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Global Differences in Work Style and How to Manage Them

When you do business or manage globally, you encounter cultural differences in how tasks get accomplished, projects are carried out, and innovation takes place. Six management best pracgtices can help you deal with the tension that can occur between free-flow spontaneous cultural approaches and approaches that place more emphasis on more structured adherence to plan, goals and timeline.

In my experience with U.S. companies that do business globally, I’ve seen the challenges that come from cultural differences in how tasks get accomplished, projects are carried out and innovation takes place. I’ve learned to expect there will usually be some tension, or at least give-and-take, around the degree to which work is done with more free-flow spontaneity or with a more structured adherence to plan, goals and timeline.

For a long time, I tended, like many Americans, to think that the more structured way was unquestionably the best and that the other way, while having some benefits, was ultimately less effective. Most importantly, I imagined that my American clients' global counterparts agreed with this point of view, but didn’t have the experience, skills or motivation to do it “our” way.

Three examples of cultural differences

My moment of awakening took place some years ago in a conversation with a Human Resources administrator from India working in the U.S. for a North American company with a dispersed global work force. She had asked me to develop online cross-cultural training modules for the company. She was eager for me to begin the work but could not line up the necessary approvals and permissions, because her superiors in the company wanted to see a well-developed plan, with clearly articulated goals, a timeline and a schedule of concrete deliverables. “Americans can be so cautious and slow to act on ideas,” she said with barely concealed exasperation. “In India, we would get the OK from the boss for the general concept, get started, and work out the details as we go along!” This was the first I had heard a negative view of the “best practice” of planning before acting that is normative in theory (if not always in practice) in American business organizations.

Another moment of insight came while I was delivering a videoconference-based session on “Working with Americans” for a U.S based company for its offshore back-office operations support team in Mumbai. The videoconferencing technology was rudimentary, and neither the sound nor the visuals were very clear at the Mumbai end. I was frustrated and felt the session had been a failure. But to my surprise, the leader of the team in India told me it had been fine, that they had managed to learn quite a bit in spite of the problems, and that they had enjoyed it. “In India,” he explained cheerfully, “we’re used to not having everything be perfect.” Once again, my American view of what is normal (“things are supposed to work just right”) was challenged by the principle of adapting to make do with what is possible.

And on another occasion, while training a group of managers from India who had come to work in the U.S. on a short-term rotation program, I heard a similar refrain. One of the reasons I had been brought in was to help impress on them the importance of following government-mandated regulations and official company policies. “Why are Americans so literal about regulations and policies?” one of the trainees asked. “Back home, we have more flexibility as managers to do what needs to be done to manage our subordinates and serve our customers! That makes better business sense.”

In the Indian cultural context, this approach is often referred to by the Hindi colloquial term jugaad, which refers to a habit of mind - born of historical scarcity and an environment of uncertainty - that emphasizes ingenious improvisation and flexibility as a way of getting things done, and doing more with less. 

As India and other emerging economies become ever more involved with the global economy, the jugaad principle is challenged by more systematic, sustainable and scalable approaches to work and innovation. Over the past several decades, enormous strides have been made in India to adapt to this new reality. A number of modern Indian corporations are state-of-the-art in the systems, processes, and management approaches that support their success. It’s no coincidence that the ascent of the Indian software industry to its present level of world prominence has involved an enthusiastic embrace of ISO, CMMI, Six Sigma and other global quality certifications – not just as a marketing tool to reassure clients, but as a discipline to minimize jugaad tendencies by enforcing defined steps, result metrics and the optimization of processes.

But for all the changes that globalization has brought about in Indian business and work practices, as it has throughout the world, fundamental cultural tendencies and preferences (with their strengths and their weaknesses) have a tenacious continuity and are a reality with which all who work globally need to contend.

Six management best practices

For business leaders and managers at all levels who work globally, an important ingredient of success is being able to work both with and around jugaad-style tendencies. When differences over ingenious improvisation versus detailed systemic planning arise as a cause of friction in your interactions, try following these six management best practices:  

  1. Develop and create reciprocal awareness of differences in philosophy and approach to work and innovation. Don’t turn a blind eye to these differences or assume that, given time and contact, issues will automatically disappear.
  1. Respect and value the positive contribution of jugaad improvisation and its non-standard, non-linear approach to getting things done. Be open to the unorthodox possibilities it may open up, and be ready to embrace good ideas that may come from it.
  1. Develop clear agreements with your global counterparts about how your joint work will be carried out and how interactions will be conducted, based on sympathetic mutual understanding of each other’s preferred or normative way of getting things done. Arrive at mutually workable compromises.
  1. Find ways to integrate some of your counterparts’ unplanned jugaad improvisation and work processes into your systematic planning and process discipline. Develop clarity about where the systematic approach is mission-critical and where a more flexible jugaad approach can work equally well — if not better.
  1. Create awareness, teach, train, encourage and mentor based on the systematic processes that you consider absolutes and that you expect to be fulfilled without fail for your business or project. Then exercise consistent monitoring, management control, and appropriate rewards and penalties.
  1. Finally, when conflicts do occur over how things are done, develop the problem-solving habit of asking that a particular way of doing things be justified. Does the flexible jugaad approach in this situation improve the product? Does it increase the bottom line? Does it make the project more successful? Does it maximize the expenditure of time? Does it take into account systemic impacts? Does it contribute to long-term sustainability? Enlist your global counterparts’ desire to see good results by involving them in critical assessment of the impact of their approach on the undertaking.

© Karine Schomer. All Rights Reserved. Permission to reprint is granted, provided the article and byline are printed intact, with all links visible and made live if distributed in electronic form. 

Karine Schomer, PhD is President of Change Management Consulting & Training, LLC, and leads The CMCT India Practice, specializing in cross-cultural training and management consulting for doing business with India, competitive advantage through cross-cultural awareness, business etiquette and protocols, cross-cultural communication and teamwork skills, outsourcing management best practices, and offshore team leadership strategies. For more learning resources, check The Working and Managing Across Cultures Blog.