom in order to satisfy the demands as defined by the customerPeers see Tanaka as detached from reality at times, albeit highly customer focused.

Stanley from Ottawa sees planning as the way to “get us all reading off the same sheet of music.”

It appears however that without digging down into cultural assumptions about planning, Stanley’s band isn’t headed for a Grammy.

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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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Learning about other cultures makes no sense unless…

Far too early ” in the game”, myopic or poorly staffed/unprofessional  Training Departments prepare employees about the cultures and sensibilities of client locations.

Sometimes, this training focuses on a very superficial level, such as “when they say yes, they may mean no”, or, how to hold a business card. Other times the training may go into some depth.

However, it makes no sense at all to do any cultural training unless people understand their own  culture. This is the foundation upon which all learning about other cultures must take place. Without this understanding, the employee has no “learning platform” to make sense of what he learns.

Often, Training Departments view teaching people about their own culture as “a waste of time”, or worse, a waste of money, and very hard to “justify”. So they “jump” straight “to the point”.


  • If you are an American, do you understand how superficial you may be seen due to your expediency? Do you understand how superficiality may harm you in places where relationships are important?
  • If you are French, are you aware how your theoretical and critical approach may be seen as “irrelevant” to reality? Do you realize that in many countries, you may be “dead right”?
  • If you are a Thai, do you realize that smiling when you are angry may not be seen as effective? Are you aware that in many cultures, expressing anger with words is seen as managerial maturity?
  • If you are Israeli, do you realize that discussing things “openly” with a customer in initial meetings is rude? Do you realize that many clients put a negative value on openness in many situations?

Until people learn about their cultures’ limitations and biases, I suggest that learning about other cultures is useless.

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Beware of camouflaged cultural differences

Follow the process and I will trust you; when I trust you I will follow your process. Herein lies is a major difference between West and East.

Too often organizations wall paper this issue with dysfunctional ERP process or empty slogans that “we are all one team”,

Belief in the dominance of a “working and self correcting system” enables and feeds the belief in process as the cornerstone of getting things done. On the other hand, belief in the dominance of trusting relationships enables and feeds the belief in “working the network”, exchanging favours, and “off line” arrangements to get things done.

Do not fall into a trap that “we are all becoming similar” just because global business, the web and the English language have increased exposure to one another. The differences have not been diminished. There is lots of  “apparent similarity” that has camouflaged cultural differences, not eliminated them.

If you are interested in my lecture on Camouflaged Cultural Differences, contact me.

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Imposition of process and focus

Many folks believe that following a process enables and facilitates work flow and effective interaction between people and units. These same folks believe that acceptance of the dominance of process is, or should be, universal in global organizing. Thus, deviance from process is something that needs to be corrected, either via discipline or regulated by software-policing.

Worship of process is by no means universal. In many cultures and within all cultures, there are folks believe that process enslaves, blinds and debilitates human creativity. Many folks believe that process serves a certain order that needs to be smashed in order to create value. These same people perceive that human ingenuity is stifled by process. These same people believe that process is something that people can hide behind to limit commitment to success.

The same can be said of focus. Focus (thrust upon us by structured discussions and well prepared power points), keep folks on the same page, drive things forward and ensure we are on the same page. Indeed? What about the people and cultures who think associatively, use circular logic, ramble and arrive at conclusions when there is less focus.

I suggest we look at process and focus more as preferences and less as a religious doctrine that needs to be force fed. Focus and process should be applied contingent on cultural and situation.

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What can be done when asked to “speak out and state your opinions” in a meeting and/or “advocate your point of view”… if you feel this runs against your culture?

Often a visiting North American manager from corporate will try to “export” their behaviour to  to other parts of world and impose their cultural preference. This may include asking you to go against the opinions of your boss publically or asking you to advocate a controverisal view that you hold in a large meeting.

If you come from a part of the world where you need to show full respect to your boss in public, and you prefer keeping your views to yourself, you may try the following 3 tips.

1) Review meeting agendas in advance and prepare yourself. Sometimes, if given the time, it may be possible to work around the need to be so direct and confrontational.

2) Using an expat stationed in your country, inform the visiting boss what is acceptable and not acceptable, in order to prevent the visiting boss from making the wrong judgement.

3) Ask for a personal meeting with the visiting boss after the meeting and give him the input he desires.

