Lesson 7: The Explosion at the Intersection

Yes, I confess: I did not invent this column's title. Instead, I found it in one of the books on the "recommended reading" list below, "The Medici Effect." And although one might, initially, suspect some rather violent actions behind the term "explosion", what the book's author, Frans Johansson, actually means is an explosion of ideas, of creativity – the result of a creative exchange at the intersection of different fields of expertise, of different backgrounds, of different cultures. Amongst the many examples in his rather readable 200 page epic, Johansson cites the cooperation of a zoologist and an architect resulting in the invention of an ingenious new system to air-condition an office building (think termite hill meets skyscraper, but without the termites) as an example for the creative meeting of minds.

"The Italians - I am not kidding - insisted on good coffee, lots of small talk, and a cigarette before starting work"

And Johansson is far from alone with his idea – by now, most major companies have discovered that teams drawn from multiple backgrounds (cultures, disciplines, ages etc.), in other words: diverse teams, have the highest chances of coming up with truly creative, innovative ideas.

So, it's all coming up roses in the diversity village? Teams with members from different (academic) backgrounds and different cultures produce one innovation after the other, and then go dancing into the sunset after hours?

Not quite.


Unfortunately, the meeting of different minds and cultures at an intersection can – indeed – produce much less productive explosions, bringing about a clash of cultures. I once witnessed this at first hand with a cross-cultural client team during my management consulting days. The client's team consisted of people from Switzerland, Germany, Italy and the United States. Without resorting to stereotypes (which always is an imminent danger when moving in the field of cultural differences), I experienced the first meetings of that team as complete disasters: while the German participants always turned up a few minutes before the scheduled meeting, the Swiss and Americans arrived punctually on the minute – and the Italians were, well, a bit late. And then the Germans (me included) wanted to get to work. However, the Americans wanted to have some small talk first ("How are you? How are the kids? Did you hear Jeff has a new car?" etc.), and the Italians – I am not kidding – insisted on good coffee, lots of small talk, and a cigarette first. What can I say? It drove me round the bend. Here I was with my cultural background of "German efficiency," and all I could do in the first half hour of every meeting was listen to Jeff praising his new car, and look for an ashtray. Later on in the project, my team also experienced some major clashes on deadlines and content. All in all, I wasn't too happy, neither with our overall results, nor with the entire process.

<table class="profileBox_right" style="width: 276px; height: 216px;" border="0" align="right"> <tbody> <tr> <td> <img src="UserFiles/Image/jor/jan onno reiners_small_square.jpg" alt="jan onno" width="120" height="120" /> <h2>jan onno reiners, PHD</h2> <p>Jan Onno Reiners works as executive coach, trainer and keynote speaker in Berlin. His background includes a PhD in biotechnology, seven years of strategic management consulting and improvisation theatre. Find out more about him and his work on <a href="http://www.jorhd.com">www.jorhd.com</a>.</p> </td> </tr> </tbody> </table>

And this is – unfortunately – quite common when working with cross-cultural teams. The rather obvious element in understanding these clashes is, of course, that with our different cultures and backgrounds we introduce different "ways of doing things" into the team. It’s not just verbal languages; you can also find pronounced differences in body language between countries. In different cultures, time is treated in completely different ways (as I found out, the meaning of "we'll start on time" differs greatly between Germany and other countries), and so is the necessity of small talk, of "getting to know each other" before even thinking about business. Praise and criticism are expressed in different ways. And even the way decisions are made can differ considerably between cultures.

People with a background in systems theory would say that I witnessed the collision of different patterns. What we often forget is the fact that people from different cultures don't behave in a certain way because they cannot think of any other way to do things, or even because they want to cause us irritation; no, they behave in their very unique way because where they come from, these patterns work for them. These patterns provide (sometimes far from obvious) benefits to the individual or groups. And they may be the result of tradition or (recent) historic events. Thus, they have very often worked for them for ages. Think business etiquette in Japan. Think siesta in Spain. Think efficiency in Germany. Think small talk in the US and UK. And the worst thing to do when facing such different (and thus sometimes difficult to understand) behaviour is to go against it. Don't try to "change" those patterns. You won't succeed. These patterns – with their (perceived) benefits – are very stable. Rather, approach them with curiosity and respect – it can be very interesting to discover the origins of certain patterns and customs.

"The two main ingredients for good work in cross-cultural teams are acquaintance and expectation management"

In my humble opinion, the two key ingredients in dealing with the intrinsic challenges of cross-cultural teams are acquaintance and expectation management. In cross-cultural teams, investing a sizable chunk of project time into getting to know each other is a very good investment with high returns. When we meet someone from a different cultural background, we sometimes quickly revert to stereotypes and might even react with fear. Thus, spending some time on discovering and exploring the other’s cultural background is a worthwhile, trust-building exercise.

Moreover, since a cross-cultural team will experience rather diverse patterns in dealing with work issues, it is important that the team defines its own "modus operandi." The team has to find its own meaning of the terms "on time" or "discussion culture" or "respect for others' opinions" – and thus manage individual expectations. Most interpersonal conflicts arise from disappointed expectations (F. Glasl). The better these expectations are defined and agreed on at the beginning of the cooperation, the less likely are violent, cultural clashes later on in the project. However, be aware that even arriving at shared expectations might itself be a bit of a struggle – remember the (sometimes) differing patterns of reaching agreement.

If a cross-cultural team spends significant time on getting to know each other, and invests some serious thought into its very own "way of doing things," then those explosions at the intersections can be very creative indeed. As long as you also agree on which side of the road you're driving on … was it left? Or right?

Have a nice day!

PS: I want this column to continue to be relevant to you, my readers, and therefore I would welcome your input: which questions would you like to see addressed in future instalments?

Recommended reading

"When Cultures Collide" (by Richard D. Lewis – an excellent and comprehensive overview of different countries and their particular management styles)

"The Medici Effect" (Frans Johansson shows that a lot of new ideas are generated when concepts from one field of expertise are "exported" into another)

"Star Wars," "The Lord of the Rings" etc. (DVD: most of the current Hollywood blockbusters derive a lot of their plot dynamics – and humour – from throwing together a diverse group of people in exceptional circumstances)

Photo on first page: André Souren / www.youthphotos.eu

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