Friday, November 30, 2012

On my reading list: Winter 2012

I've been enjoying the following books lately. Still find myself reading a lot of "print" books with the occasional Kindle book thrown in. The balance hasn't shifted for me yet!

Make Haste Slowly: Growing effective intercultural communication, by Donald Smith. Great little book about simple things that make complex situations (i.e. commmunicating cross-culturally) more understandable. Originally written in 1984, this was revised last year with some new examples, but the principles (i.e. 12 signal systems, the cultural onion (levels of culture), stimulating change, etc.) are timeless. Humanitarian relief and development groups are talking more and more about "theories of change" and "social norm change" these days. They would do well to learn from the experience (and, yes, a few mistakes) of faith-based organizations.

Uprising: How to build a brand -- and change the world -- by sparking cultural movements, by Scott Goodson. Just started this one, but looks good. Has a brief history section and plenty of examples from corporate America. Would love to see a book like this written by an African or Asia thinker. I do think that movements (think the "Occupy", "livestrong", etc.) and the different ways to create them is very important to analyze.

Free: The future of a radical Price, by Chris Anderson. I like this guy (Wired mag editor) and both his thinking and writing. Lots of great examples of how to make yourself or your organization more valuable by strategically giving stuff away. I think the principles and ideas here are especially important for non-profits who want to add value and attract a new kind of donor.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Why cultural literacy doesn't really help

I've noticed during consulting with several organizations and through a few recent articles that cultural intelligence (CQ) is confused with cultural literacy or intercultural sensitivity. There is a huge missed opportunity here for organizations to improve!

In short, most organizations -- from businesses to humanitarian groups -- that do cross-cultural work seem to have little in the way of structures for educating people before their assignments or debriefing them upon return. But even if every employee with an intercultural role was forced to read my favorite book on the topic (the Art of Crossing Cultures by Storti), or even if the tactics of training and debriefing were done, I'm not sure we'd be better off. Why?

Business people and even humanitarian leaders (who often work on the same principles of delivering goods/services and reducing costs) are missing a foundational truth. In the words of David Hoopes from a 1981 article:
"The critical element in the expansion of intercultural learning is not the fullness with which one knows each culture, but the degree to which the process of cross-cultural learning, communication and human relations [has] been mastered."

In other words, cultural literacy (knowing how a people group eats, sits, etc.) or even intercultural sensitivity (being open to the differences in how people live) is not enough. A good debriefing, for example, shouldn't just measure the knowledge about a new culture. Instead it must assess whether the person is clearly pursuing a cultural learning process which will lead to correct conclusions.

The key is cultural intelligence (CQ) which is embracing the process that allows you to quickly enter any culture and learn accurately what is happening and then adapt. Some others call this intercultural competence or ethnorelativism, but I like CQ better.

A red flag that CQ isn't understood? People comment on the behaviors they see or don't see in another place without asking what motivates this behavior. Or people only talk about the similarities between cultures (i.e. "they love children just like we do"). This African case study caught my attention recently. A classic example of when people think they can blend in but don't realize they are viewed as fundamentally different by the host culture. CQ was low even though specific cultural knowledge was high.

By the way, I'm assuming people see the benefits for pursuing CQ so won't discuss it today, but I continue to discover how it clearly leads to, among other things, savings in money and time due to contracts being signed sooner, deadlines having common agreement, and high-quality deliverables being achieved. Not to mention there is less mental stress!

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

My cyclical, surprising challenges of cultural re-entry

Exactly a year ago, my family and I headed to the Hyderabad airport. We arrived in Portland about 38 hours later and began the re-entry journey.

We'd been in India for five and a half years (and I'd put in another 1.5 years before we got married). So we'd picked up many cultural behaviors (i.e. the head bobble) and even some values (i.e. I can now live with an unbelievable level of ambiguity, or what is a crisis to you is probably not a big deal to me).

