Unbridgable Cultural Differences

I have just finsihed reading the late Michael Zacchea book, The Ragged Edge-a chronicle of the US attempt to set up a new Iraqi Army in which its soldiers are to be oblivious to the cultural divides within “Iraqi” society. Major Zacchea, a marine, was advisor to the 5th Division of the Iraqi army. The book chronicles the failure of this endevour, focusing on the cultural chasm between the Americans and the various Iraqi tribes. The book is a fascinating read for those of us interesting in organizational change and cultural differences.

I worked once with a group of Mexicans and Japanese in a project. The cultural gaps were unbrigable. If people do not share anything whatsoever in common about the meaning of time, attention to detail, approach to problem solving, communication to clients and share at least some understanding of what “respect” is, they cannot work together.

Those who follow chronic conflicts in the Middle East know how important the cultural divides are to making the conflicts unsolvable, as Prof Bernard Lewis pointed out during his entire career.

I have been following the coverage of American media about the war in the Ukraine. I truly believe that there is a cultural lense-distortion which prevents the west from understanding why Russia is at war. These same lense, by the way, threw Mubarak under the train, and encouraged Gorbachev to procede to undo a system without anything else to replace it.

So is dialogue the best way to overcome such differences? Or do good fences make good neighbours. Or both. That is a critical question that OD consultants need to ask themselves. I think that Michael’s book provides an answer. A good one.


And thanks to Madelaine Sayko for referring this book to my attention.

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Auntie Mickee aka Miriam Foreman Halpert

Mickie, Hadassah and me


Only as I got older did I realize what an effort Auntie Min had made in all those holiday meals she prepared for our family. 

No, it’s not a mistake. Mickee was Min, Mindle, Auntie Ho and many other nicknames that I always invented for the people I love. Although I must admit that many of these family members do not really appreciate these nicknames, and that is an understatement.

My Dad really liked  Pat’s sister and she liked him as well. Dad never had a bad word about her-and my Dad had strong opinions, believe you me. The only thing that Dad ever mentioned about Auntie Mickie is that if you ask her how she is, you get a full health update about her, and everyone she knew.

“Did I tell you that Vera has had bad constipation for a week, and her physician, Dr Uranus, told her than she must take 2 magnesium pills a day.  With water. At 4 PM. Her husband, Mel has heartburn, but only mild”.

Auntie Mickee wrote poetry with great skill. If I remember properly, several of her poems were broadcast on CJAD’s poetry corner, “Put a Poem in the Pot, for Pinkertons”. Pinkertons was, or is, a flower shop. I don’t know if it exists anymore. I have been away from Montreal for 52 years. From my Dad’s balcony, I could see Pinkertons.

When Auntie Mickee used to cook, I would stand in the kitchen and talk to her. She knew about the issues I had with her sister Patricia-Ruth and Auntie Ho used to give me wise counsel, which I ignored.

When Hadassah my wife died, Auntie Mickee came over to be with me at the shiva (mourning period). The trip from Montreal is a very long trip, and very expensive. But she came. Auntie Mickee always gave. She had a heart bigger than life; she loved and gave, and gave and gave. Most important, she was loving and caring. An outstanding amount of goodness-that what my dear Aunt Miriam was all about.

Auntie Mickee called me to say goodbye when she was about to die. I tried to cheer her up, which was so stupid of me, and when I put down the phone, I cried like a baby. Another piece, a most beautiful piece of my memories of Montreal, was about to “slip slide away”.

Miriam Foreman-Halpert was born in Montreal to Harry and Fay Foreman, nee Zack, from London England. Her father owned a gym on rue Cote des Neiges and Sherbrooke. Her mother, Fay Zack-Foreman-Liverman owned a lady’s dress shop called Moleen’s on Queen Mary Road. Miriam had a sister, Pat Foreman, my mother.


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A few words about OD in off-shore development centres

Marek “Miki” Cohen was recently appointed as Israeli “site manager” for “Hearit”, a Raleigh NC based company which develops and sells hearing aids which are worn on clothes, not inserted into the ear.

Hearit  had recently purchased “Orhatof”, the Israel based R&D centre where Marek was the Head of New Technologies. And thus it came to pass that Marek became Hearit Israel’s new site leader.

A material engineer by training, Marek found his new role challenging-and contacted a tall, handsome, opinionated Canadian born Israeli consultant to help him “focus on what my job needs to be”. After 3 months of work which consisted of weekly meetings, the following outputs were defined for Marek’s job.

