Throughout his long career, Kenneth Chin, now the Chief Product Officer for Seek Asia, has worked with and led product teams around the world, including the US, UK, Australia, and across Asia. In this talk from Mind the Product Singapore he shares some of the cultural differences he’s experienced between East and West and how we can learn from those differences to build better Product teams and careers.
Ken started with a history lesson, laying the core foundations for the cultural differences between East and West at the feet of two philosophers who lived over 2,500 years ago. In the West, Socrates laid the foundation for the scientific method, which embraces conflict and encourages us to challenge ideas. In the East, the Confucian philosophy embraces much of the opposite – respect for your elders, social harmony, and learning by example. So in order to thrive in teams and organisations in Asia, it’s important to realise that they span the two cultures, and that you’ll face some interesting challenges:
1. Conflict Avoidance
This is one of the core behaviours in many individuals and teams across Asia, and it can have interesting effects. There are many cultural norms that allow you to avoid conflict – from it being seen as rude to disagree with someone in public to the silence that follows any emotional outburst in a meeting. Even Ken, who has spent most of his career in the West, says that he falls into these patterns too. But it can have a detrimental effect on the development of teams. In Bruce Tuckman’s forming–storming–norming–performing model of group development, conflict avoidance can prevent teams from getting past those initial Storming phases into the growth patterns of Norming and Performing. As we’ve seen from recent research around psychological safety, some conflict is actually necessary for high-performing teams, so how can we embrace it?
It starts with having a few people in the team who aren’t afraid of the conflict, and who have the courage to take on difficult conversations. And there are some great techniques to get through conflict like Disagree and Commit, which lets you articulate why you disagree but allow you to commit and proceed anyway. Ultimately the Socratic method can win through, because evidence is the best way to resolve difficult conflicts of opinion. By using techniques like this, we can reframe conflict as a positive energy for creativity.
2. Being an Introvert
Ken describes himself as the most extroverted introvert you’ve ever met – but that’s because he’s trained himself to be extrovert when he needs to be. And he argues that there tends to be a higher proportion of introverts in Asia – and that their level of introversion is higher too. This means it can be harder for some people to express their ideas and present in front of others – both of which are critical skills to the product craft.
He recommends starting with the book Quiet by Susan Cain which can help you understand your introversion – but also the superpowers that come with introversion.
There is zero correlation between being the best talker and having the best ideasSusan Cain, Quiet
Since being a good communicator is so important in product, Ken also recommends a few ways for getting more comfortable presenting in front of others – from the unorthodox like singing at karaoke or reciting poetry, to the tried and true like Toastmasters and finding your local ProductTank and speaking there.
3. Optimise Your Career for Learning
Finally Ken advises us to optimise our careers for learning as opposed to money or status. It starts with being humble and knowing what we don’t know – and then figuring out where we can learn those things. This is especially challenging in Asia since there are so few experienced product leaders to work for and learn from. It’s also important to find organisations that embrace learning, from internal programs and time, to acceptance of conferences and training that shows that those organisations are willing to invest in their teams.
It’s Not All Bad
Being in Asia is not all bad – Ken reminded us that there are lots of advantages to teams in Asia too. It’s important to remember that the whole concept of Lean came from Asia – from the Toyota Production System. Asian teams also tend to be really sociable, which is great for networking, consensus building, and collaboration. But the advantage that Ken sees most is that there seem to be fewer brilliant jerks – and even the few that are out there, you an always avoid conflict and ignore them!