Of course, the first few months back in the USA were dizzying and I've written about that herehere and here. People ask if we are over the cultural shock/stress or re-entry. Yes. And no. Some small examples include:
  • Two weeks ago I accused (nicely) a cashier in the Nike cafeteria of giving me the wrong change. Then I realized that I hadn't recognized the coins correctly (I thought the new one-dollar coins were quarters).
  • My children wash their mouths after meals "Indian style", assume we'll have mangoes tomorrow, still must be urged to use sidewalks, etc.
  • I still occasionally panic when we only have 10 minutes to get to an appointment, forgetting that traffic is generally good here and you rarely have to search hard for parking.
  • I sometimes call or email people on the day of an appointment because I suspect a crisis (a monsoon flood? an unannounced strike? illness of a relative?) might have forced them to cancel without telling me.
  • Several of the thank you notes I mailed after job interviews this spring had old "first class" stamps on the recipients had to pay the extra $.06 postage. Um, yeah, oops.

Cultural re-entry is not an event. It is cyclical. And, good news, the gaps between "episodes" lengthen over time. I knew this intellectually, but to experience it is different.

The first few days back were constant re-learning and readjustment. Then, after a few months, episodes would only happen every week or so (i.e. an overwhelming moment in the proverbial cereal aisle). Now the episodes are once or twice a month. This is progress. This is normal. This is cultural re-entry.

Second, cultural re-entry surprises everyone. In some ways, it is more challenging than the adjustment to a different culture; when you return to your own land, you and people around you expect you to fit in...after all, you used to live here and function successfully! So everyone is doubly surprised when behaviors or feelings don't match expectations.

The danger is that we assume people go through cultural re-entry and then are done. But it is an ongoing cycle of episodes that really never finish, although they certainly become less frequent. Or we let surprise turn into judgment (i.e. "You did what? That is weird").

How can we show grace to people in our midst who may look like us on the surface -- even act like us most of the time -- but have a different cultural background, experiences, or orientation? It's a worthy challenge.

Monday, June 18, 2012

Damn Lies, Stats, and Global Confusion

During five months I lived in Washington, D.C., one of my favorite experiences was reading and discussing how statistics get twisted by diplomats, politicians, and more. A great article which I still have in my file cabinet is "The Truth but not the Whole Truth" by Peter Carlson. The subtitle? "In political Washington, statistics are weapons of war. That's why they get manipulated and massaged and twisted until any connection to reality is strictly coincidental."

With globalization and the increase of Internet tools such as Twitter, there are now more statistics available. This overload of information makes it even more difficult to find "truth" about issues. For example, I enjoyed this great blog from last week by the lead researcher for Oxfam about a confusing statistic on women and girls in poverty.

And here's the thing. Misused or inaccurate stats, especially in humanitarian efforts, can lead to serious consequences like not understanding where the real needs are and, thus, deaths of the most underserved.

I continue to monitor self-curated media like Twitter and occasionally find some gems. And even when I'm reading respected publications like The Economist or the Stanford Innovation Review, I still have to keep my skeptic hat on. Independent thinking, confirming facts through triangulation or cross-references, and asking questions beyond surface issues are still essential.

But I suspect that knowing what to ask is largely a product of having diverse life experiences, recognizing ambiguity and complexity in the world, and awareness of both extremes of any argument. Not easy work and very time consuming, but worthwhile.

Monday, June 11, 2012

Naps and Commencement Speeches

I delivered my first commencement speech on Saturday. It was a good experience...and I don't think anyone took a nap. During research for the speech, I listened to a great NPR interview with an experienced speech writer. It was comforting to remember that you're talking to a captive audience.

But I didn't want to be forgettable. However, it's difficult to avoid. You have to either be great (my YouTube research pointed repeatedly to Steve Jobs' 2005 speech) or horrible (lots of fingers pointing at actor Richard Jones in 2011). Few people remember their high school or university graduation speaker. I don't! Do you?

