A Project With China

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    The 21st century has brought a great increase in projects with companies in the growing economies of Brasil, Russia, India and China (for which Goldman Sachs coined the acronym of “BRIC” countries). There is no denying that, with the emphasis of multinationals in fulfilling the demands of those growing middle classes, many project managers can expect to perform projects with team members from those countries sooner or later.

    A good friend recently was asked to go to Shenzhen to manage a project for his company’s Chinese business partner. As any good international traveler would do, my friend Fareed did as much research as possible before going to China. He read plenty of books on Chinese culture and customs; he got a Chinese cookbook; he even rented Chinese movies in Mandarin (with subtitles in English of course).

    All this research yielded the following picture: the Chinese are a hard-working, collectivistic society. They are quite accepting of people in power and are highly contextual (which means that they take their cues from the situation more readily than from what is written).

    I saw Fareed after his trip and asked him how the trip, and the project, had gone. “Great” he said “but instead of highly collectivistic I found everyone in China to be highly individualistic”. Based on his research, he had gone expecting people to act based on what was best for their group. Yet, everyone from the local builder, developer, driver, even the secretary took initiative and performed tasks depending on what was best for them, not necessarily their company. That came as a surprise.

    We chatted about it at some length and finally arrived at the following conclusions, which we will apply to our future projects: (1) although a highly collectivistic culture in the past, given recent economic and other liberalization, Chinese culture may be changing from highly to moderately collectivistic. Maybe some day they will become an individualistic culture, much like the American or the Australian. And (2) whatever ideas you may have about another culture, even when based on research or experience, be ready to toss them out the window, as cultures are alive and constantly changing.