The Process Improvement Blog

A Brit, a German and an Italian walk into a meeting room ..

by Rob Collins on October 25, 2014, 2 comments

No, it isn't the start of a joke. It's the start of a kick-off workshop for a business process improvement project. There are also a couple of folk from the US in the room and one from Brazil. We also have representatives from China and India.


It's not a joke yet. But it could become one quite quickly if the facilitator and project lead hasn't put some effort into thinking about the cultural differences between the participants.

There is a careful balance to be struck by any change leader between taking account of cultural norms and falling into the trap of making sweeping generalisations. My own view is that individual differences between people are of greater significance than 'cultural norms'. However, I also believe that insensitivity to cultural norms in a change program is a sure-fire route to problems and hold-ups.

I have been lucky enough to work in a series of multi-country, multi-cultural teams. Those engagements have been made more rewarding and interesting because of a great mix of people. And when the pressure is off and we are relaxing over dinner we have been able to laugh at our own cultural stereotypes. More than once I have been been the butt of the joke as the stereotypical Brit - forever devoid of emotion. I could not disagree more with that view, for example I experienced an emotion only last month!

It is at times of stress that cultural diversity, if it is not well managed, can hinder rather than help. And if it is well managed, it can help so much!

But what about when the pressure is on? What about when difficult changes have to be made? What about when stress increases and obstacles fall into our path? It seems to me that in these circumstances we are most likely to fall into more polarised, culturally-specific ways of thinking and acting. It is at times of stress that cultural diversity, if it is not well managed, can hinder rather than help. And it it is well managed, it can help so much! We can easily fall into familiar patterns of thinking and doing that clash with the cultural styles of other team members. It is at this point that the really effective facilitator needs to diagnose the issue and fix it.

One of the things that I encourage in my Lean Six Sigma and Process Improvement training is for facilitators to be both “in the room” and “above the room”. That is, facilitators need to be connected to what is going on moment-by-moment in the room so that they can encourage, question and engage with people. But another part of their mind has to be “above the room” looking down and considering what is going on in a slightly more detached way. Who is talking to who? Who is being left out of this conversation? Who is dominating this conversation. Are people energised? Tired?

One of the important “above the room” perspectives relates to cultural norms and inter-cultural issues. The facilitator should be asking themselves: are there any cultural clashes happening in this room? Can I explain some of the things I am seeing by looking through the lens of cultural difference? And even: have we fallen into a particular, cultural pattern that is excluding some participants of failing to bring them along with us?

To get a real handle on those questions requires some insight into what those cultural differences might be. On my bookshelf there are a series of books intended to help achieve this, for example the “Culture Shock” volumes (I particularly enjoyed Anna Pavlovskaya's book on Russian culture). Then there are the more humorous volumes (all be it that they sometimes veer towards stereotyping). Jane Walmsley's “Brit-Think, Ameri-Think: A transatlantic survival guide” is a good example of this. It is worth reading, but probably should not be taken too seriously or literally.

Of course, having gained some basic insight through reading, there is no substitute from spending time with people from different backgrounds and turning the conversation to cultural differences. Given the opportunity I often ask questions such as “What do you find strange or odd about us Brits?”. Beware however – the answer to this question will almost certainly be filtered by cultural: Some people will give a clear, well defined list of all of your uncomfortable oddities. Some others, will hedge around the question, avoiding anything that might lead you to take offence or been seen as being disrespectful.

As well as specific knowledge of cultural norms for people you are working with, it is also useful to have some more general, explanatory models that enable this to be put into perspective. It is here where the work of Geert Hofstede becomes so useful. Hofstede has been researching cultural differences since the late 1960's. He has developed a widely used model of cultural difference that identifies key dimensions over which cultural differences vary.

I have discovered the following two dimensions to be particularly relevant in terms of understanding multi-cultural groups response to change:

  • 'Power Distance' - the degree to which the less powerful members of a society accept and expect that power is distributed unequally.
  • 'Individualism versus Collectivism' - whether people’s self-image is defined in terms of “I” or “we.”

Measures along these dimensions for various countries are plotted on the graph below

In my experience these dimensions in particular appear to have a big impact on the change process. This seems to be because they effect not only the perception of 'good solutions' but also people's beliefs about the mechanisms and 'rules' by which change should take place. Any leader of change in a multi-cultural environment that does not have an eye to these dimensions of cultural difference is in for a bumpy ride!

My closing thought? For sure, focus on the individual first, and the cultural background second. But what ever you do, don't forget the cultural background piece.
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Rob Collins

Rob is a Principal Consultant for Donox Ltd. He holds a PhD in Software Engineering, Psychology and Training and an MBA from Henley Business School. He gained his Lean Six Sigma Black Belt whilst working as Process Authority for Lockheed Martin IS&S in the UK. As well as presenting courses and running workshops for Donox, Rob also teaches courses for Oxford University on their MSc in Software Engineering. His particular interest is 'coal-face' business process improvement - running workshops, documenting business processes, running improvement project and teaching Lean Six Sigma.

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