Anyway, I was surprised as I drafted the speech. At first, I couldn't think of anything really important to share with these high school graduates from a private school I attended years ago. Later, I was overwhelmed with how many pieces of advice I wanted to give them in 15 minutes! I settled on three personal stories that illustrated the points below, but would be interested: What would you tell graduates today? What do you wish you would have been told when you graduated? What are you glad that you DIDN'T know?

And yes, despite my efforts, there were a few yawns in the crowd. I suspect I connected more with the graduates' families than the graduates themselves. But at least nobody (?!) napped.

* * * * * * * * * * * * *

1. Ask great questions. This helps us get beyond selfishness, can transform lives (ours, others), helps us deal with disappointment or heartache in a messy world. As a person who tries to follow the teachings of Jesus (in my opinion, this is different than being a "Christian"), I like that he asked tons of great questions.

2. Take the harder path. This helps with decision making, often leads toward helping the most vulnerable, allows us to conquer fear (even though we may still feel afraid). Many religious people or institutions have a deservedly bad rap. But Jesus was clear that it's not about getting a ticket to heaven and becoming judgmental about everyone else. It is about right relationships and changing the world for better -- but, of course, helping your neighbor (or even enemy) is not easy.

3. Focus on strengths and vocation, not career. Strengths are innate patterns of thought, feeling, or behavior (not skills or knowledge). We often spend disproportionate time or energy improving weak areas. And a vocation or "calling" could include many careers. Figure out your design.

Friday, May 04, 2012

7.5 Things I Never Travel Without

This may be a more light-hearted blog, but it's a product of suffering and painful experiences. Here are essentials to bring with you on any trip -- especially to developing countries but also within the USA.

1. Sandals: These should be slip-on/off types. I love Chacos or Tevas. Essential if you enounter nasty showers, decide to head to the pool, need to visit multiple village huts for tea, or run into warmer than expected weather and a free evening to explore a town.

2. Two plastic hangers: If you need to "wet iron" something (i.e. sprinkle, smooth, hang, and let dry straight overnight), these are essential. Hotel hangers sometimes are rusted, often designed so they can't be used other than in the hotel closet, or simply missing.

3. Small flashlight: Essential for not disturbing roomates while trying to get to the bathroom at night, reading during power outages, finding the exit in an emergency, and more.

4. Hankerchief: I know you're worried about holding an accessory usually gripped by a senior citizen, but it's a swissarmy knife. Multiple uses include holding hot things, cleaning glasses or camera lenses, wiping the sweat off your brow after running to catch a plane, drying off surfaces (i.e. laptop after downpour), cleaning dirty dishes, etc.

5. Earplugs: Priceless if you want to sleep at urban hotels, concentrate while on airplane, or convey to others that you want to be alone.

6. Stomach meds: Middle of the night when the food poisoning hits? Good luck. Best to carry some pepto pills, immodium, and either a full dose of cipro or flagel.

7. Plastic grocery bags: Great for putting muddy shoes inside before closing the suitcase, using as laundry bags, protecting electronics against a monsoon rain, keeping food away from bugs, etc.

7.5 Great questions. Cross-culturally appropriate questions to break awkward silence or befriend a business contact include: what is the meaning or history of your family surname? what do you like to do with your free time? where have you traveled that you enjoyed most?

As an aside, I love these short videos of travel tips from author/travel warrior Dan Pink. Do you always bring something essential that is extremely useful? I'd love to hear about it.

Monday, April 16, 2012

Intercultural partnerships are complex but simple

We humans either make intercultural partnerships too complex or too simple. I've spent the last twelve years in the midst of Western partnerships with non-profits and private sector orgs in the developing world. Seven of those years I was privileged to see issues from the perspective of nationals trying to transform their own country. This perspective was mind-altering. The daily (often unintentional) pressure that many donors -- financial or otherwise -- put on recipients was clear. The outcomes are sad. For example, there's a natural tendency to stifle innovation as nationals doing great work with limited resources suddenly focus on reporting requirements or hosting Western visitors instead of assessing their programs' impact on a community.

