Tag Archives: culture

Culture and Conflicts Training

Conflict management based on values and norms is one of my passions. In the last few years, I have had the privilege to lead training workshops at some of the Masters programmes at Chalmers University of Technology. Last week, I was back at Chalmers, working with students from the whole world, talking about assumptions, values and norms, see presentation attached to this post.

In most places where I have worked in the past, the limiting factor for success has been communication skills and ability to identify and handle conflicts. These are topics that most Engineers are afraid to talk about, especially when we come to feelings, needs and personal values. Fortunately, there are initiatives to include this in the curriculum, and these workshops are an example of that.

Students playing the “Barnga” card game to illustrate norm conflicts. Anger and confusion and finally laughter are part of the mix.
Another group, in the middle of the resolution of the “Barnga” card game.

I often use the “Barnga” card game as an experience exercise to feel inside how norm conflicts play out. It is a brilliantly designed game by Thiagi, and you can get a copy on Amazon here.

The MSc programs are much more international now compared to when I went to Chalmers University in the last century, which is really a big advantage for the students who realize the value of this. The international students generally have more work experience and often in multiple countries. It is a gold mine of experiences that the rest of the group can learn from.

Here is the presentation material that I used in the workshop:

Workshop Values and International Collaboration – 2017-08-29 – version 1.1

If you are interested in more anecdotes about culture and conflicts, check out my book “Deliver”.

Getting to No

In the West, there is a very popular management book about negotiation that is called “Getting to Yes” by Ury, Fisher and Patton, indicating that the most difficult aspect in a discussion or negotiation is to get agreement. In China, the challenge is the opposite. As I learned from my friend Linus [with intense Guangzhou experience], yes can mean many things:

A Yes is a Yes is a No? (picture from http://efc.web.unc.edu/files/2013/04/Yes-No-Blog.jpeg)
A Yes is a Yes is a No? (picture from http://efc.web.unc.edu/files/2013/04/Yes-No-Blog.jpeg)

“Yes, I understand and I agree and I will execute immediately.”
“Yes, I understand but I do not agree”
“Yes, I hear that you are speaking, but I do not understand”
“Yes, I am still alive, but I have no clue what you are talking about”
It is not very often the first one, and unfortunately not the second either.
Therefore, asking yes-no questions are of limited use in China. [footnote: I understand that this is similar all across Asia, but I do not have enough first-hand information about other places. In Japan I had this much less, but I did not spend much time there.]
Quite a few times, I have found myself asking yes-no questions, always getting yes, and scratching my head afterwards with puzzlement and disappointment why it did not work out as we had decided. “Will you finish the report before Friday? – Yes.”

The words “yes” and “no” have no direct synonyms in Chinese. Therefore, the best translation into English of how a Chinese would answer a question from a boss is: “Yes,….”, which means more or less, “Ok, …”. The negatively posed questions are especially tricky, like “Will that not work out?”.

The way to get around this linguistic artifact is to pose a different set of questions, sometimes called open questions: “When will the report be finished?”, “What do you need to finish this on time?”, “Which problems could arise?”, “Why are you convinced that this will work out?” etc. etc.

I have hit my head so many times, that I am getting allergic to “yes”. Whenever I realize that I accidentally placed a yes-no-question in the conversation, I regroup and launch a new question based on what, and I try to forget the first answer. It is not easy, and I still often run into the trap, but it is getting better and better. It goes both ways. I get better at crossing the inter-cultural chasm, and my Chinese engineers find new ways of reaching out in my direction. We try to work with humor and laugh at our misunderstandings, but it is never easy.

The challenge is: Getting to No!

Book: Permaculture according to Sepp Holtzer

Permaculture is a way of farming or gardening, where diversity is the driver to improve the soils and create sustainable symbioses, where pesticides and synthetic fertilizers are unnecessary. In many ways it is a step back to the pre-industrialized agriculture that dominated worldwide until the introduction of the tractor.

Sepp Holtzer is a remarkable farmer in Landau, Austria, who has created a lush fruit & vegetable farm in a most untypical environment, at 1000m altitude. In this book he describes his way of working, observing and experimenting with every element of the habitat – ponds, stones, mushrooms, plants and various livestock species. He describes using raised beds for creating suitable micro-climates for vegetable production and how to utilize pigs and earthworms to aeriate and enrich the soil.

In many ways he has simplifed the work in the vegetable garden, by utilizing natural processes. No digging to prepare the land, but a layer of mulch or hay. Many of the plants he uses are perennial, which means that the plant will grow on next year without any human intervention.

Holzer shares his experiences with such a positive energy, that I get all inspired to plant sunflowers and beans, and to get non-hybrid seeds. He also shares his experiences with failed experiments, which is a consolation already for the inevitable failures and misses.

