In a previous post I detailed what building bridges and running successful companies had in common. In this second part of the "Building Bridges" series, I focus on the importance of learning to bridge across cultures and cultural differences. 

Business transformation involves and affects every part of an organization. There rarely is such a thing as "localized" transformation as most processes nowadays are often co-dependent and cross-functional.

As the scope of transformation broadens, perhaps to include international locations, cultural differences play an increasingly significant part also. When things go well, individuals and teams learn from each other and everyone benefits from the experience. But when things don't go so well, the intended transformation can fail, leaving in its place a trail of frustration, a massive expense tab, and significant collateral damage.

Having spent many years of my career in global positions, working with and managing multi-cultural teams, I wanted to share some of the lessons I learned about culture, and how you can improve your chances to make cultural differences work for you.

1. Do your homework

Before you go somewhere you've never been, to work with people you've never met, and to discuss topics that can be contentious, do some research about local customs and their impact on business practices. In the past, researching this could be a challenge, but today the Internet makes this easy, so there are no excuses. Find people in your network who may have experience in the field and reach out to them. They may be able to share important knowledge that can turn into a life-saver - or a deal-maker - when you get there.

For instance, most group meeting in Japan are not the right forum in which to bring up issues and expect that a western-style open debate will lead to a compromise or a final decision. Instead, outstanding issues should be discussed and resolved at the right level of governance prior to the meeting, where everyone comes together to jointly validate the decisions that were made.

2. Don't be opinionated

Having done your research, take what you read with a grain of salt. There is no 100% certainty that what you were told or what you read wasn't simply someone's partial, and possibly incorrect, understanding of a complex cultural and historical situation. Some things can't be told, they need to be experienced, lived through, and viscerally understood. 

For example, non-verbal communication plays a vital role in many cultures. So does the degree of formalism (verbal or otherwise) that goes into meeting and introducing people, conducting meetings, or sharing meals. The Middle East or Japan are good examples of this. Chances are that reading about it will pale in comparison to experiencing the real deal. But it will prepare you for what might come up, and give you the information you need to avoid making a complete fool of yourself. Hopefully.

3. Observe

With your research in mind, be curious and open-minded about your new environment. Much can be learned simply by watching people interact in day-to-day situations, at work, or in personal settings. Give yourself a few hours or days to become familiar with some of the idiosyncrasies, then carefully step into the fray, continue to observe how people react, and make incremental changes. Better to be quiet and learn than to try to fit in too quickly and forever be remembered for all the wrong reasons.

This applies in Tokyo, Mumbai and Paris, but also in New York, Houston and Los Angeles, as well as next door and down the hall wherever you are. 

4. Ask questions

More often than not, people are eager and excited to share about their culture and customs. What better way to find out than to ask? One of the elements I personally always focused on was language. So much can be learned from understanding a little more about how people communicate. For example, many "Western" languages from Latin or Germanic origins are rather "precise" with highly structured grammars and descriptive vocabularies. But languages from other parts of the world can be much more poetic or evocative and leave much to be emotionally understood or contextually interpreted (Persian/Farsi and many "Eastern" languages). 

This obviously has a great deal of impact on how people think, how they perceive the world, and interact with people around them. These differences shape beliefs, attitudes, and behaviors from bedrooms to boardrooms. Understanding them is key to establishing deep relationships with others, locally and abroad.

5. Forget where you come from

Unlearn to learn. Comparing everything you see or hear to what is done or said back home is interesting but also largely irrelevant. Immerse yourself into the new and forget what you thought you knew. It is the only way to fundamentally feel why things are the way they are, why people do what they do, or say what they say. Take it all in so you can better appreciate the fullness of the experience, and turn it into a real competitive advantage, whatever your playing field.

In business, perhaps more so than in life, culture is both cause and consequence. On the one hand, it shapes strategic orientations, and affects the way you run your operations, build your organization, and manage your projects. Culture affects how decisions are made, how meetings are run, what collaboration means, and even what the definition of success is.

On the other hand, how you do all of these things also defines and shapes your corporate culture in profound ways. Both cycles combined determine how successful the business will be. Think Zappos or Disney as examples of companies that have made culture a center point of their actions and decisions and whose success is directly related to the strength and uncompromising attitude about their culture.

For consulting companies like Axellium, being aware and sensitive to cultural differences and how they affect business outcomes is not only a skill, but a must. We can only perform and deliver value to our clients if we fully understand and appreciate the role and impact their culture has on who they are, how they think, how they communicate, and how they work, whether globally, or down the hallway. Short of getting this, our analysis, recommendations, and delivery is dead on arrival. 

What fun stories do you have and what significant lessons have you learned over the years related to the impact of cultural diversity in the workplace?