Then there's the constant challenge of communications: how much do nationals need to tell the donor...because any explanation seems to require another explanation?! I remember a school/community center that was being built in rural India. The land purchased had major problems (there were disputed deeds, the land was prone to floods, etc.). While trying to fix the problem with government officials or logistical solutions like fill-dirt, my friends barely had energy to explain things to donors who probably just wanted the problem fixed anyway. More important, communications about meetings with authorities were likely to set off more questions, especially from Europeans worried about financial accountability or Americans trying to transfer solutions.

But at the end of the day, there are some simple principles in effective partnerships.
  • Mutual respect which includes letting the nationals hold most of the power and implement their vision. This requires hard work by Westerners to prove they really trust/value views of the nationals and giving nationals the fora to speak freely. (Note: This usually does NOT mean a Westerner asking an opinion of a national leader in a group meeting or expecting email answers!)
  • Common vision (not just goals) is crucial along with long-term commitments. Or, in certain cases, a series of short-term commitments to test and evaluate different approaches while moving forward together.
  • Awareness of complementary strengths/weaknesses are important. If both partners have the same strengths or don't recognize the strengths of the other, the partnership might work but will be inefficient.
  • Excellent communications -- and clear expectations about frequency and type of communications -- are essential.
  • Perhaps most important is mutual vulnerability. It is a type of accountability but more relational-based and very rare.

I've found the recently articulated concept of "collective impact" as discussed in the Stanford Social Innovation Review (original article and more pragmatic follow-up) to be helpful...however, it doesn't specifically address intercultural partnerships. Isolated pieces in the Harvard Business Review touch on culture (e.g. usually in context of virtual teams), but don't propose an overall methodology. And an overarching strategy is crucial since it is the key to many development and aid failures, missionary groups who damaged societies, or corporates that destroyed cultures.

After closely watching many types of international partnerships and reading widely, I've learned a lot. Although I certainly have more questions than answers, these are my thoughts at this point. I'm sure I'll blog on this again in the future and may even change my opinions, but the bottom line for me is clear. As Westerners, we must make sure our motives are not of a white savior. And we must also acknowledge it isn't as simple as a memo of understanding or finding people who want to change the world in the same way we do. But we should not make intercultural collaboration so complex that we're paralyzed by fear.

Monday, March 19, 2012

On my Reading List: Spring 2012

I believe this week is the first of spring. With that, a few thoughts on some books I'm enjoying:

Whistling Vivaldi, by Steele. A fascinating look at the effect of stereotypes and how to stop the unhealthy side. By an African-American academic who discovered that if he whistled classical music while walking through white parts of USA, he wasn't viewed as a threat. Has many insights for people doing cross-cultural work inside and outside USA.

Greatest Sailing Stories Ever Told, by Caswell. Twenty-seven incredible pieces on sailing including humor pieces, journal entries, and essays. When it is too cold to go sailing, these keep me warm with inspiration.

Book of Man, by Bennett. Although the editor is highly conservative politically, this collection of short stories, poems, and readings for boys are interesting and helpful. Centered around themes like work or leisure, these give me material for bedtime stories with my young boys.

Celebration of Discipline, by Foster. A good collection of thoughts by Quaker writer on spiritual habits that can deepen and focus your life (i.e. meditation, prayer). Reading this on my Kindle.

On the list of what-I’ll-read-next-if-I-get-the-time:
  • A new book by Pulitzer Prize-winner Katherine Boo about life in the slums of Mumbai: Beyond the Beautiful Forevers. Looks a little depressing but very realistic and balanced. Great review by WSJ India here.
  • A book on raising kids: Boundaries for Kids by Cloud and Townsend.
  • Three books on overconfidence: The Logic of Failure by Dorner, Thinking Fast and Slow by Kahneman, and Everything is Obvious Once You Know the Answer by Watts. 

