Culture eats strategy for breakfast

POSTED Sep 28, 2017 BY Alette Vonk

JobnetAfrica has another fantastic guest blogger this week, Alette Vonk. Alette reveals effective solutions when people differ and cultures confuse. I followed a training from Alette in the past and it was extremely useful to me in my career and i'm convinced that her knowledge on how to incorporate culture in your strategy can be very helpful for internationals with a career in Africa. So i hope you will enjoy her insights and have a look at the bottom for a training Alette will be giving in Accra (Ghana) on the 12th and 13th of October.

Do you remember that moment you insulted someone while you didn’t mean any harm? Remember that moment you felt shame because a respectful man was being disrespected? Remember the time when you desperately needed an answer but all you got was an awkward silence or that moment when you decided silence was the best answer while you got aggression in return? We all know these moments; yet some of us recognize some statements better, while other people recognize others. And this is largely influenced by culture.

International companies doing business in unexplored markets with different cultures face some of the world´s toughest conditions due to the high levels of uncertainty and unawareness of the “unwritten” cultural rules.

Such challenges may just cause some unease, petty mistakes and/or laughter. More often than not it causes misunderstanding, frustration, sometimes conflict, ruined relationships and estimates talk of billions of dollars loss every year. It is the management consultant Peter Drucker that said: “Culture eats strategy for breakfast”. Yet, believe it or not, these cultural differences are very often forgotten or downplayed.

The confusion of the matter is that at a certain level all human beings are similar. At the level of human nature all humans have aspirations, hopes, worries, fears and dreams. As a consequence, some business leaders fail to look closely into cultural differences, reasoning ‘We’re all human!’ The idea that business is business, that every human being, in his strife to optimize profits, will make the same ‘objective’ choices, is abundant. Schneider observes that for many managers and management scholars, “Management is management. Management practice is considered to be scientifically engineered and therefore able to transcend national boundaries.” Human nature however, is only one side of the coin. The other side is that the content of these aspirations, hopes, worries, fears or dreams varies widely and have varying effect on management.

A second reason why culture is often overlooked is that the basic assumptions, the basic values of any people, are hard to detect. They are learned very early in life and have become largely unconscious. Most people are hardly aware of their own deep cultural patterns. These are so ‘logical’ to them, that automatically they assume others to think, feel and act in the same way, whether in their personal lives or in professional life.

Finally many of us tend to look at individuals, rather than cultural patterns. Here we find the third trap that may lead to the cultural blind spot. Frequently cultural misunderstandings are interpreted as individual traits: ‘It’s just Jack or Jill that doesn’t understand the matter or doesn’t perform. Or, on the positive side: ‘I have such a good click with my business partner, nothing can go wrong!’

The opposite is true and economic history is covered with examples of missed chances and international failures due to cultural misunderstanding. Getting to know these differences and using them, not only in communication but also in strategic decision making, is key to success these days. Luckily, it is possible to learn and Prof. Hofstede has made a very comprehensible model on culture, which is used all over the world. Cultures differ on a few basic assumptions, translated into graphics like the one below: the difference between the USA and Ghana.

Knowing the cultural dimensions alone is not enough though and Hofstede Insights helps you to translate the model to very practical professional situations as well as strategic decisions.

Come and learn how to incorporate culture in your strategy. There will be a two-day training in Accra, Ghana, on the 12th/13th of October. More information on the first day is given here; the second day is added for free for further understanding and application. For more information contact alette@itim.org.