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
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.
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.