By Steve Kelman
In the globalized world in which we live, it becomes more and more important for all of us to learn more about the ways people in other cultures think. The benefits of doing so are both practical (ranging from being in a better position to sell others the products or services we make to avoiding international misunderstandings that can produce tensions or conflicts) and spiritual (simply appreciating better the diversity of human life and experience). Traditionally separated from Europe, Asia, and Africa by huge oceans and blessed with English, the world’s language, as our mother tongue, Americans haven’t always been great at such learning – we would do well to perform the thought experiment of asking ourselves how people in other countries were likely to react when prominent Americans suggested that Made in China Olympic uniforms be burned.
I am in Singapore for a few days, giving a keynote address at a conference discussing a report developed by the Asian Competitiveness Institute at the Lee Kuan Yew Public Policy School on the comparative competitiveness of 33 Indonesian provinces (my expertise here is on using performance measures such as these to improve government performance). I am the only non-Asian at the conference, so nothing said here is designed for American ears, and I know very little about Indonesia, so my ears have been especially open. (With the participants mostly Indonesians but a number of Singaporeans and some from other countries, the conference language is English, with Indonesian language interpretation – so one sees Indonesians addressing other Indonesians in English, a somewhat strange phenomenon that is actually more common in international settings than you might imagine.)
So what have I learned by listening (and watching)? A lot – here are a few examples just to illustrate:
1) The conference is taking place during Ramadan, and most Indonesians are Muslims. People fast from something like 5 a.m. to a little after 7 p.m., which means most of the Indonesians at the conference are fasting while the conference is taking place. People generally in the Muslim world, it seems, do go to work during Ramadan, though I am told productivity is down. While the conference lunch speaker was speaking yesterday, no food was served, in respect to his observance of Ramadan. An appetizer was served before he arrived, and then the main course after he finished. Somebody told me there has been discussion in the Muslim world about the problems for Muslim athletes of the Olympics taking place during Ramadan.
2) Also on the subject of religious sensitivities, only water was served with conference meals, no wine. I asked a Singaporean whether wine would have been served at a similar conference in Singapore that was not for Indonesians or Malaysians (Singapore’s two predominantly Muslim nearest neighbors), and the answer was yes, wine would have been served. The Singaporean, a senior civil servant, mentioned to me that government officials from these two countries were always very insistent that no wine be served at events in Singapore where they were the guests, but that they were not nearly as insistent when they travelled to the West. Being shown respect by the predominantly Chinese Singaporeans was a very sensitive issue for them, I was told.
3) There were frequent mentions of the European economic crisis by people at the conference, and also clearly a good deal of respect for America’s continuing economic standing in the world – with references such as that “even” the US has been damaged by the worldwide economic crisis (perhaps too kind to us, since the crisis actually began in the US). One speaker, however, did ironically note that after the 1997 Asian financial crisis, the West “lectured” Asia about better governance, but now was suffering from similar problems.
4) I learned a fascinating thing that tells you a lot about policymaking and government in Singapore – apparently the Singaporean government is beginning intently to think about the implications of a possible opening up of Arctic trade routes (due to global-warming induced melting of Arctic ice masses) – at the other end of the world from tropical Singapore – on Singapore. The worry is that this may lead to changes in world trading patterns in a direction away from Singapore, and hurt Singapore’s status as a trade transshipment center. Talk about thinking about the future…..
Posted on Jul 31, 2012 at 7:03 PM2 comments
A theme always on the agenda in one of the classes I teach in executive education programs here at Harvard is the virtues and drawbacks of rules as a way to design organizations. We walk through the good, the bad, the ugly, and the management challenges of managing in a rules-bound organizational environment.
One point that always comes out in discussion is that rules and procedures can help employees figure out how to do their jobs well by reflecting knowledge and lessons learned from experience or from research. If we know that doing A, B, and C will almost always produce a good result, why keep A, B, and C secret from employees?
I illustrate this by showing a visual of a box of Betty Crocker brownie mix. Betty Crocker doesn’t just give you the mix and leave it to you to figure out how to make good brownies. Based on research at the Betty Crocker kitchens, they tell you to add an egg, a half cup of water, preheat the oven to 375, and bake for 8 minutes. Why should we ask people to re-invent the wheel?
