Three engineers, an Asian-American, an Indian and a European-American manager rescue a web programming application, but almost fail in the process. It takes the combination of each culture’s approach to assemble diverse engineering knowledge in the organization and create a breakthrough in time to launch the high priority software.
I’m Rick, an Asian-American software engineer, who was asked to work on and take over a web programming application that had not launched. Over chat and email, my manager, Dave (a White American), said that this was an important project to start right away, and I trusted that he would give me the project scope, requirements, and necessary resources from the previous owner.
Lost in Limbo
A month passed without an official meeting to pass on the project from its previous owners. Requirements remained very vague, so I continued to work on my other projects. After two months, pressure came from Dave’s manager to release the web application with some new project requirements and an aggressive date. Now I was under pressure, but didn’t have the capability or experience to deliver the project on my own. I brought my concerns to Dave, but he could not get additional resources. His response was to finish it as soon as possible, with a “get it done!” attitude. Tejinder, an Indian engineer also reporting to Dave, noted the situation.
Rick Plays it Safe
I’m a quiet, reserved kind of person. I dedicate hours of my own time to gather data, test new methods, and prepare recommendations to fellow team members. I don’t take many risks; better to get consensus among the team before investing time in a new process or before heading in a completely new direction. I like to work in smaller teams, or alone. I would stick up for friends and save face, never put them on the spot by announcing something to a larger audience when it wasn’t finished. I dreaded the loss of face if I disappointed everybody.
Teijinder’s Plugged-in Style
Tejinder offered to help me, and his extensive network went into action. He knows what’s going on in the organization, gets information from friends, family and colleagues during a discussion on another project or at a team off site. He takes risks to discover new opportunities, which have appeared to me as meddling in areas that didn’t concern him. He tends to start working on new tasks as soon as possible, and may be involved in multiple projects at once, often doing favors for others to strengthen relationships.
Tejinder helped to get things moving by advocating the value of my project to a wider audience, scheduling meetings with engineers in other teams he’d worked with in the past. He was having lunch with the intern coordinator and they discussed my programming project, and Tejinder discovered that two interns were available to help.
Dave had been at the company many years, and tended to focus on each project in isolation. As pressure rose, Dave decided to email other managers, requesting volunteers and a design mentor for me, and while a bit late in the game, successfully recruited these resources.
It was challenging for me to work with the ideas and new approaches a troupe of volunteers, interns, and a mentor, but their input was what I needed. My initial design was rejected by management. Back to my resources, we reworked it, persistence paid off, and I found an existing program (used for another project) that contained a core piece of code that could be adapted to this project.
I reevaluated my earlier impressions of Dave and Teijinder. Was Dave such a successful project manager, when he accepted this project without the talent or time to accomplish it? Was Teijinder over-extended with multiple projects, when he could leverage these resources so skillfully during my high pressure project? Should I have been more assertive with Dave, managing him to get clearer requirements at the beginning?
- We welcome your comments on this Case Study.
- To see how this case study ended for Rick, Dave and Teijinder, go to Epilogue.
What are the cultural factors operating in this case?
Rick, Asian-American Engineer
- Careful to take well calculated risks, willing to work very hard
- Communication style is indirect, expects others will see his needs
- Team player, prefers to work with small circle of known friends
- Will defend his friends to save face, would like the same done for him
Dave, European-American Manager
- Believes in working your way up the corporate ladder
- Communication style is direct, challenges others to support their points
- Results-oriented, competitive, very time conscious
- Patriotic, respects authority
Teijinder, Indian Engineer
- Believes hard work and ingenuity will bring success
- Communication style is direct, debates and gives opinion in meetings
- Respects elders, often does favors, has many social connections
- Can be involved in multiple projects and tasks at once
Intercultural Strategy to Resolve the Situation
How could they work more effectively together?
Rick, Asian-American Engineer, to work more effectively with Dave:
- Initiative: Take more leadership, request a formal project hand-off from Dave. Build alliances to generate future support and influence.
- Analysis: Pro-actively identify and gather your requirements; use data to “speak Dave’s language.”
- Planning: Show the amount of resources (skills, man-hours) needed beyond Rick’s capability.
- Communication: Be direct, let Dave know what factors were slowing down progress.
Dave, European-American Manager, to work more effectively with Rick:
- Trust: Create transparency, reduce ambiguity and anticipate requirements by creating a detailed plan that they both can agree on. This will eliminate surprises, and build Rick’s confidence in himself and in his manager.
- Leading: Generate enthusiasm for your group, influence peer and higher level stakeholders earlier.
- Career Development for Rick: Encourage Rick to expand his network for broader contribution and visibility across the organization. Recommend training to build his skills in the direction the company is going.
What happened in the end? Did this situation get resolved?
Prototype Released, Happier Team
Trust within Dave’s team strengthened, and Rick felt a lot more confident with a consensus on the goals of the project and transparency on what the deliverables were. With Tejinder’s help, insight, and active discussion to bring more attention to the project, Rick’s concerns decreased. Dave found Rick a mentor with experience building similar web applications. The project moved along much better than it started, and a prototype application was released by the target date. With this team composed of three different cultures, the perception of the project and the happiness of team greatly improved.