Product Management is Culture Management
Or “How to Manage Software Development in Teams who Think Nothing Like you“.
Product management has two diversity problems. The first one is well-acknowledged: our industry must have more women, other ethnicities, and better representation from LGBTQIA. The second is more subtle: in those instances when we do achieve diversity, and especially cross-cultural diversity, we are unable to handle it.
The World is Flat
Our current reality is vastly different from what we’ve seen even 10 years ago. “The world is flat”, as American author Thomas Friedman put it. And no matter how many walls we build or how hard we try to curb immigration, we are forever bound to work with people who are nothing like us culturally. Cultural homogeneity in product teams is dead, welcome cultural diversity.
Our engineers and designers can come from anywhere, yet everything we learn about product management focuses on teams that consist mostly of white Westerners. Product rituals like standups, backlog grooming meetings, and retrospectives work well for people brought up in typical egalitarian Western cultures like the US, Canada, and the UK. Yet those same tried and true activities, which do miracles to help Western teams express feedback and discuss ideas, fall remarkably short when applied to people whose culture prescribes them to make suggestions indirectly or in private. If you’ve ever tried to run a typical Agile retrospective with a team where one of the engineers is from China, you know what I mean. It simply doesn’t work.
We’re Trapped in our Cultures
Every day, I lead a product standup for a team of four engineers: Syrian, Chinese, Ukrainian, and Singaporean Chinese. The Ukrainian engineer has lived in Japan since he was six, an experience which has made him bi-cultural. The Syrian and Chinese have both spent several years in Singapore, a melting pot of Southeast Asian cultures. Sometimes, a soft-spoken Indonesian UX strategist joins us, together with a Canadian Head of Product, an energetic American VP of Engineering, and a CEO from New Zealand. And then there’s me, their Russian product manager who was born in Poland, raised in Russia, and then studied in Japan. How’s that for a mini-UN?
The Singapore-based company where I now work employs people from over 20 countries. This sounds great in theory, but in practice our cross-cultural environment is a perfect breeding ground for conflicts. Consider a Thai software engineer who got offended by a Russian-American engineer’s comment on his pull request and then refused to work with him ever again. Or a UI designer from a low-conflict Southeast Asian culture who overheard two product managers arguing about the UI copy, thought they were having a dangerous work conflict (they weren’t), and raised it as a concern to their manager.
Although many of us who have lived and worked abroad love to think of ourselves as cosmopolitan and culture-agnostic, we are anything but. Even when some of us change countries during childhood or adolescence, becoming Adult Third Culture Kids, or have parents from different cultures, we absorb the cultures in which we socialize. We are never fully culturally homogeneous. Our personal style may take equally from our parents’ cultures, from the cultures of students in our international high school, and the country where we work.
Although many of us who have lived and worked abroad love to think of ourselves as cosmopolitan and culture-agnostic, we are anything but.
The more international exposure we get, the more our individual cultures seem to fade away. But, like it or not, that is an illusion. We are still the ambassadors of our primary cultures, or the cultures in which we formed our identity, even if we don’t notice it. In fact, there are times when we unconsciously expect our colleagues to talk to us in our own cultural language, and things get awry if they don’t.
Dealing With Culture
Product managers who work with cross-cultural teams are in the crossfire. Our jobs require us to communicate “effectively”, yet the notion of what’s effective and what’s not is entirely cultural. Where an American manager would appreciate straight answers and a healthy debate, engineers from Indonesia or the Philippines would expect a different approach.
Unfortunately, there’s no easy path to an effective communication style in teams where everyone is a cultural minority. I think the best path to making this work is to adopt behaviors that speak to each member of the team in a unique way. Finding each such way will require some work and experimentation. In fact, every time someone new joins the team, you might need to re-evaluate things and start over. I certainly do.
Here are five basic principles I follow to improve the way I work with cross-cultural teams. (If you follow a different practice, please let me know in the comments!)
1: Calibrate the Team and Surface the Differences
This is the most important principle I now follow. I only realized its importance after violating it and facing the not-so-pleasant consequences.
The first step towards managing product development in cross-cultural teams is to help everyone see their differences. This will give your team-mates a benchmark of where each of them sits on a cultural scale. It will also help them realize that when each of them is a cultural minority, everyone must make an effort to adjust.
Start small: schedule a team lunch and share life stories. When the team gets more comfortable and open to discuss cultural differences, you may want to use a culture mapping method developed by Erin Meyer (more details at the end of the post). In her work, Meyer greatly extended Geert Hofstede’s well-known theory of cultural dimensions, and created a tool that helps teams to calibrate on eight key dimensions: the way cultures give or perceive negative feedback and handle confrontations, how teams make decisions and build interactions with their boss, how different cultures perceive time and do planning, and several others.
For instance, people from cultures like China and the Philippines may see open confrontation as a relationship taboo, whereas the French may encourage it. When teams aren’t made aware of such differences, less confrontational team-mates may start seeing their more confrontational counterparts as “rotten apples” and label them as bad team players. I recently witnessed a difficult cultural situation which started with a Western engineering manager firing an Asian engineer. Several days after announcing his decision publicly, that manager received negative feedback from other Asian employees about how poorly he handled the process and how bad of a job he did by making the firing public and not helping the Asian engineer to “save face”. In contrast, feedback from Western team-mates stated the opposite: they agreed that the manager was transparent and communicated his decision professionally.
