Go abroad if you can

January 23, 2010

I just returned from a great two week stay Guangzhou, China teaching a graduate seminar and have been reflecting on the time my family and I spent in Shanghai when I worked for 3M, as well as other international experiences I’ve had both in school and during my career. My conclusion (which is probably obvious) is to take any opportunities you can to get outside your personal bubble and go struggle in another culture for awhile. You’ll learn a lot of things, some of them surprising. Any trip is good, extended stays are better.

This recent trip was such a joy in part because I had some China experience and most people on the trip had not been before. I got to re-experience learning a lot of things. It was fun to smile to myself as someone made some personal discovery and to see the students (both American and Chinese) piecing together a more nuanced view of the other culture.

In my undergraduate management class, I often make a point about learning in theory versus learning in practice. For the “in practice” part, there’s nothing like diving in. You can read all you want about another country (and you should if you’re interested), but the experience of how people actually live, work, think etc. is so much richer. And it forces you to confront basic realities that are not always well documented in the literature. It also puts you in situations where you have to be more personally resourceful than you would normally need to be in your life at home.

Here is my unscientific list of reasons why it’s worth doing:

It’s interesting.

You never know what you are going to see or learn on a given day. You may see a famous piece of art at the Louvre (and believe me it’s better to see it live than in a photo) or see unexpected everyday joys. Often it’s the mundane that becomes a joy. Street food in many countries can be a revelation. If you have a curious mind, any trip to a foreign country

It’s hard.

You’ll be challenged to overcome obstacles that are never an issue at home. Figuring out another city’s Metro, ordering dinner in another language, getting around if nothing’s in your language – all of it builds confidence and character. You’ll end up in situations that create more hardships than is common at home. You always figure something out, even if it’s “suboptimal” and you survive. Best, you get a new story.

You’ll learn to think differently.

People don’t see the world in the same way or through the same lens. I’ve come to realize that the base cultural assumptions about the world and what matters are very different around the world. Again, this may seem obvious. But there’s a difference between reading a concept and knowing it in your head and being surrounded by the other culture and experiencing the differences. I am a big believer in making your self a minority somewhere. The biggest cultural learning experiences in my life have all been immersive experiences where I was one of a very few (or the only) white, American males.

I teach about “high and low context cultures”. Well, you’ll understand this difference if you spend time immersed in the one that’s the opposite of yours. You have to adapt. No matter what you do, you will have “Lost in Translation” moments. But you will get better at avoiding them or at least realizing they have happened.

An example from this trip involved basic thought process. The student teams I had were posed a series of case questions by Lenovo (the computer company). The American students took a very analytical, top down logical approach. As one of the American students observed in a wrap up meeting, the team was headed straight down this path in looking at how to evaluate power in OEM/Supplier relationships in the PC/laptop industry when a Chinese colleague suggested maybe the team was missing something important. What followed was a brief description of guanxi and the importance of relationships in supply chains in China and the Pearl River delta. The team learned both an important local business concept (and as an instructor I was pumped that it was “emergent” learning) and a cultural one. The team had been steamrolling ahead and had to slow down to allow broader input from a team member from a “high context” culture. By the way, both approaches are “right”. They collectively reached a much better recommendation to Lenovo than they would have achieved independently. Cool.

The world gets bigger/smaller.

Whichever way you think about it, you will have a connection to and at least basic understanding of events around the world. My wife wasn’t that interested in China before we lived there several years ago. Now we have a running dialogue about every China headline. Whether it be political (information control – Google is the latest) or quality of life (health/food safety – heavy metals in toys is the latest), we both have an opinion based on experience. It has enriched out relationship and our kids view of the world.

You’ll have a clearer perspective on your own country.

I think we learn as much or more about our own culture when we travel to others’. You are forced to confront basic assumptions and compare/contrast. Often we assume where we’re from is “normal” or “how things are”/ These base assumptions rapidly dissolve when you see how differently other culture live.

For Americans visiting Western Europe, there’s the stereo-typical work-life balance debate as well as the role of government in everyday life. Another common realization I see among people is the realization of how wealthy the US is. The average American has a lot of stuff and (by world standards) a very nice home/living situation. I usually come home appreciating what I have even more than I already did. But you also see possible alternate realities.

You’ll be better at what you do.

Anything that broadens your perspective and forces you to think differently enhances your ability to think critically as well as relate to others. In my view, creativity comes from having a broad perspective, being able to see patterns and metaphors and being able to extrapolate or apply them in totally new ways. Travel and immersion is one path to this.

From a pure business perspective, you’ll better understand how radically different markets are. The Chinese consumer is not the same as the American consumer. Value chains look different and are more or less mature etc. My students were amazed by how manual many processes were in China. Even at the Honda plant. All sorts of macro-economic lessons about labor vs. capital became much more tangible when observed.

(Kidding…sort of) Your view of what is edible will expand.

Not too much needs to be said here. Suffice it to say I’ve eaten jellyfish, salamander, duck tongue/feet/colon, parts of a pig we don’t eat at home and all sorts of other delicacies. J And the longer you stay the more you’ll have to concede. A buddy of mine just had to “eat local” because he literally couldn’t find any of his go-to foods.

There are lots of other great reasons, but that’s my list for now.

