It was a cold December morning in Stockholm and I stomped my feet briskly while waiting for the bus. When the bus pulled up the woman closest to the door hurried on and I stepped forward happy to follow her. Although I had been oblivious to the loose queue my fellow passengers had formed, I could scarcely miss the angry coughs they directed my way when I boarded before them. Cutting in line — even inadvertently — is a cultural crime in Sweden.
In linear-time cultures like Sweden (or Germany, the US, Japan, or the UK) the emphasis is on doing one thing at a time, in proper order, including mundane but important activities like attending a meeting. Most people share the assumption that a meeting should look like a Swedish line. An agenda is sent out in advance with start time, end time, items to discuss in order and sometimes
for how long. If an attendee tries to “hijack” the meeting by bringing up something not on the agenda, someone is likely to say, “This isn’t scheduled, so let’s take it offline” or “People! A little discipline, please! ” In these meetings you shouldn’t talk to your neighbor at the same time someone else is talking, take cell phone calls on the sidelines or leave the room. As items come up requiring action — as in Sven needs to contact Lotte to get prices from three suppliers — those items get noted down and sent out in a meeting recap so that Sven can make that call and the choice of supplier can be discussed at an “appropriate” pre-scheduled time.
A few weeks after my chilly trip to Stockholm I found myself in New Delhi for a series of meetings about a new training program. India is a highly flexible-time country (as are Saudi Arabia, Brazil, and Nigeria, for example). Our first meeting was properly scheduled. But, about ten minutes in, people in the room seemed to be breaking into sub groups and talking about other important topics that had unexpectedly arisen. Three attendees were huddled together discussing how we could record sections of the new program. Sapna and Rakesh left the room in an animated debate about the seating plan, only to return five minutes later with Varun, who had important technical information to contribute. The main discussion continued simultaneously and action items arose — such as Nitin needs to contact Rishi to assure the date is now 100% finalized. But to my great surprise Nitin picked up the phone right there and then and made the call while the rest of us continued the meeting.
At first I was frustrated. Why weren’t we following a line? Was anything getting accomplished? Why was everyone wasting everyone else’s time? But after a while, I began to see the beauty in the process. At the end of the morning we didn’t need a list of who needed to do what because Nitin had already contacted Rishi, Sapna and Rakesh had already settled the question of seating, and we didn’t need to find out if Varun was available next Tuesday at 3pm, as we had already tracked him down and settled everything then and there. Not everything on the agenda had been handled and some things spilled over to the next meeting, but other unexpected items had been taken care of on the spot in what was now clear to be a completely non-linear yet highly efficient manner.
That evening I had dinner with Rakesh and mentioned my Swedish line analogy for meetings. Rakesh explained, “We are more flexible in India. Perhaps it’s because we grew up in a society where the currency wasn’t stable and governments could change regulations on a whim. But Europeans and Americans are more rigid. Such as your idea that it is important to close one box before opening the next.”
It’s not just India. Most emerging and recently emerged markets value flexibility over linear planning. And that makes perfect sense: when things are changing rapidly, the most successful business people are those who are just as adaptable as the environment around them.
Later, over coffee, I remembered what an Indian student had told me about the “evergreen tree process” of queuing back home. When it is necessary for a line to form some eager individuals will form the initial trunk of a tree. Then, when the trunk begins to look too long, a few newcomers will create their own lines by standing next to, say, the fifth person in the trunk and implicitly suggesting that others line up behind them to form multiple branches. This process continues until you have a human evergreen tree, a single-file trunk of people waiting with enthusiastic branches sprouting and growing on both sides. Perhaps my “queue analogy” for meetings works in India after all.
For the international business person there’s no use in stating which type of culture you prefer or in getting frustrated about other ways of doing things. Of course it’s natural for us to experience our own culture’s style as normal. But, on reflection, we can see that each culture’s approach has advantages and also disadvantages. The great beauty of working across the world is to see the rich and totally different ways that people choose to get things done.