This is the second installment in the “Napkin List” series by Luke Disney, Executive Director of North Star Alliance.


Here’s one for the napkin list. It’s a mistake that has something for everyone: industrial espionage, organizational issues and communications. But in the end it’s mainly about culture.

A while ago we learned a hard lesson in one of the countries we operate. We presented an idea at a meeting of like-minded organizations. The body who had asked us to present and who’s patronage we were seeking reacted very positively. Promises to follow up in the days following the meeting. Instead we got silence. Nada. Niets. Niente.

Finally after a couple of weeks of head scratching and hand wringing we learned that other organizations at the meeting had started working with the host of the meeting. They’d effectively run off with our idea.

Now here’s the kicker. Before we attended that meeting a senior member of our team, who is from the country in question, warned us about openly sharing our concept. Her warning went unheeded as the rest of us “out-of-towners” could not conceive of there being any risk. We were talking to colleague organizations, we were all striving for the greater good, it wasn’t their area of expertise and, besides, we weren’t giving away any trade secrets, just presenting an idea. How wrong we were.

You could say that the lesson is listen to the locals, but that misses the real point. Two points, actually. Firstly, our cultural reference framework didn’t allow us to perceive the risk. Secondly, our colleague’s cultural composition didn’t allow her to communicate the risk to us.

I’ve always been somewhat apathetic or even sceptical of cross-cultural communications training. All of our senior execs are seasoned global citizens, we’ve been there and done that. We know when to use two hands to receive a business card, and when to belch after dinner. But despite all this we failed miserably to create a space where a close and trusted colleague could provide us with essential information!

Incidentally we’ve all learned to pointedly ask our colleague for advice before engaging in business development or other strategic activities in that country. But the question remains: how do we structurally create open and effective communications channels in our organization that allows crucial information to safely cross cultural boundaries, percieved or hidden?

CategoryFrom the Office
  1. …and who designs these beautiful napkins? They look cool!

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