Monday, April 19, 2010

Is the concept of Innovation culture dependent ?

The thoughts presented in this blog are as a result of an interesting question by one of the readers- Vittal, in my earlier post- Key Lessons from the life and times of Steve Jobs
Thanks for sharing your learning. The ideas are thought provoking.
I am not challenging the purity and the effectiveness of the ideas, but would definitely like to know, how they can be applied and be effective in our work models and culture.
Its different worlds when we look at western corporate and eastern corporate culture.
Do share your thoughts.

Certainly some interesting thoughts above and in this post i would like to share some of my thoughts around this topic. In all honesty, i understand that the complete answer to the question as vital as the title of this post cannot be answered in a source as abstract as one blog post.

First question that comes to my mind is, Are the cultures really different fundamentally ?

There is something i learned earlier on, it is that when we talk about cultures, there is nothing right or wrong. Each culture is right in its own way and has to be accepted for what it is. This understanding came from one of my earlier managers and over the years i have begin to realize that this is quite right. It also indicates that cultures are fundamentally different and that difference can vary from many unique factors such as one's religion, Geography, upbringing etc. I have not seen the concept of culture being so simplisticallly described as done by Yang Liu . Consider some of the below pictures designed by Yang Liu-

In the images below-
Blue= Western culture
Red= Eastern culture
The Boss



Anger



Punctuality



Me



See more of these here
So, cultures are different. No doubt about that and these differences at the grass roots level do influence our thinking to a larger extent. Our cultural background has a lot of relevance in explaining what we do, how we take decisions and what thinking patterns do we apply to solve problems.
Having said the above, in my experience one of the things that i have observed is that we cannot generalize any culture e.g. if as indicated in above example- for eastern cultures the boss is treated above all the employees, it does not necessarily mean that all the bosses in eastern culture consider themselves superior to the rest. There will always be exceptions which defies the norm.

Is Western thinking really different from Eastern thinking ?
When we talk about the subject of thinking, any mention would be incomplete without the mention of work done by Edward de Bono . In his book- Six Thinking hats , de Bono provides a very interesting perspective on these Western and Japanese cultures.

Argument or No Argument:
Western thinking is more driven by argument. Japanese thinking does not value argument much. An attacking conversation by means of argument is considered impolite and harsh.

Conduct of meetings:
A Western type of meeting is usually the one which is more based on discussions and arguments. The meeting participants gives their ideas/thoughts and these are discussed, criticized and reasoned upon. And the idea thats usually "wins" is the one that stands all the criticism and questions.
A Japanese meeting usually has many people actually listening. Active Listening is a key virtue. Once after listening, they gather all the inputs and present their thoughts in a neutral manner, rather than pinpointing or criticizing anyone's ideas.No one tends to hammer the ideas by criticizing. So, the personal attack is not considered good.

The role of ego:
Western thinking is usually considered as more ego based with argument occupying the central space. Japanese culture is not ego based.

The process of ideation:
In his book- a fine line , Hartmut Esslinger talks about Japanese notion of ideation. It says that Japanese don't believe that they "have" ideas but ideas actually "come to them". Such selfless approach towards ideas certainly makes the whole ideation process ego-free with no one involved in the process having to worry about who owns the idea.

The handling of mistakes:
In the same book, Hartmut Esslinger also talks about the Japanese notion of handling mistakes. True to Japanese culture, the notion is that- "people don't make mistakes" but "mistakes are something that develop over time". This very notion really takes away all the focus from personal blame games. This may be exactly or somewhat opposite to Western culture.

Perfectionism:
I would like to narrate a story here, adapted from this source. Here it goes-

The Japanese have a great liking for fresh fish. But the waters close to Japan have not held many fish for decades. So, to feed the Japanese population, fishing boats got bigger and went farther than ever. The farther the fishermen went, the longer it took to bring back the fish. The longer it took them to bring back the fish, the staler they grew. The fish were not fresh and the Japanese did not like the taste. To solve this problem, fishing companies installed freezers on their boats. They would catch the fish and freeze them at sea. Freezers allowed the boats to go farther and stay longer. However, the Japanese could taste the difference between fresh and frozen fish. And they did not like the taste of frozen fish. The frozen fish brought a lower price. So, fishing companies installed fish tanks. They would catch the fish and stuff them in the tanks, fin to fin. After a little hashing around, the fish stopped moving. They were tired and dull, but alive.
Unfortunately, the Japanese could still taste the difference. Because the fish did not move for days, they lost their fresh-fish taste. The Japanese preferred the lively taste of fresh fish, not sluggish fish. The fishing industry faced an impending crisis! But today, it has got over that crisis and has emerged as one of the most important trades in that country! How did Japanese fishing companies solve this problem? How do they get fresh-tasting fish to Japan?
To keep the fish tasting fresh, the Japanese fishing companies still put the fish in the tanks. But now they add a small shark to each tank. The shark eats a few fish, but most of the fish arrive in a very lively state. The fish are challenged and hence are constantly on the move. And they survive and arrive in a healthy state! They command a higher price and are most sought-after. The challenge they face keeps them fresh!
Humans are no different. L. Ron Hubbard observed in the early 1950’s: “Man thrives, oddly enough, only in the presence of a challenging environment.” George Bernard Shaw said: “Satisfaction is death!”
If you are steadily conquering challenges, you are happy. Your challenges keep you energized. You are excited to try new solutions. You have fun. You are alive! Instead of avoiding challenges, jump into them. Do not postpone a task, simply because its challenging. Catch these challenges by their horns and vanquish them. Enjoy the game. If your challenges are too large or too numerous, do not give up. Giving up makes you tired. Instead, reorganize. Find more determination, more knowledge, more help. Don’t create success and revel in it in a state of inertia. You have the resources, skills and abilities to make a difference.

