How to be Doubtful in Chinese?

June 14, 2018 • ILE LAB • Boaz Tamir

This month, I had the privilege of visiting Shanghai, China, to lecture on the topic of “Managing to Invent” at the Chinese Lean Institute’s annual conference.  I opened my talk with an invitation:  I called on the audience to actively use theirs smartphones, take pictures and send me feedback and tell me whether my slides were inspirational or should be improved.

I wasn’t just trying to create a sensation.  I wanted to provide an example of the way in which a developer can engage in an interactive dialogue with his customers by using feedback that is crucial for learning and real-time adaptation of the development process. In addition, instead of being frustrated watching my audience as they surfed on their laptops during my lectures, I thought I could get some real-time, genuine responses to tell me how interested they really were in what I had to say.  As in the process of development that I was describing, I set an OKR formula – Objective towards which I was progressing (In my case: a lecture that would be interesting to the listeners), and I defined Key Results:  1. The number of phones used for the photos; 2. The content of the responses (Plus/like or Delta/need to improve) that I would receive during and after the lecture.

I had a clear answer to both questions, but not within the range that I had defined. On the first measure, many cellphones throughout the room were indeed focused on every slide that I showed.  In some instances, I could see arms held in place for a long time (probably because they were filming video).  The phone cameras provided a positive feedback regarding the interest that the audience had in my lecture.  On the second measure, the result was just as clear:  during the lecture, I received exactly one response – from a foreign guest, the Brazilian head of CIAT, Ceasar Gon, who had lectured just before me.

We Will Do and Then We Will Listen

After my lecture, I asked the many participants who wanted to take a selfie picture with me to send me their responses.  They looked uncomfortable, which, I explained to myself, was because they were shy or because it was difficult for them to express themselves in English.  But they tried to avoid looking at me directly even when I asked for responses in Chinese.  I received the explanation at dinner with one of my hosts: “Don’t expect to get a response.” In traditional Chinese culture, I learned, it is not considered proper to give feedback to a man who is older than you, or to an expert with professional authority.  My thoughts about the contradiction between the goal of innovation and the avoidance of providing disruptive feedback were met with a polite smile.  I had reached a dead end.

I was left feeling dumbfounded about the gap between the intense curiosity and clear hunger to learn among the people that I met and their avoidance of challenging questions and fear of disrupting authority or casting doubt on the existing hierarchy.  I was made aware of the deep gap between the culture of innovation, which is often subversive by its very nature, and conservative culture.  For me, Lean is a scientific method of management based on trial and error, casting doubt, questioning and examining within a learning space, which is a requirement for any new creation.

The Next Alibaba

My friend, a successful entrepreneur, reinforced my feelings. “As long as the Chinese do not translate their ability for innovation and entrepreneurship into activities based on learning through trial and feedback, without fear of questioning authority and hierarchy, the threat that the Chinese will break into the innovation and entrepreneurial market will remain limited.”

From a brief visit to the industrial parks in Shanghai, I realized that the gaps in the innovative abilities and product design when contrasted with the U.S. or Israel are closing quickly.  The question, what will enable the Chinese to develop a new disruptive “strain” and complete with the West’s ability to develop and design products, continues to concern me.  The Communist regime’s “cultural revolution” has left a deep scare on the Chinese people. Will the wave of culture change espouse with entrepreneurship and innovation that began with the exposure to the international market prove itself to be sustainable?  Will the first growth, such as Alibaba, lead to a Chinese model of innovation?

It’s still too early to tell.

Boaz Tamir, ILE.

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