Samuel Udelman
By Samuel Udelman on 17/07/2020 in Environment

Cross-cultural Collaboration: 3 Important Lessons

Our head of overseas operations, Sam Udelman, shares three key lessons for cross-cultural collaboration, from staying flexible to breaking down your own biases.

Technology never ceases to amaze. Advances in many fields are extending our reach farther than ever, enabling us to collaborate with people all over the world to tackle the most pressing problems.

An example of this technology is translation engines, which stand out as the key to unlock otherwise-inaccessible content from documents and websites. These powerful tools help us to sort out everything from cooking ingredients, to the primary components of our products in foreign countries and allowing us to chat with people all around the world.

A mold made out of wooden ribs used to manufacture a 5 by 3 meter fiber-reinforced CCell paddle. With the words

Lessons learnt from working across-cultures

The backbone of collaboration is effective communication and having the same codes (speaking a common language) can get you a long way towards achieving that. A long way but not all the way. There are still a multitude of angles to consider when creating alliances or establishing operations in other countries, some perhaps even more important than speaking the same language.

In my last 4 years working at CCell I have experienced these angles first-hand and they have taught me some core lessons: tackling expectations and misinterpretations; having clarity on the outcome and flexibility on the process; acknowledging interpersonal biases.

Better to be redundant than to be misunderstood

When we decided on our initial market being the Yucatan Peninsula in Mexico, I was spending most of my time between 3D models, engineering drawings, and finite element analysis. However, we were already entering the manufacturing phase of our prototypes for the CCell Wave Energy Converter and I was excited to participate in setting up the operation in Mexico.

Knowing all the components of the system almost by heart, from being in charge of designing several of them, we decided I was in the perfect position for the task. Let alone being the only member of the team (back then) who could speak Spanish, my mother tongue.

Remember, a long way but not all the way. Speaking Spanish definitely proved to be a huge asset but cultural baggage, different word meanings and of course, preconceived ideas constituted the true barriers that needed to be overcome.

Misunderstandings arise from the smallest things. A small example of this is picking the appropriate word to call our devices in Spanish.

When I first translated the word paddle I suggested using the word paleta. This I thought was a perfectly valid representation of the curved composite device that allows us to harvest energy from the sea. However, little did I know that in Mexico paleta is more commonly used to refer to a lollipop. You can imagine the reaction of those first manufacturing shops we visited when I was explaining them that we wanted to build a giant lollipop to generate power from waves.

It is a silly story for sure, but it reminds us that what we want to say and is actually said are two separate things, especially within different cultural contexts.

That is why we now look to support our conversations with as much material as possible; to avoid confusion. A rule of thumb can be that almost every conversation should have at least a list, a table and drawing that accurately convey the ideas discussed in terms of answering the Five Ws (Who, What, When, Where, Why).

Be flexible

Having things clearly stated on paper is really helpful, but ideas just like relationships, are dynamic. So our approaches need to be dynamic too.

We can adapt to a culture but not the other way around. We can have lasting impact on people but cannot expect behaviours to change overnight. Therefore, to carry on the job at descent speed, it is critical to find an appropriate balance between the way we envisage things are going to be and the way things get done by people locally.

We have learnt that such balance may be achieved by focusing on what features of the work are truly essential and what feedback loops can we set in place to ensure we meet our quality standards.

Perhaps the most difficult bit is to accept that you will lose some control over the process. The sooner that fact is accepted, the easier the path will be going forward. That does not mean that we give up control of the outcome. But we do need to ensure that requirements are specified, giving leeway so the final result is not too constrained nor too lenient.

Inspecting the Core of our first wave paddle

Inspecting the Core of our first wave paddle

The development of the mould for our first-generation paddle is an example of this. We wanted to use wooden ribs to recreate the shape of the paddle and the local team supporting us at the time suggested a different idea on how to achieve this. They suggested using a CNC router to cut the contours of the ribs and make manually a series of holes and grooves that allowed them to be assembled as a puzzle. We knew that, in principle, making the moulds this way was probably going to take double the time of our suggested method, and more manpower (4+ days). We decided to cut the ribs using a laser cutting machine instead, which provided the necessary precision for creating the patterns that we needed, all automated. We found a suitable supplier and went for it.

What surprised us was how long it was taking them to deliver. At the end it took not one but two weeks to get the cuts ready. It turns out that the fumes produced by the laser burning resin inside the plywood, restricted our supplier to working for a limited amount of time each day. Hence the delay.

Neither ourselves, the supplier nor the local team thought about this side effect before hand, but what they -the local team- did know was how to get the work done in a reasonable amount of time and fulfilling all essential requirements, i.e. to deliver a mould with the appropriate shape of our paddle.

This tiny example of one process among many, illustrates how it is often better to place the focus on what is truly mandatory and be flexible regarding the path to accomplish it. And to listen to and take on board the experience of your partners.

Biases: the message and the messenger

A fundamental aspect of working within a different culture, is that of inherent biases when communicating with others.

I believe decoupling the message from the messenger is highly beneficial towards getting the most out of any conversation, but this practice requires a lot of discipline and conscious effort to be performed. It is also rarely what ends up happening in reality. We tend to acknowledge first the person who is talking and then whatever that person is saying. The background information we possess on that individual, our opinions and preconceptions about them, often frame our views on their message.

This is not necessarily a bad thing, after all this background information may help simplify the communication by taking advantage of implicit knowledge shared by the parties involved. For instance, If someone has had a recent problem in their personal life you can understand why they are taking inconveniences at work more personally or If a business partner has been undermined before they maybe now be more cautious. However, if most of that background information is effectively filled by unvalidated biases, we may find ourselves speaking the same language, using the same concepts but as if we were in parallel universes. This is especially true when it comes to negotiations, which take place every day in different contexts.

For instance, and perhaps due the fact that we are UK company, on some occasions we have been seen by external parties as the likes of a larger organization. This has often risen the expectations of others related to the scale of our operation, leading to bitter disappointments down the line. We attach some of that responsibility on ourselves too, when failing to accurately describe the scope of our projects and teams.

On our end we have certainly misjudged other companies and partners, sometimes overestimating them and other times underestimating them. In most cases our opinions were heavily biased, and we come out from that by recognizing such biases and reassessing the reality with a less cluttered perception.

Biases are unavoidable, particularly when people from several distinct cultures interact. We have learnt to constantly remind ourselves of that and, whenever possible, invest quality time with the people we work with. Getting to know each other and breaking down barriers can help get our perceptions more in line with their reality.

CCell Wave Paddle under construction in Mexico.

The team in Mexico working on our CCell Wave Paddle (sometimes known as a "lollipop")

Final thoughts

We believe the challenges we face as a global community can be resolved by technology and a common will to do things better. This requires us to reach out to one another, beyond borders, and forces us to collaborate in the best way we possibly can.

Hopefully, some of these ideas can spark further conversations on the topic and will make us more effective collaborators with others, being them at the other side of the world or at the other side of the desk.

A special appreciation call to all the amazing people we have met, worked and continue to work with in Mexico, Bermuda, Dominican Republic, Indonesia, the United States, the United Kingdom and so on. We have learnt quite a bit and have find some good friends along the way. We will definitely be telling more about specific experiences with them in later posts on our blog.

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