  1. Maintain and augment the level of trust between the Israeli site and HQ. 
  2. Ensure the strategic positioning of Hearit Israel within Hearit Corporation by focusing on high end products, long term retention of talented engineering staff and willingness to take aggressive ‘time to market” committments.
  3.  Relocate Israel-based engineering staff to Raleigh to build senior level relationships in corporate.
  4. Spend one week a month in Raleigh to take part in senior management meetings face to face. 
  5. Build strategic relationships with the CEO to find an effective way to back-channel around the Raleigh based staff who tried to micromanage their Israeli colleagues.

The triggers for OD consulting in off-shore development centres often stem from the appointment of new executives on either side of the ocean, preventive medicine for a new project that needs a high level of cooperation, a breakdown in trust, or crisis with a delayed delivery of a product which causes mutual finger pointing.

Methodology for consulting to such projects are available (gratis) with the author.



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Misunderstanding Russia-and doing OD with Russian and FSU staff

Vlad is the development manager whose team does both new product development as well as continuous engineering on old product releases.

His team faces brutal deadlines and constant client pressure. The team is presently 3 engineers short-that is, 17 engineers instead of 20. The three missing engineers retired and no one was found to replace them.

Vlad is extremely demanding. He totally caves in to what the CEO asks for, works 14 hours a day, demands the same from his team. He calls people on weekends and holidays. He runs twice a day, taking team members to run with him, discussing work for all 5 kilometers. He talks shop all the time. Just shop. Nothing else. When employees have a personal tragedy or need to take care of an ailing parent, Vlad is extremely compassionate and releases all pressure, even for months at a time.

There is very little turnover in Vlad’s team-although a recent survey commissioned by HR (in Chicago)  shows that his team members are not happy. They ranked their team 2 out of 5 on every parameter. Everyone knows that Vlad’s team is one of the key assets of the company.

An OD consultant (me)  was commissioned to see what can be done to ‘prevent attrition of key employees.’ 

Vlad’s team consists of many Russian born Israelis, a few native born Israelis, 1 Israeli from the FSU, 2 Indians in Bangalore and two Chinese in Cyprus.

Intially I found it difficult to extract information. The Chinese reported that they were very content, ‘just a bit of pressure, that’s all’. The Indians complained about time-zone issues, over which there is almost no control. The Russians and FSU-born Israelis were very suspiscious of me and I managed to extract information only after 3 or 4 months and after the CEO announced that I was hired on a permanent basis.

Years into the project, I have observed that the Russia-born employees have an ambivalent approach of their authoritarian leader. They seem to admire the toughness; they expect their leaders to be extremely demanding to the point of absurdity, and constantly find a way to beat the system. They accept the yolk of authoritarianism, then work around it. 

Let’s take Natalie for example. She accepts all deadlines, however absurd, and reports good progress until one month before delivery. Then she starts to explain the slippage. ‘Allon, if I told Vlad 5 months ago about the delay, he would have worked me to the bone-now, I only have 2 months of hard work’.

Or let’s take Raisa. She is always extremely pessimistic, constantly berating his ‘HALLUCIGENTIC (her word) deadlines. She lowers Vlad’s confidence in her; he labels her as a nay-sayer, and avoids pressuring her. Raisa is one of the best brains Vlad has, her best skills being managing Vlad.

In the past, Vlad consulted his team about how to reduce stress. This consultative style resulted in revolt, and Vlad was seen as ‘becoming soft’. So he reverted quickly to a heavy handed policy vis a vis ‘ making committments. The Chinese developer told me that Vlad’s ‘hundred flower movement lasted a month.

I find myself thinking of my Vlad and my Russians as of late. And I wonder a lot if people without experience in working with Russians understand the resilience of the Russians to adapt themselves to authoritarian leadership, even respecting it, whilst taking care of their own interests to keep safe. And just how much disrespect they have for leaders  who are overly consultative. They like the rules to be clear-you dictate and we evade. So clear. So simple. ‘Vlad never consults us as to how to screw us’, summed up Costa.

My work with this team has been about slowly reducing the number of internal surprises, and establishing a more realistic approach to meeting deadlines in order to better ‘manage the customer’ and reduce ‘misinformation’ during design reviews. Yes, twerks to the system, not making Vlad into Obama.














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