Thursday, March 08, 2012

Full-fledged justice: CQ plus development minus corruption?

A 2008 UNDP-sponsored study showing 4 billion people cannot improve life for themselves because they are excluded from the rule of law rocked my world. The authors, including Madeleine Albright, indicated billions of dollars in relief and development are wasted in countries without good, enforced laws and fair courts. The poor remain poor without legal empowerment.

"Charity is no substitute for justice withheld," said St. Augustine around 400 AD. So perhaps this is nothing new. But, then I ask myself, should we stop work in places where judges, police, and other authorities are corrupt?

From an efficiency perspective and objective evaluation, we must answer yes. The link between aid and functioning public justice systems was brilliantly argued in a 2010 Foreign Affairs article by Gary Haugen and Victor Boutros. Charities, foundations, and international development agencies need to change.

However, then we look at the wider definition of justice: a balance or equity of right relationships, proper use of power/influence, and a well-ordered community so that all flourish. Also, we can't stereotype an entire country. There may be pockets of justice and community-led reform that need our help. These truths mean we must answer no. Development and reconciliation projects should happen anywhere there is a felt need.

Perhaps the answer is to be aware and balanced. To work towards just legal structures as well as "neighborly" living conditions.

But for me the key piece is that we engage in justice efforts with local partners that desire and DRIVE the collaboration. Getting to common ground and assessing motives is difficult. The outsider is perceived to have unlimited money and power; this initially can attract the wrong people. But there are ways to find good partners through asking great questions. By finding people already doing the type of work you're trying to 'establish'. This cultural intelligence (CQ) piece is crucial. If a local/national leader makes the key decisions, controls distribution of the money, and is bought-into the results, then the work can have a long-lasting impact. When Westerners come set up an office or project and then just hire locals, it's efficient in the short-term and likely to fail in the long-term.

While sitting in The Justice Conference last week, I was reminded how culture-bound the Western view of justice is. Although "minorities" in the USA (i.e. first nations people/Native Americans, or blacks) might understand the breadth of justice, the culture I come from hasn't. First, we think of justice mostly as laws, punishment, or lack of corruption. That's a crucial slice of the justice pie, but there is more and it's based around restoring relationships so all flourish. Second, we look for theories and discuss solutions. For most people, including the Dalits I lived and worked with in India, they simply were engaged in justice daily. Because so much injustice existed, in the mere effort to move ahead with their lives, they instinctively dealt with justice issues. No time to think and plan. Just dive in.

Are both approaches needed? Sure. Can we help each other? Definitely. But it depends on clear conversations, examining our motives, and finding great partners as we tackle foundational issues like legal empowerment. That takes hard work.

Friday, February 10, 2012

Innovation and Self-Deception

Pondering “The Hazards of Confidence” (excerpts below) gave me flashbacks. We often think we’re helping cross-culturally, but we’re not meeting felt needs. Or we’re rushing to conclusions about the helpfulness of an innovation, when a different (usually simpler) innovation is needed.

In India, I remember a group of Westerners teaching a sewing class to some ladies from the slums. It was advanced sewing and teaching how to make a specific item that would never sell in India. And then they gave electric sewing machines to the vocational school. The feedback about the training was positive – the ladies appeared attentive and appreciative, and produced a reasonable quality garment. The guests told themselves they’d succeeded and the future was bright.

The reality was the Indian ladies were trying to respect the visitors so answered “yes” to all questions, knew that electricity outages were common and preferred pedal-powered sewing machines, and didn’t see a need to improve the quality of the garments. A class on basic sewing techniques and gift of different sewing machines would have been more beneficial for everyone.

