How would it be,” the police officer asked him severely, “if everybody did that?”
– Douglas Adams, The Salmon of Doubt
Douglas Adams may not be an established literary giant, but for me (at least) he has long been an inspiration. His original The Hitchhikers Guide To The Galaxy series, first broadcast on BBC Radio 4, captured my heart and mind many years ago. Captured my mind as I was figuring out who I was, what I wanted to be. Gave me an early insight into alternative perspectives.
Made me think.
Last week, I (or at least my business alter ego) was privileged to be invited to speak at the Baltic Project Management Forum 2016. The subject of my presentation Cultural Diversity: Making the Project Fit the Culture.
In the lead up to the Forum, I was invited to give an interview to Simas Čelutka at IQ magazine, a Baltic publication affiliated with The Economist.
The questions posed to me, the contributions of my fellow speakers, the warmth of the welcome extended to me by the organisers of the Forum reminded me of those days long ago when the world stretched out ahead of me, waiting to be discovered. And so, again, I realised that no matter how rich one’s experience, there is so much more to be learned.
The interview I gave to IQ, transcribed below, reminded me of how lucky I have been, of the opportunities I have had, to learn more about our world, about how much more there is to learn.
For we can never stop learning.
Given your rich transnational and intercultural experience, how would you describe the fundamental cultural differences between the places where you conducted major projects, namely the city of London, indigenous communities in Australia, the mountains of Serbia and the streets of Belgium?
My earliest childhood memories are of looking out across windswept moors in a small town in northern England, watching trains leaving the station far below, longing to know where they were headed. My horizon then limited by geography, by the physical and social boundaries that surrounded me.
As we grow, our horizons change, they are influenced by what we read, the media we consume, the society in which we move, the people we meet and the opportunities that are there. If we can see them.
Leading a project in the UK, and particularly one based in London, demands an understanding of a broad range of sophisticated stakeholders. London is a connected city, multicultural, always on, and served by a plethora of media and voices.
Indigenous communities in Australia could not be further removed in cultural terms from the busy streets of London. The indigenous population of Australia has roots that go back for 40,000 years, an oral tradition of story telling, their world turned upside down as their land has been colonised by Westerners.
Serbia is a country that has endured the deprivations of war and conflict for many years. Its people are fiercely proud of their heritage and frequently saddened by the negative impressions many outside the Balkans hold of their nation. Yet Serbia is also a land of song and dance and hope for the future.
Belgium, is a land that can appear bland and uniform from the outside. Yet this small country, at the heart of Europe, is as divided as any Balkan state. Two entirely distinct regions, one French speaking, the other Flemish, and a host of small communities many sharply divided by race, creed and language.
Were those cultural peculiarities difficult to adapt to? What were the most memorable (and, perhaps, the most difficult) experiences for you in this respect?
Adapting to cultural peculiarities first requires the ability to perceive those peculiarities for what they are. In other words to understand, deep inside, that people just do things differently and that there is not just one (correct) way of doing things.
Having studied and worked in London for many years it is difficult to describe now how I might have adapted to living and working in a cosmopolitan city. However, for me my most powerful memory of the way London is different from other cities was the outpouring of solidarity that crossed racial and political divides after the bombings of July 2006.
The question of whether the indigenous people of Australia should be integrated into broader society, or continue to live as they have done for 40,000 years, has been a divisive question in Australian politics for years. Most visitors to Australia only experience of indigenous people is based on those that play their didgeridoos on Circular Quay. My own appreciation changed as I travelled to settlements in the Northern Territory, first by scheduled airline, then in the back of a much smaller plane, and then, as I sat in a pick up truck drving across the blazing desert, I felt my ‘city’ skin peeling away. To stand in the red centre of Australia, to look around, to see no signs of our modern civilisation, to hear no engines, to see no aircraft. Only then did I start to understand.