Moral of the story: Put a shark in your tank and see how far you can really go!


There are some real life learnings from this story as this article talks about. But it also reflects one very unique aspect of Japanese culture which is that Japanese tend to imbibe perfectionism in everything they do. In the case of this story, its the taste of fish and there can be numerous instances in day-to-day, work life of such perfectionism. That is one trait that has really helped Japan during its formative years. Possibly no other culture comes closer in this aspect.

Repeating myself here again by saying that though the above may give a very high level distinctions between the cultures but it may be naive to consider the people in a certain culture behave the same way. So there will be exceptions and many at that.

What's Innovation got to do with culture ?
In think our cultural orientation definitely has a great impact on our basic thinking patterns as the numerous of the above examples state. I feel that Eastern cultures are more bent towards cumulative form of Innovativeness in which the ideas get matured going through the various stages and then eventually we have a big solution. And may be the breakthrough Innovation is more associated with Western culture. One example that i can think of is the advent of break-through products like Windows Operating systems, Office Applications, Apple Macs- all big inventions of our times happened in Western culture. They are no less than the breakthrough innovation but on the Eastern parts we had successful business models built up on the Computer services side (Infosys, Wipro, TCS etc.), and largely thinking, these business models had in its foundation, the success of core computing driven by the Western organizations. I think both these forms certainly compliment each other and it would not be right to treat one greater than the other.
Another culture aspect is that True Innovation has its basis in more free form of thinking and it generally does not breed in an hierarchical form of organization in which each idea would need to go through certain approval and each failure would be blamed.
From my personal observation, some organizations take Innovation as another “task” given that this is something that is “needed” for survival. And in doing so the very essence of Innovation is lost. As an example, I have seen many organizations reward the employees on getting through with Patents. And with a good monetary reward system in place, the talented engineers are definitely encouraged to get the patents and they get successful too. But i guess, this definition of success turns out to be a bit loose in overall scheme of things, for example when we glance at the data on how many patents filed actually get into the products or even turn to blockbuster product ideas. Though I don’t have a real time data but just common sense analysis of comparing number of patents granted to organization as against number of products it has in its rank, the whole story becomes clear.

Have you observed this trend ? Does it have any cultural basis ?

Do share your thoughts.

11 comments:

Vittal said...

Hi Anuj,

1st Thank you for putting so many thoughts in reply to a question i had asked earlier.

You have presented the two worlds (Western and Eastern) so clearly and the pictures posted do speak volumes.

I think, Japanese believe in attaining perfection in every aspect of life and for them doing a job has only one way, "The perfect way".

Americans believe in trying it till they get it right. It’s like shooting a target till you hit it :-)

Hmmm India falls between these two worlds. We are Asian but not as disciplined as the Japanese, we have tried to open and adapt western ways but succeeded in only trying to imitate their system.

May be Indians are yet to open up and accept and embrace the best of both world. Now to say what i see as it is, as per me..

If we work with a Western team:
They feel we don’t present/express ideals too well. We are only good to do day to day outlined work.
At every step we need hand held path walking which is painful.

They tend to take our politeness for granted.
In a western world, a team lead is member of the team, but the moment he starts working with a team based in India, he starts thinking he has all been given the task of handling and getting work from a team of people who are ill equipped to do it.

If you happen to work with a Japanese team:
They think we lack discipline and lack passion to attain perfection.

I think, well my personal opinion though, it’s partly our very own fault.
We need to be more aggressive when we deal or work with Western Teams.
And it’s a responsibility and Job of Middle management to project Indian teams in better light and not always crumble under pressure from other counterparts.

We don’t need to follow Western or Eastern thought process; we can take the best of both worlds and still strongly hold our ground.

Hope so this happens some day.

Thanks,
Vittal

amagazine said...

If we work with a Western team:
They feel we don’t present/express ideals too well. We are only good to do day to day outlined work.
At every step we need hand held path walking which is painful.


