Insights from “The Culture Map” for Working with Off-Shore and Remote Teams

To improve business culture and create a unified corporate identity, you must understand the cultural variances that define your team.

Developing software in an international context can be more complicated than it sounds.  While telecommuting, remote teams, and offshore development are all the rage for the modern ISV, there is a hidden cost. Miscommunication due to differences in culture can create bottlenecks, roadblocks and churn.  In addition, it can be the source of tension amongst team members and create inefficiencies and frustration, all of which may lead to high staff turnover.

In her book, “The Culture Map: Decoding How People Think, Lead, and Get Things Done Across Cultures,” Erin Meyer explains how each culture is fundamentally distinct when it comes to communicating, evaluating, persuading, leading, deciding, trusting, disagreeing and scheduling.  She evaluates these eight points on a scale from 1 to 10 to help identify contrasting styles between two extremes as a means of bridging cultural gaps.  The more any two groups differ, the more work that needs to be done in order to understand such differences and find common ground.

For ISVs, culture gaps can span across borders, but also across departments—developers often differ greatly from their sales and marketing counterparts—making them particularly susceptible to issues arising from such gaps.  To improve business culture and create a unified corporate identity, the ISV must understand the variances that define its team.  For that, Meyer suggests creating a survey with specific questions focusing on each one of her eight evaluation points:

  1. Communicating: Low context/explicit vs. High context/implicit
  2. Evaluating: Direct negative feedback vs. Indirect negative feedback
  3. Persuading: Concept-first vs. Application-first
  4. Leading: Egalitarian vs. Hierarchical
  5. Deciding: Consensual vs. Top-down
  6. Trusting: Task-based vs. Relationship-based
  7. Disagreeing: Confrontational vs. Avoids Confrontation
  8. Scheduling: Linear time vs. Flexible time

Once the survey has been completed, she recommends creating a “map” to visualize the responses, highlighting the extremities of each on the spectrum. The conceptualization of such gaps will help the organization pinpoint the areas it needs to pay particular attention to.

She states, “The way we are conditioned to see the world in our own culture seems so completely obvious and commonplace that it is difficult to imagine that another culture might do things differently.  It is only when you start to identify what is typical in your culture, but different from others, that you can begin to open a dialogue of sharing, learning and ultimately understanding.”

Meyer recognizes that it is impossible for someone to abandon their own culture (whether it’s linked to a nationality or a particular personality group) even for the “greater good” of the organization.  She insists, however, that by recognizing and understanding the differences between team members can foster a workplace environment that accepts such differences.  As a result, resentment and frustration will decrease, which means greater efficiency and productivity for the team as a whole.

Working amongst internationals has its advantages and inconveniences, and it can be as enriching as it is daunting.  In order to avoid the pitfalls, it is essential to understand the cultural differences that define the members of your team.  People who understand one another work better together, so creating one’s own culture map is an important step that any multicultural ISV ought to take should they wish to grow and succeed in today’s global economy.

Of course, bridging cultures does not happen overnight and Meyer does not offer a quick-fix solution.  However, her insights into particular cultures (American, Chinese, Japanese, Korean, French, German, and Dutch to name a few) are eye-opening, and she gets her point across by telling interesting, true-life stories that her readers can relate to.  Reading Meyers’ book may even be the most important one you read all year!  

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Liz Lemarchand
Liz Lemarchand is the Chief Operating Officer of MediaDev, a global IT marketing firm. She has 20 years of marketing experience and provides strategic counsel to software vendors both large and small.