Donald J. Patti

Archive for February, 2009|Monthly archive page

“But They Said They Understood…”: A Common Mistake with Indian Off-shore Teams

In Business, Culture, E-Business, Ethics and ideology, management, off-shore, Technology on 6 February 2009 at 1:23 pm

If you’re a long-time U.S. IT Manager, you’ve probably already led international teams composed of individuals from all over the globe.  I was fortunate, for example, to have one project with team members from England, Germany, Australia, Singapore, India and all four continental U.S. time zones.  While the mix of cultures and talents can cause conflicts, once the team gels, the results can be overwhelmingly positive.  It’s amazing to see what a team working nearly 24X7 can do when you lead it properly.

One mistake I’ve seen made by U.S. IT managers involves managing Indian off-shore teams, in particular, and has been repeated at three different client sites in the last five years, so it’s worth a good blog entry.  First I’ll explain the scenario and then I’ll explain why it is legitimate – NOT bigoted – to point out this common mistake so it can be avoided.

The Mistake

To explain the situation, you’re running a newly formed off-shore team and you’ve just assigned them a particular set of tasks that make up a deliverable. You ask, in front of the group or over a conference call, “Do you have any questions?”  When no questions are heard, you move merrily on and end the meeting, continuing on with your week’s work until you have your next meeting with your team.

“Is the work done?” you ask.  No.

“How much progress did you make?” None.

“Is it not explained clearly?” Yes, comes a response. Then, silence.

It’s at this point that we leaders usually begin our rant that it is not acceptable to complete nothing during a given week.  We consider terminating people, canceling our contract with the entire team, or trying to recoup costs now that the team is one week late.  As much as all of these actions would be acceptable in our culture given the outcome, this neither the way to deal with the problem, nor is it in the long-term best interest of your company.

The Cause

If you thought the problem was with literal understanding of your words, it’s possible, but unlikely.  Most Indians receive a healthy dose of English throughout their education and can understand it even if their pronunciation doesn’t sound like a Hollywood movie. But if you’ve figured out that the situation above occurred because of cultural differences, you’ve come to a more likely conclusion, though it will help to understand it in more detail than to merely say, “it’s cultural”.   Enter Geert Hofstede, a Dutch researcher and author of “Culture’s Consequences and Cultures and Organizations, Software of the Mind”, which can be found by googling the ISBN 9780071439596 or visiting this page on Amazon.com.  

Mr. Hofstede and his son Gert studied different cultures throughout the World but within the same company, IBM, and determined that there are five key differences in World cultures that can be scored across a continuum.

Individualism v. Collectivism: The extent to which a culture emphasizes speaking up for oneself and taking a unique path in life versus belonging to a group and benefiting from group affiliation.

Masculinity v. Femininity: The degree of emphasis on traditional Western male or female roles, such as assertiveness in males and subservience in females.  (If you don’t like the way I’ve phrased this ladies, I’m sorry. I’ve done my best to make it accurate and fair without losing the message. Alternate ideas on how to phrase this are appreciated).

Power Distance: Power distance refers to the social distance placed between people in authority compared to those who are not.  Because authority is relative (I have a supervisor, but I also supervise others), you can expect a middle-manager to behave just as their subordinates to them, but with their own manager.  As one would assume, the greater the power distance in a culture, the more deference and subservience subordinates display to their superiors; the lesser the power distance, the less deference displayed.

Uncertainty Avoidance: The desire or need to avoid uncertainty in relationships or dealings with others.  Cultures that try to avoid uncertainty have lots of rules.

Time Horizon: Some cultures have a short-term time orientation, while others have a long-term time horizon.  As an example, business leaders in the U.S. tend to manage to maximize short term, quarterly profits, while those in Japan and China manage across lifetimes and generations.

If we compare scores between the U.S. and India, we can better understand (or at least speculate) about why our mistake occurred.  While there are similarities in masculinity and uncertainty avoidance scores between the U.S. and Indian cultures, there are dramatic differences in power distance, individualism and time horizon between us.  The specific scores are here, but it’s important in our situation to note that Indian subordinates are far less likely to speak up when talking to a person with more authority and are far less likely to contradict or challenge someone in front of a group.   So, when you asked, “Are there any questions?” it was pretty unlikely you’d hear any from your team – even if they had them.

It’s probably good for me to note, as well, that these are generalizations. Just as all Americans are different, this is equally true with Indians, so you may well see different behavior from your team members.  The Hofstede’s describe the norm within a culture, not the exception.

A Better Response

Having managed over a dozen projects composed of Indian development and quality assurance teams, I have found that there are better ways to avoid the “Understanding Gap” and prevent it from occurring.

  1. The confirmation question. In our situation, we asked, “Does any one have any questions?” to the group as a whole.  Instead, ask each individual slightly different questions, phrased in a way that confirms they understand specific elements of the task.  As an example, one might ask, “<Name here>, I’m a little uncertain how I’d complete your portion of the work, so maybe you can help me understand. How were you thinking you’d test the <insert name> functionality?”  Or, “You’re most likely to find building the <insert name> component challenging.  Have you thought about the steps involved?”  This approach not only confirms the person’s understanding, it results in better design because the person asked may have a better approach than you do (unless you have a monopoly on brilliance?).
  2. The one-on-one. After asking confirmation questions, if you find one or two individuals struggling, schedule a one-on-one to go through their work and answer their questions.  In a one-on-one, they are more likely to feel comfortable asking pointed questions, and may even propose a better way to complete the work.
  3. The follow-up call. This one is simple.  If you’ve assigned a task, don’t wait one week to check on progress.  Check back with the team at least every other day to make sure they’re making progress and understand what you’ve asked.  Over time, this will be needed less and less, but initially, the follow-up call is a true time-saved
  4. The “you’re among family” reminder. Regardless, of culture, everyone has the fear that a “stupid” question or a mistake will threaten their jobs.  In some cases, the fear is warranted.  Particularly with teams that have just formed, remind the team members that “they are among family” when speaking to team members and that team members are here to help each other.  Even more important than saying, “you’re among family” is to live up to that statement. Do not brow-beat subordinates for small mistakes and do not cavalierly fire people because of a single error.  If you do, you’ll find the two-way channel you need to effectively lead a team is suddenly closed.

Possibly, you’re reading this article before you’ve managed your first global, off-shore or Indian team, so it’s been a good primer.  But there’s far more to know about the subject than can be posted in a single blog entry.  Though it’s very academic in the way it’s written, I encourage you to buy and read Hofstede’s book, referring back to the cultural dimensions the book provides on graphs so that you better understand each team member’s cultural before you try to relate to them using a purely American mindset.  I’d also use the following links for quick reference once you’ve read the book through:

http://www.geert-hofstede.com/

http://www.geert-hofstede.com/hofstede_dimensions.php

Doing so could save your company thousands, if not millions of dollars, keep your projects running smoothly and – most importantly – help you to build a harmonious work environment where people look forward to each and every day.  After all, isn’t that what keeps us from burying our heads in the pillow and hitting the snooze button twelve times?

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