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Working with India 2 – some reflections

Tuesday October 07th, 2014

My previous blog – even though it was published more than one month ago – still generates a lot of comments in various groups at LinkedIn. One thing is for sure: the challenges of organizing work effectively between Western and Indian companies raise many feelings and thoughts on both sides. There’s nothing that I wrote in the blog that I regret, except maybe for the title: if I had anticipated how much it would be misunderstood I would not have used it. In this blog I want to elaborate on some of the posts in the LinkedIn groups, and put a bit more nuance to a title that was meant to generate discussion.

India 2

Let me start with the title. “If only people in India would work like we do. But they have no clue…”. This title does not reflect an opinion, but an imaginative thought of many Western project leaders when dealing with teams in India. In the article – as one would notice when reading further – I take the position that outsourcing business to India is often very rewarding. Once Western managers take the time to analyze their own behavior and read some more than nothing about the India culture, they can apply some practical tips (of which I share just a few) to make sure they get results. This requires adjustment and understanding form both sides, but especially the Western side often forgets that they act in an ineffective way.

The misunderstandings that often come up are – unconsciously – analyzed from a Western perspective: we have our way of organizing projects and dealing with changes in scope here, and we assume this is the best way to deal with projects. So when partners in India organize their projects in a different way – and when they have their own way of dealing with change requests and scope adjustments – we almost immediately blame them for not working efficiently. At the same time we do not realize that ‘efficiency’ means something else in India than here. And that – although we have good intentions – we have just fallen victim to what is called ‘cultural ethnocentrism’: we judge other cultures through the lens of our own culture, and put moral judgment to it. We then blame the Indians for not working like we do. And often sign in frustration: “They don’t have a clue”.

What I wanted to tell with my blog is that this judgment is unfair. The Indian way of working – when understood well – is just as good as the Western way: it’s just different. They have a clue (and much more than just this!) In most projects I have seen no attention had been paid upfront to making the two teams understand each other’s way of working. When there is no communication about ‘how we work’ then misunderstandings rise, and the finger pointing starts.

Like @Chris Johnson commented: “Any cross cultural activity requires people to listen carefully to each other and set clear expectations. When this is done sensitively then much value is gained on both sides. When it is done carelessly then the talk descends rapidly into stereotyping and finger pointing.”

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When you work with foreign teams and you develop a mindset focused on understanding, you use some of the culture models. And these models by definition generalize. They describe common characteristics of groups of people that are valid when classifying the whole cultural group (‘The Indians’ or ‘The Dutch’). But as some people have correctly noted, talking about ‘the India culture’ is meaningless when zooming in: one cannot say that people in West Bengal, Rajasthan, Andhra Pradesh and Maharashtra will behave the same, and even within these districts there are huge differences. On top of that, the culture in one region is represented by a statistical average: most people act in a certain way, but many people act differently. I think @Ruud Gal worded this very well in one of the comments: “At the end of the day, people do not behave as an average person, but they are very, very unique even within a group. So, use the models to get an idea of the diversity you may expect and then try to make real contact to see “the individual” and connect and reach out beyond the barriers of models, opinions, prejudices and so on.” Nothing replaces real interpersonal contact: this also is the basis of my book ‘Managing Through a Mirror’ <LINK>, that starts with a sound introduction on interpersonal communication before even talking about culture.

Another comment I pickup on is @Paul Quinton’s, saying that a cultural characteristic of the Dutch is that they are very direct (perceived as blunt by many others). And for sure some of my statements were perceived as blunt. My experience is that the indirect communication style of many India professionals is best matched with indirect communication in the beginning. When a relationship of trust has been built up and people are working together for a longer time, communication can get more direct and sometimes confrontational. In this phase the danger of damaging the relationship is less, as strong interpersonal trust acts as a buffer. See here one of the generalizations: in general Indians communicate indirectly, however I have met many Indian project leaders being very direct and to the point. This nuance is lost in a generalization, but I still believe the generalization (stereotype) is useful in understanding a characteristic of a larger cultural group.

Let me share my own experiences in a Dutch-India project of software development. The root cause of the problems there seemed to be that first of all the scope of the project was ill defined. In vague terms it was outlined in the contract what the India team was supposed to do, and it was clear that no content specialists had been spoken to when drawing up the scope document of the project. Both parties had different expectations on the way of working, and the milestones set by upper management for the project were unrealistic, as any engineer readily admitted. In this context frustrations rose on the Dutch side, as they saw the deadlines approaching and saw that these could not be met. A quite common Dutch reaction (see: a generalization!) is to ask for reports and meetings, rather than focus on the root cause: while managers were focusing on analyzing what was wrong and calculating the impact of delays, the Indian engineers worked day and night as they wanted the project to succeed. The pragmatism on the India side was impressive: rather than complain about the unrealistic deadlines set by the Dutch, they simply added more people to the project, worked long nights and tried to make a success of it. Talking about ‘customer focus’! Like @Abdul Jaludi commented: “The majority of them work long hours, go out of their way to be helpful, and deliver excellent work. The same can be said to teams in many other countries.” The final issue on the project was that indeed the communication broke down: the mails that the Dutch workers sent to their India colleagues were very blunt, to say the least. Some of these mails – that I still have in my possession – should have been reason for official warning and disciplinary measures, as basic norms of respect were not taken into account.

I have enjoyed most of your comments to this thread, and especially respect the people who took the effort to read the whole article and reflect on the content and the nuance it brought to an – indeed – disturbing title. If I had to write this post again, I would have chosen another title, and to those people who took offense, I do apologize.

Let me conclude by sharing with you how much I respect the hard-working, optimistic, committed, humorous and knowledgeable Indian people I worked with. India is a fascinating country, as well as a great place to do business!

India 3

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