And remember: even though some visitors may try very hard to be “inclusive”, it is often just lip service. The visiting manager often expects you to change your habits and modify your culturally based behaviour; he does not see this expectation as offensive.

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5 ways to find out if a YES is really a NO?

In many parts of the world, an automatic positive answer to your boss or colleague is simply a public “face saving yes”, not a factually positive answer or by any means a statement of agreement.This type of yes is basically an affirmation of acceptance of the boss in an inherently unequal relationship.

This phenomenon aggravates and horrifies many Western managers with their Asian or Mid East employees, who wish that their employees were “more transparent”.

Instead of becoming angry, critical and judgmental, here are three things you can do to try to see if the “yes” is real.

Let us imagine that boss Ed want to know if the guest lecturer he plans to invite to next months offiste is appropriate. Ngai, an opinion leader from Thailand. gives a public yes, when asked. If Ed wants to go a layer deeeper:-

  • Ed can ask Ngai’s associate, Daw, “if Ngai likes lectures like this, or perhaps she prefers other topics”. Daw can talk to Ed about Ngai’s preference with less face being involved.
  • Ed can have lunch with Ngai and tell her “Ngai, I need your help. Can you think about the best lecture we can provide in next month’s session”. (By phrasing this question as futuristic, face issues do not surface, since the event has not happened yet.)
  • Ed can ask Ngai, privately: If Mr X cannot lecture, who would you suggest we invite? Ngai may say-Mr Y.  Then, a day or two later, Ed can ask: I am thinking of inviting Y instead of X. Then Ed should wait and see what Ngai says.
  • Ed says to Ngai in private, “Ngai, correct me if I am wrong, I believe my choice of lecturer can be improved. Am I wrong”?
  • Ed says to Ngai in private, “Ngai there are rumours that the lecturer is not suitable. Is this the case”?

Does this take time? You bet! If you are in a hurry, accept the face and pay the price.

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Working with people who do not respect time as much as you do? 4 tips sure to aggravate you ;)

If you hail from a culture where time is respected (Germany, US, Canada, UK, Holland)  and you find yourself working with people who come late, multi task on their phones while speaking with you, ramble and “abuse” your time, here are 4 tips.

1-Examine if this is a  discipline issue or a cultural issue? If it is a cultural issue, a disciplinary “fix” may not help; at best you may get “apparent compliance” to any discipline patch you may apply.

2-Ask yourself if your own “orderly and disciplined style” annoys them and how? Does you strict time management limit their creativity? Do you put them in a straight jacket where time is the major constraint?

3) See what benefit can you gain by going with their flow and letting go about your own obsessive time management.

4)  Cultures simply show respect for time differently. Example: the person will stay in a meeting until all issues are solved-even if it means cancelling the next 4 meetings. Or, the person priorities family so much that they take family calls during work…..and will allow you leeway as well. Refrain from judgement about good and bad because many people who do not “respect time” may have great value.

5) If the corporate culture demands respect for time, you can expect ‘apparent compliance”. Naomi, for example constantly comes late to meetings but apologizes profusely. Lin comes on time and leaves meeting multiple times to talk on the phone. Corporate culture can mitigate lack of respect for time, but it cannot redesign culture.

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Are you Asia based and working with an Israeli counterpart? 7 things you need to know!

1) Similar to many Asian cultures, Israelis “work relationships” more than they work systems in order to make things happen. So-try to build an informal relationship, and then leverage it. Nothing works better than “I need your help-do me a favour”. In this way, Israel is an Asian society.

2) Nevertheless, the concept of ” face” is almost non existant in Israeli business culture! Israelis attach little meaning to saving their own faces or saving others’ face. This is something you will have to learn with, because it is very hard to change. This is a huge contrast that is hard to grasp. We are a relationship based society, without face saving.

3) When an Israeli argues with you, it is a sign he cares;  he is showing committment via arguing. Listen to what is said more than “how: things are said.”

4) If you want to get an Israeli’s attention, calling him is more effective than emailing him or her.

5) Israelis show emotion freely at work. You can show anger or happiness freely. Showing emotion is seen as “caring” and being overly professional is seen as “detached”.

6) Israelis show respect to folks who are hands on with a grasp of details. It is an “engineering” culture. Try to avoid giving the impression that you are interested in the forest, but not the trees. Move gradually  from the details to the big picture.

7) You can always, always, negotiate with your Israeli colleague. Negotiation is always legitmate. However, once a deal is made, it is not acceptable to do post contractual negotiations.



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