I dont fully agree with this thought there may be a part truth to this based on my experiences. I largely beleive that others perceive us the same way as we desire our work to be presented/known. Its all about providing value to overall work and continue to provide the same as the time passes (one herioc effort is not good enough, though it may earn praises which may be short term). I must agree that change of perception is a gradual process espacially after the first impression has been screwed a bit. First impressions are important espacially in situations when one team sits offshore. But even if one does not have a spectacular first impression, thats not the end of the world.
So, in addition to managing work we should be good at managing perceptions as well ans communication plays a key part here.
So, if you feel- western world feels we dont express ideas well- it might mean 2 things-
- Either we dont have fresh ideas and we are just following what is being said.
- We had the good, out of box ideas and they were not brought forward in the right manner.
Both the above points results in damanging other's perception of us and counter measures needs to appropriately taken.

They tend to take our politeness for granted.
In a western world, a team lead is member of the team, but the moment he starts working with a team based in India, he starts thinking he has all been given the task of handling and getting work from a team of people who are ill equipped to do it.


There may be a specific situation that you refer here, which certainly cannot be a generic rule. I have worked with people, in fact majority if them, who are considerate of other's views and very few otherwise. Again, as i see largely there can 2 situation-
- There may be an issue of building the trust.
- There might be ego issues that drives the communication from across the line.

Building trust is again a very slow process. But with the right acts, it can be built and rebuilt. The matters of ego clashes, though not an ideal situation but do happen and should be handled with care, involving superiors as necessary.

amagazine said...

I think, well my personal opinion though, it’s partly our very own fault.
We need to be more aggressive when we deal or work with Western Teams.
And it’s a responsibility and Job of Middle management to project Indian teams in better light and not always crumble under pressure from other counterparts.


I think aggression can be a nagative trait too though we need to be flexible as per the situation. But If a situation demands anyone to over-communicate, it should be done.
I wont single out just middle management as the opinions about our work gets formed not only by communication by one person but generally work speaks for self. Yes, it may depend to a large extent on a person who represents us. But, it should not make us forget an important point that if one's achievements are very relevant to the product and project, it will anyway gets noticed. So, thinking big and subsequently achieving the same holds the key in larger extent. So, if one finds himself/herself in the situation that you mentioned above, i would take it as a sign to think few steps ahead and achieve something more that will be noticed on it own merit.
May be there is a culture angle to this but more than that it seems like communication something in a way it should be ideally.

Vittal said...

Hi Anuj,

Thanks for replying.
I agree with you that isolated cases do not represent a trend and also when we find our self in awkward position it is always good to focus on work at hand and add value to it. This helps project our work in right light.

As engineers instead of waiting for being represented by middle management in the right context we can work continuously to add value to work assigned and build our base. When a cross location team is built, it usually expected to see reservation from both ends.

I guess an open environment in which engineers from both side exchange ideas usually build confidence in each other competencies and that’s a good way to start.

We cannot always be lucky to get good representation of our work from management; however one should project ones work and ideas in right context.

Thanks,
Vittal

嘉容嘉容 said...

wonderful...................................................

Caro said...

I read through some of the articles on your blog today and found them to be thoroughly enjoyable. It seems like your writing style and clarity of thinking have evolved even more in the last few years and its a pleasure to read what you have to say. Although it did make me wonder if you are philosopher in a tester's clothing or the other way round :-) Either way, its an irresistable combination.

amagazine said...

Hi Vittal,

As engineers instead of waiting for being represented by middle management in the right context we can work continuously to add value to work assigned and build our base. When a cross location team is built, it usually expected to see reservation from both ends.


Just to be clear myself, i would like to mention that in a geographically distributed professional world, the communication my management representatives of course is important and should be done in right manner. But if it is not being done and if organization culture does not allow you to change the situation, there is little you can do than to get negative vibes. So, in this situation it is always better to Think clear, Think big and raise your bar. One may not get immediate accolades in doing so, but this approach will certainly serve one well in a long run.

I guess an open environment in which engineers from both side exchange ideas usually build confidence in each other competencies and that’s a good way to start.

Yes definitely. I often see the online (intranet) communities are not used efficiently to the extent they should be. Its always ideal to make best use of all the available communication channels to share ideas, thoughts etc.

Regards,
Anuj

amagazine said...

Thanks for visiting and sharing your comments, Caroline. I never thought of myself as a Philosopher for sure but looks like my words seem to be giving that impression. :-)

Keep visiting!

Term Papers said...

I have been visiting various blogs for my term papers writing research. I have found your blog to be quite useful. Keep updating your blog with valuable information... Regards

amagazine said...

@Term Papers,
Thank you for visiting the blog and liking the content. If there is any specific information you are looking for your research, let me know.

Regards,
Anuj

Anonymous said...

The relation between two countries is not cordial but that air of antagonism has never stopped
or forced any business from withdrawing any of their business initiatives.
At the moment, it is assumed that Google are working on creating the 'full' version of this to launch sometime in
the near future. The above information helps you to choose the better one
that suits your requirements.

Its like you read my mind! You appear to know a lot about
this, like you wrote the book in it or something.
I think that you could do with a few pics to drive the message home a bit, but other
than that, this is magnificent blog. A fantastic read.
I will certainly be back.

My webpage; page