Holtzer describes it as if it is easy.

I think that the most important difference with his neighbour’s monoculture of spruce is that Holtzer is farming with knowledge. It requires much more knowledge and observation to work with a hundred different plants, compared with working only with one tree type.

Knowledge and understanding of Nature is the way of the future.

Book Review: River Town

Living in China is never boring.

Fuling - http://riowang.blogspot.com/2010/08/subjective-city.html


Peter Hessler wrote a book about his two years as a US Peace Corps volunteer (English teacher) in a small town on the Yangtze river. Hessler has a phenomenal skill in bringing to life the moments of laughter, pain, shame and frustration that inevitably arise. The self-effacing style of vividly depicting his own shortcomings make the story more personal and intimate.

It was a different world in the end of the nineties – almost no internet and telephone fees were exorbitant, so the isolation was stronger. Nevertheless, many things are the same today, even in a world-city like Shanghai. So many things that I recognize from the last few months here; a common conviction that Chinese culture is the best culture, Chinese food the best food, uncritical party members, free thinkers in taxis, conflicting rules and regulations, meaningless garden maintenance, the exodus of farmers’ kids to the cities, the stupid personality of me speaking Chinese…

It is somewhat remarkable how openly the system is criticised and that Hessler was allowed to spend another ten years in China. Sometimes the government can handle criticism, sometimes not. As Hessler writes, there is no humour in the system.

The Omnivores Dilemma – Book and Idea Review

Another excellent book by food-loving health-garden-journalist Michael Pollan.

“What shall we have for dinner tonight?” is the key question that is asked in this book, and partially answered. At least we know more where the dinner alternatives come from, and can make better informed choices about what we put on the plate.

Pollan writes in a very personal style about his explorations of the American food industry and how the produce is produced; grain-fed beef, organic lettuce, permaculture and corn, corn, corn… It seems like whole US is a giant standing in a quicksand of corn grains.

One of the most intriguing parts of the book describe a “permaculture” farm, where grass is the main species – on which cows, chicken and sheep graze to produce manure for the grass and plenty of meat for us. By rotating crops and cattle in a dance over the lands, the soil gets richer from the use, not poorer. It is a very compelling idea, quite different from the vast monocultures of highly specialized mechanization, like wheat fields stretching to the horizon. The goal of permaculture is to enrich the soil, not extract the nutrients as if the field is a flat surface mine.

I recognize that the Chinese family farm was very similar to what now is called a “permaculture design”, with fruit trees prividing shadow and water retention and a host of species growing and roaming below. And it has proved sustainable, at least for five thousand years.

I got very inspired to grow some more vegetables and fruit myself, even considering an animal extension of the family, albeit an edible one. We will see how much of the inspiration lasts after reading more about the permaculture alternatives and compressing the dreams into the limited timeslots of a challenging work-home-life-balance equilibrium.

Mr. China – Book and Idea Review

This book is the fantastic story of Tim Clissold, spending 248 Million Dollars of someone else’s money in corporate industrial Joint Ventures in China in the 1990’s. Most of the money was lost forever.

Clissold narrates his adventures with the legendary Wall Street investor Jack Perkowski during some intense years, just as China was opening up to foreign investment. They got screwed in every possible way and I think that they learned more than anyone else. One of the companies I work with today is a reminiscence from one of the joint ventures in the book, so I feel much sympathy and gratitude towards the entrepreneurs who went in first in China.

The book is a collection of hilarious episodes of improbable encounters and unfathomable opportunities, painted with a backdrop of tragedy because we know that this business will fail too in the end, despite the heroic efforts from the team to make it fly.

He describes in a very personal and revealing way the dream that many of us nurture, to become “Mr. China” – the one who knows the mystic ways of the Middle Kingdom. I was also seduced by the magical characters that turns any street into a mystical land when I walked around in Beijing in 1994. 厕所 looks so much more exciting, promising and spiritual than the sign “WC”. In my eyes, it could just as well be the entrance to a lost Buddhist temple, if it weren’t for the smell of course.

But the point that he makes is that we want China to be special. I think this is very important. We want to be seduced and mystified and to stop thinking. We want to believe that all Chinese are spiritual and long-term-thinkers and different from us.

In the end, we are all humans, and I am deeply convinced that the similarities are larger than the differences.



Plastic Policeman

plastic policeman
Plastic policeman on duty in the Sichuan mountains.

On the cover of the excellent “Country Driving” by Peter Hessler, there is a photograph of a plastic policeman along the road in a desert plain of North West China. It looks so silly, with a life-size replica of a policeman staring straight in front of him on an empty piece of road. Why would you do that? Would it incite the drivers to hit the road in a more responsible fashion?
Is a policeman just a symbol, a puppet in a ritual?