In my first month in Serbia, a journey into the mountains revealed much about the nation. A car crash that was solved, with minimal fuss, by two ancient passing tractors. A journey up a mountain in an ancient Lada, a journey in which I changed gear as the driver battled to retain control on an iced up mountain track, a journey that ended with a glass of rakija at 11 am amid the bomb damaged rubble of a TV transmission station bombed by NATO in 1999. A transmitter station that kept on working as the bombs fell. It was impossible to stand back and observe. The only way to adapt was to become a ‘little bit’ Serbian.
In my final months in Belgium, I lived in the suburb of Molenbeek. An area populated by many of the Islamic faith. An area in which my white face marked me out as different, as the foreigner, a foreigner in a foreign land and choosing to live in a suburb yet further removed from people of what some might call my ‘own’ culture. During the ‘lockdown’ in November 2015, when the Government feared a terrorist attack, when the centre of Brussel was closed, I stood at a bus stop, on my way to be interviewed by the BBC News, and listened to a local mother, Islamic, who pleaded with some passion for me to understand that it was wrong to judge an entire people by the actions of a few. She was right. It was a humbling experience.
Is there enough openness among Western businessmen toward those local, contextual cultural sensitivities? Do business people appreciate them to an adequate extent, and if not, why?
In my experience, the best way to appreciate local, contextual cultural sensitivities is to become part of them. To immerse yourself into the community. Listen to people on the street, learn the language (or at least try), eat the same foods, try to live as local people do, see their point of view, take time to learn their story. Slow down, look around and think.
My suspicion is that many Western businessmen play ‘lip service’ to such matters. It is not enough to read The Lonely Planet Guide, buy a phrasebook and read the Foreign Office advisory relating to the country.
It requires an open mind, a willingness to accept that one’s own way of doing things is not the only way, that other perspectives matter. To understand that sometimes the best way to get from point A to point B is not a straight line.
To do this needs courage and patience. It needs time and good listening skills. It means partnering with local people and businesses who understand what works in their communities.
Sometimes, it is necessary to stop the car, get out, look to the horizon and listen to the rocks humming.’
How do you choose the projects on which to work on? Is it mostly related to the content/aims of the project, or do you also think about expanding your cultural horizon and enriching your experience?
I have a restless spirit and an enquiring mind. That goes all the way back to the little boy gazing in the distance over the moors and watching the trains leave the station.
In many ways the projects on which I have worked in the last ten years have found me, as much as I have chosen them. And that has been made possible by a willingness to say yes to a new project, rather than opt for a perhaps more comfortable choice. Once you open your mind, and your heart, to a new experience, the next decision becomes easier and so it goes.
And, to a certain extent, the two elements of your question are linked. By taking on a project that aims to make a difference, that is stretching, and that seems to serve some form of public good, often involves expanding my horizons and enriching my experience. Each step makes the next one easier and before you know it you have embarked on a whole new adventure. Each new experience opens a part of your mind that realises that the more you learn about the world, the more there is to know. It is addictive.
In the September issue of “IQ”, I interviewed Marty Linsky, who talked a lot about the concept of “adaptive leadership” which, he thinks, must be adopted as a substitute for an old-fashioned, top-down notion of leadership. Would you agree that the best way for entrepreneurs to grow in contemporary world is to become much more adaptive and horizontal in their approach to clients, partners and co-workers?
For me, the very notion of top-down leadership is a throw back to the days of the soot-blackened Victorian cotton mills that once cast a shadow over the town of my birth.
In those days, knowledge was power in the hands of the few who directed and controlled the masses
Thankfully, those days are (mostly) gone.
In our contemporary connected world, success is based on collaboration and by working together to find mutually beneficial outcomes. In our society, we are approaching an age where information is approaching universality. That is empowering and demands an adaptive approach if you want to succeed. I know, as a consultant, that my knowledge is not alone enough. What makes a difference is listening to my clients, my colleagues, my friends and family, understanding their perspective and melding my experience and knowledge with their needs.
Every one of us has a rich vein of experiences and knowledge. The best leaders are those who create an environment in which those experiences and knowledge are shared, an environment where the impossible becomes possible by simply turning it around and looking at it from another perspective.
Martin Linsky said ‘No one learns only by staring in the mirror. We all learn—and are sometimes transformed—by encountering differences that challenge our own experience and assumptions.’