2: Abandon Leadership Colonialism
Some managers, and not only product managers, have this funny idea that practices and processes which work well in their home culture would work equally well in a cross-cultural team. And when such managers don’t achieve the desired outcome, they blame the team for not being willing to learn and adjust. Even worse, for not being skilled enough. What they misunderstand is that the way they used to operate and make decisions may not be productive for people from other parts of the world.
You will have to work with them as a group on establishing a set of shared communication patterns and culture-agnostic work rules.
Abandoning leadership colonialism, or the notion that practices from your primary culture can be successfully applied anywhere else without substantial modification, is one of the first steps towards the better management of your diverse product team’s culture. That, by the way, doesn’t mean giving up and letting your team go rogue. This would be disastrous, especially when multiple cultures are involved! What it means is that you will have to find an approach to each member of the team and coach them individually in a way that works for them. You will have to work with them as a group on establishing a set of shared communication patterns and culture-agnostic work rules.
3: Don’t Rely on Instincts and “People Skills”
There are no shortcuts, and you won’t be able to wing it just with instinct or empathy, which is something products managers rely on a lot when working with people. Empathy is simply not going to cut it.
This is because the way humans express empathy is also subject to cultural differences. How do you know you’re empathetic in a way that is culturally familiar to your foreign counterparts? Sadly, what looks like empathy to you might feel insincere to your team. I once saw how a genuinely empathetic North American manager got labelled as manipulative by his reports from some Southeast Asian cultures. Good “people skills” are intrinsically cultural, which means you can’t trust your gut when working with cross-cultural teams.
4: Embrace Small Talk and Instant Retrospectives
If you want to find a way to work with each individual team member, you must learn the cultural nuances of their behavior. You have to become infinitely curious about what makes them who they are. Small talk and instant retrospectives can help you with that.
Frequent small talk gives you a natural way to absorb the communication patterns of your team mates subconsciously.
While you might be familiar about the appropriate way of engaging in small talk in your culture, you’ll have to experiment and find what works for your team. Some will respond better if you start a conversation with a joke, and some would simply love to talk about what they had for lunch. Frequent small talk gives you a natural way to absorb the communication patterns of your team mates subconsciously.
An instant retrospective, on the other hand, is a more formal tool. After every work meeting you could ask each team member two questions: “did this work for you?” and “how could I improve?”. You’ll be surprised how much genuine feedback you get, and how fast you’ll be able to improve.
5: Crack a Book Open
The reality is that you won’t succeed without some kind of training. For instance, psychoanalysts and counsellors who practise across cultures must be specially trained in cross-cultural empathy, otherwise they might end up hurting their clients. Same applies to all managers out there: you will need training, and reading 10 blog posts won’t magically make you a guru of cross-cultural leadership.
And even though not everyone will have an access to in-person classes and workshops, plenty of resources exist to give you the necessary skills. Some of these are:
- “The Culture Map” by INSEAD professor Erin Meyer
- Coursera lectures on Intercultural Communication and Conflict Resolution and International Leadership and Organizational Behavior, plus many more classes on edX and Udemy.
Become a Cultural Chameleon
Product managers should be a cultural “glue” for the teams. In practice, this means that you must learn to change your communication and leadership styles multiple times a day. All of the above are much easier said than done, and I hope that as more product people become exposed to cross-cultural teams, they will share their observations and learnings on how we all could get better at working with people from different backgrounds.
Update: both the Head of Product and VP of Engineering have left my company since I started drafting this post. My team composition has also changed, but it is just as diverse as it was.
Tools and resources
- In total, Erin Meyer counts eight cultural dimensions that are most useful for cross-cultural team calibration. She developed a free cultural self-assessment tool which anyone can use.
- Intercultural Communication and Conflict Resolution.
- International Leadership and Organizational Behavior.
- The Culture Map: Breaking Through the Invisible Boundaries of Global Business; Erin Meyer, PublicAffairs 2014.
- Belonging, identity and Third Culture Kids: Life histories of former international school students; Helen Fail, Jeff Thompson and George Walker / Journal of Research in International Education, 2004 3: 319.
- Third culture kids and the consequences of international sojourns on authoritarianism, acculturative balance, and positive affect; Bill E. Peterson, Laila T. Plamondon / Journal of Research in Personality, 2009.
- How to Lead Cross-Cultural Teams; INSEAD Knowledge on Slideshare
- Navigating the Cultural Minefield, Erin Meyer, HBR, May 2014
- When Culture Doesn’t Translate, Erin Meyer, HBR, October 2015
- The Role of Culture in Affective Empathy: Cultural and Bicultural Differences; T. G. Cassels et al. / Journal of Cognition and Culture 10 (2010) 309–326
- Cross-Cultural Empathy and Training the Contemporary Psychotherapist; Lawrence Dyche, A.C.S.W., and Luis H. Zayas, Ph.D. / Clinical Social Work Journal Vol. 29, No. 3, Fall 2001
- The Scale of Ethnocultural Empathy: Development, Validation, and Reliability; Yu-Wei Wang, M. Meghan Davidson, Oksana F. Yakushko, Holly Bielstein Savoy, Jeffrey A. Tan, and Joseph K. Bleier; University of Missouri—Columbia, Journal of Counseling Psychology, 2003, Vol. 50, No. 2, 221–234
See also Lisa Long’s talk at MTPCon London on Taking Your Product Across Cultures