A few other closing thoughts:

  • Any international/cross-cultural experience is valuable. Do what you can to have them.
  • Be brave and an explorer. I have a former student who was conflicted about high profile consulting career vs. passion for travel and culture. In the end he’s lived in Germany and is studying Mandarin to go teach English in China for a year. What an adventure!
  • The more immersive the better. The longer and more “local” you can get the more you’ll learn.
  • Don’t be afraid of language barriers. I am a lazy/sloppy student of languages. I think I have disappointed every instructor I’ve had. Latin, French, German and worst of all – my poor Chinese tutor (I think I embarrassed my whole country in addition to my ancestors. Sadly, I think she took it as her personal failing.). Despite that I have had great times and no major problems travelling all over the world. As I say above, you figure things out, satisfice and make do.
  • People are warm and friendly in most places. I have never been anywhere that people weren’t curious about Americans and at least generally warm and helpful.
  • You’ll be surprised at the joy you will take in small victories. Just figuring out the lay of the land, or how a bank transaction works in another language become epic accomplishments to be celebrated.
  • Take chances as they come and jump on them. Your life situation changes. Sometimes you have time, sometimes you have money. Use what you have when you have it. Take a semester abroad in college, do a church mission trip to build homes, take a foreign assignment…but do it. I have been fortunate to have work opportunities that helped enable mine and my family’s’ experiences, but there are tons of ways outside of work to get it done.

Creative and Critical Thinking at B-Schools

January 13, 2010

Here’s an interesting piece from the NYT’s regarding some innovations in b-school curriculum. (Thanks to Kyle for the link). 

http://www.nytimes.com/2010/01/10/business/10mba.html

I’m encouraged by what many schools (particularly Rotman and Stanford) are doing to encourage both divergent and integrative thinking. I often feel our curriculum gets very functionally anchored and students struggle to pull broader concepts together as they move through school when most subject matter has been relatively functionally specific.

I feel that there aren’t “marketing” problems or “finance” problems. There are business problems that require diverse expertise and perspectives to arrive at the best solutions. Our CSOM Enterprise programs help us deliver situations that force students to do this. It’s interesting to see how some other schools are adressing the same issues.


Dealing With Ambiguity and Murky Questions

January 2, 2010

One of the biggest differentiators I see among people is their ability to deal with ambiguity. We coach people to work with clients or bosses to understand what expectations are, but I worry that we go too far or the message is taken too literally. A professional that wants a dynamic career has to be able to balance understanding expectations with an ability to create a path on their own.

I really struggle to articulate what I mean because there certainly is an “it depends” quality to this discussion. What I’m talking about here is the ability to face a murky situation and make headway. I am NOT suggesting people ignore or not seek feedback on direction. But often you are being asked to figure it out because people don’t know the answer. If they did, they wouldn’t be asking you.

I want to talk about several different ways this struggle can play out.

Thought Process

First there is the situation where people really want to put effort into the problem, but there are cognitive reasons they are floundering. I would cluster the “flounderers” into two broad (and unscientific) categories, linear and abstract thinkers.

Linear thinkers want to know the straightest line to the answer and put together a clear Gantt chart and work plan to grind out the answer. The problem is often that the question isn’t even clear. There’s a natural iteration and struggle in projects or situations that are fuzzy. You have to be willing to work the situation, material and people through some fuzziness and not know exactly what the output will look like. You have to be willing to remain patient and positive while working through rounds of starts and stops etc.

The abstract folks are often the opposite of the linear gang. They are so focused on all the interesting combinations and permutations of the problem space or the situation that nothing ever gets committed to print and lots and lots of interesting conversations result in little if any progress. There’s often a reluctance here to “commit” to any specific path because we might not know and there could be a “better” or more ideal answer etc.

So what’s the solution? Recognize your own style and that of the group/team you’re working with. Commit to putting your ideas in print, but recognize that it will iterate A LOT the more ambiguous the question. I’ll talk more about iteration below. My generic answer to most of these situations is to put a timeline on it and start committing ideas to print and circulating them to others for iteration.

The iteration cycle is critical and often where people fall down. They mistake being asked a question with needing to answer it by themselves. Getting good thoughts in front of people early leads to more cycles of improvement and depth in the final product.

Lack of “Appropriate” Effort

The second scenario is when people either aren’t really trying or don’t know what “trying” looks like.

A common situation that I see is a basic lack of understanding of how hard it is to get things done and the level of effort (my “appropriate” above) truly required. People often want to know the straightest path to “the answer”, not understanding there are no straight paths. You will burn up a lot of time on some paths that don’t play out, but that is unavoidable. We can use tools to limit it and improve productivity, but the iteration I talk about is staying on the problem and continuing to push even as some solution paths don’t pan out.

Generation and iteration are the keys here, along with having a personal sense of stick-to-itiveness. You need to be unwilling to settle for weak answers. I see people stop at the first obstacle or early on when there are ways over, under or around the obstacles. Merely finding some web content and pasting it into PowerPoint isn’t what I’m talking about. You have to challenge yourself to keep asking why does this matter?, what are the implications? etc. You’ll often have to go create data and analysis.

I’ll conclude with those who don’t really try and dismiss them summarily. If you aren’t committed to a problem or situation, you won’t solve it, the end. So you need to decide are you in or out and owe teammates or colleagues clarity if you’re not in.

So, how this can play out in career path?

Most people I work with say they want to be challenged and have lots of responsibility, but often want to be told what/how to do it. In my experience it rarely works that way. You need to be comfortable with charting a course if you want success in organizations. There is rarely an algorithm to spit out answers to difficult situations. People who succeed regularly solve these problems by sticking to them in creative ways. Get to the point where you are open to feedback, but in lieu of it are able to proceed confidently on a course of your own devising and sticking with it until the problem is solved.