In Shanghai I never saw this, so I thought it was only something done in the deserts of Gansu. Until one day, a few weeks ago on a holiday to Jiuzhaigou, Sichuan, when the plastic policeman appeared at the corner of a winding mountain road. And a kilometer further on yet another one. And another one.

The plastic policemen were guarding the bends in an otherwise desolate forest, surrounded by mighty spruces and grazing yaks, adoring the scenery.

Larger Desk is Better

Larger Desk
Larger Desk is Better

We are starting up the R&D center in temporary offices inside of one of our factories, while waiting for the new building to be ready. Due to the expansion, we needed to set up some new cubicles etc, to pack as many as possible into the new space. One in my team was leading the layouting and communicating with the suppliers of cubicle furniture and office equipment, and I was following up regularly.

All of a sudden, the four-seat cubicle, where I had marked my desk as one of the twenty or so similar ones, was transformed into a larger three person cubicle, where two of the seats were traded in for a large woodden desk.

“This is better for us”, was the response. “Then the people from the other departments see who is the boss.” And the larger the desk, the more important the boss. And that makes many things easier for my team.

This is something I have to get used to…

Starting to Work in China

Shellshocked after two weeks of frenzy at the office and home I am now starting to get back on the ground. Fortunately I have two more experienced guys from the European organization in my team whom I can lean on when things get strange.

First thing that happened was that our office was full, so we need to move to another location in the same building. Fortunately, due to other circumstances, we could only start the moving after four weeks, so there was a few days of slack to do layouting of our new premises. We have a completely cubiclized floorplan, and I would take a seat like everybody else. However, all of a sudden, the proposed layout from the cubicle-carpenter’s side included a broad dark desk instead of a cubicle seat where I had indicated that I would sit, occupying at least two seats, maybe three.
As my Chinese colleagues put it: “Otherwise the people from the other departments do not know who is the boss. It is better this way.”

I trust them. They know what works and what does not here in the land of influence. The crab has his ways and the shrimp has his, as one of my colleagues put it, while explaining why a certain procedure did not work as expected. There is a positive and a negative side of this flexibility, I guess, but so far I have mainly seen the plus side.

There are lots of things to fix both at the office and at home, one thing at a time. Our hot water stinks, for instance. It smells of glue. There have been five people watching, checking, tasting, discussing and not doing anything. I need to find an expert, but it is not so easy. I am sure there are hundreds of qualified people who could fix it, but there are twenty five million other people in town who cannot. Fortunately, I often have good help from my local colleagues, among others to get supplies via Taobao, 360buy and Newegg. Mother’s Day is better with a new Saeco Espresso Machine, directly delivered to our home (Well, to be honest I ordered it late and it was not really on time…). I hope my colleagues can also find a suitable plumber to fix the hot water. In the meantime we smell of glue after every shower.

Book review: … business in China

How to Manage a Successful Business in China
by Johan Björksten and Anders Hägglund

Despite the pretentious title, this book is a well-researched low-key introduction to one way of building businesses in mainland China. Maybe it is the Swedish-Chinese way. Both the authors have first hand experience from what they are talking about, which they generously share through examples and anecdotes. Both of them have been very successful in building profitable organizations, one from scratch and one as a dependence of a multinational corporation.

One of the authors is a renowned expert on Chinese, and teaching Chinese to foreigners. Therefore, it comes as no surprise that one of the main recommendations is to learn Chinese if you want to be successful in China. Still today, most foreigners coming to work in China do not learn more than a handful phrases and a most basic vocabulary. Chinese is considered impossible to learn. On the other hand, imagine going to the US without speaking English – what is the probability of establishing a successful business? It is almost ridiculous.
I am sure that Chinese is a “learnable skill”.

The most startling part of the book talks about guanxi – “connections”. The authors demystify this concept and show the equivalent concepts in the Western business tradition. Sometimes the cultural differences are smaller than we imagine.

Another myth of the one-billion-customer-dream that is debunked by the authors is that China is one homogeneous market. It is not. The vast area, the poor communications and logistics and the cultural differences makes China a difficult terrain to conquer. In many ways, China is like the European Union, with the same legal basis but different consumer preferences and with bureaucratic and practical problems for each sub-market to penetrate. Shanghai is as different from Kashgar as Paris is different from Vilnius.

The book is written in a classic schoolbook manner, which makes it slow to read and slightly boring at times. Nevertheless, it is a good counterweight to the abundant extatic China Fever literature.

After a Beijing brunch with one of the authors, I start to get the feeling that China is not so easy to describe in a book because of all the paradoxes. Speed is one example; some things are extremely fast in China, but other things are excruciatingly slow. They can build a house in a week, but it can take months to get the right stamp. How can I ever “understand” this? Maybe it is like quantum physics – you can never understand, only “get used to” how things work.

China is a worthy challenge!