Books like “The Logic Of Failure: Recognizing And Avoiding Error In Complex Situations” by Dorner and “Thinking, Fast and Slow” by Kahneman (author of article below) help us analyze self-deception and overconfidence. This is especially important when we apply a new or established concept or invention to a new situation (in other words, innovation). But there’s an added dimension of difficulty when your feedback comes through interpreters or even from English-speakers with a different value system. If I’ve learned one thing from living overseas: ask the wrong question and you’ll always get the wrong answer. But even more, if you ask the right question to the wrong person you’ll get the wrong answer. Asking great questions to appropriate people, collecting valid feedback, and stepping back to evaluate the felt needs (not just the obvious needs) of communities is challenging – and crucial.

* * * * * * * * * * *
“When a compelling impression of a particular event clashes with general knowledge, the impression commonly prevails. And this goes for you, too. The confidence you will experience in your future judgments will not be diminished by what you just read, even if you believe every word.”

“You should not take assertive and confident people at their own evaluation unless you have independent reason to believe that they know what they are talking about…”

“Overconfidence arises because people are often blind to their own blindness. True intuitive expertise is learned from prolonged experience with good feedback on mistakes. You are probably an expert in guessing your spouse’s mood from one word on the telephone; chess players find a strong move in a single glance at a complex position; and true legends of instant diagnoses are common among physicians.” 

And my favorite: “…men act on their useless ideas significantly more often than women do, and…as a result women achieve better investment results than men.”

Thursday, February 02, 2012

Can you really measure social transformation?

How can you assess the impact of a child sponsorship program? Is giving a community clean water or mosquito nets more effective? When we say we want to end poverty, how will we measure it?

A new breed of development economists are starting to use research and statistical practices from the medical world to measure our efforts in development and humanitarian projects. As a guy who likes more than anecdotes and case studies, I like it. As a person who wants to be a good steward of their donations, I like it. As someone who lived overseas and struggled to find unbiased info and get clarity, I like it.

I'm reminded of one of my favorite books from the last five years, Better, by an Indian-origin surgeon named Atul Gawande. His basic premise was: please please please, measure something! If we want to improve and use our short lives wisely, try to benchmark things.

A magazine article "Cost Effective Compassion" by a US economist I read last night takes this one step further. Using randomized controlled trials of people both inside and outside relief and development programs, he's learned to more accurately assess progress. Good stuff. And while child sponsorships still make economic sense for long-term development, I was interested to note the huge cost-benefit ratio of drilling water wells, de-worming, mosquito nets, and clean-burning stoves (in order of most effective to lesser). Unfortunately, giving laptops and animals, or drinking fair-trade coffee are things that make us feel good, but have a small impact.

Of course, all this is centered around culture: when you give the survey or ask the questions, will they understand what you mean?

UPDATE: I’ve since heard that some good books on the topic include “Poor Economics” by Banerjee and Duflo and “More Than Good Intentions” by Karlan and Appel. Behavioral economics has been popularized by the "Freakonomics" books as well.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

3.5 Observations about Re-entry (not the burning space junk kind)

I've been back in the USA for 5 months and thinking about cultural re-entry issues lately. A lot has been written on this over the years, but most companies and non-profits don't implement it. They offer less support for re-entry than they did preparing you for your overseas work. Our organization was much better than the average! I also enjoyed a great book, "The Art of Coming Home". But here are some quick thoughts.

1) You do weird things for a while even though you try not to. I cognitively know that most bathrooms in the USA have toilet paper, but I still carried a roll with me the first few weeks. A colleague also pointed out that I still re-confirm appointments 24 hours before the appointed time (probably out of a fear the 'monsoon' rains or an unnounced strike will come up?!).

2) You slowly remember who's who. Living overseas is all about understanding a new network and who are the influencers versus the followers. You listen or filter advice based on who it comes from. Upon return, I'm reassessing (especially in the professional sphere) which organizations or people are still on the forward edge and speak with credibility.

3) You notice odd, small changes in your home culture. The explosion of gift cards for sale immediately caught my attention upon return. The amount of postal junk mail people receive. And more.

3.5) You enjoy the small pleasures. Like snow falling this morning and the windows that seal completely. And sinking my teeth into a brownie...or a beef hotdog.