The example is meant to start a discussion, and this year it started a very interesting one among a group of Senior Executive Service civil servants, general officers, and about half the class from outside the US. The instructions on the mix are a good starting point, one participant (who is, by coincidence, a senior contracting official in a major contracting organization) noted. But a good cook will use this as a baseline, a minimal level of quality, and adapt based on their own initiative to improve the brownies from there – adding coconut or other flavorings, experimenting with softness or hardness levels, and so forth. Another participant noted that a good company may give several alternative recipes for different tastes, and allow the user to choose among them.
Needless to say, this conversation was not really about making brownies. The challenge for rule-bound government organizations is that, as the management professor Henry Mintzberg has noted, in a rule-bound organization, rules set up to establish a minimum standard of performance often come to be seen by employees as the only things they need to do to do their job – that nothing more is expected. This same official said the challenge for government managers is to encourage employees to use the rules as a base, but use their heads to figure out how they should be supplemented in particular cases. She noted that often she tries to upset people’s mindsets by asking “why are we doing this,” and not accepting “we’ve always done it this way” as an answer.
It is also useful to draw a distinction, as a number of participants did, between rules that set the outer boundaries of acceptable behavior – integrity, ethical, legal, or safety issues – versus those that are giving advice about how to do a job better. In my view, the former need to be compulsory. An employee has no discretion to decide they would like to take a bribe. The latter generally should be guidance only, with a cultural expectation that they should be used when helpful, otherwise not necessarily.
Posted on Jul 27, 2012 at 7:03 PM1 comments
In recent blogs, I have suggested a number of ideas for specific ways to improve the procurement system – one is a way to encourage small businesses who currently don’t sell to government to enter the federal marketplace
and the other is a way to encourage contractors on fixed-priced contracts to share some of their cost savings
on those contracts with the government. I made these two suggestions in fairly rapid succession partly because I actually think that both are, on balance, good ideas that would improve the procurement system – but also as a way to encourage others in the system to get their thinking caps on and come up with ideas of their own. With the importance of government contracting, and the current budget environment, the procurement system can use good ideas for improvement.
The reaction to both suggestions from blog commenters was mixed. Fine. However, I would like in a generic way to respond to at least some of the comments by the critics, because I believe my perspective provides some guidelines for how we ought to think about new policy ideas in general.
First, and most importantly, when evaluating a new idea, the standard against which it should be judged is not nirvana – few ideas have no disadvantages or downsides – but in comparison with problems the status quo creates. The correct question is always, “Compared to what?” If an idea has problems, tote these up against problems with the way things work now.
Second, Teresa Amabile at Harvard Business School did some fascinating research a number of years ago where she presented different groups of experimental subjects a book review. The versions were almost identical, but one group got a version with critical or negative adjectives, while the other read a version using favorable or positive adjectives. She found that subjects who read the version with critical words rated the review as more insightful and the reviewer smarter than did the subjects who read the same review with favorable words. She labeled what she discovered as “negativity bias,” and it may be hard-wired in people. People may feel smarter if they can come up with criticisms.
It was interesting to see that one critic of my ideas on the use of past performance
for cost savings on fixed-price contracts idea rejected the proposal arguing that it would have no effect on contractor behavior, while another rejected it believing it would terrify contractors into submission to the government. Maybe those reading the comments think those writers are smart, but obviously that doesn’t necessarily produce useful policy or management dialogue.
Lastly, although I recognize the blogosphere is not known as a font of gentle or respectful language, some of the expressions used in some of the comments were, I think, problematic. I am a big boy: I can take it when a commenter writes “a three percent 'kickback' for future work sounds a bit like payola to me” or “I cannot tell you how awful I think the ‘fee’ return idea is. Truly awful.”
But this kind of language can bully or intimidate people from presenting new ideas, particularly if those with the new ideas are young or in a junior position compared to the person using words such as these. This kind of language in organizations or teams is an enemy of useful deliberation about ideas, and it is an excellent way to discourage new ideas from being presented in the first place. Younger or lower-ranking people, in a world of this kind of rhetoric, are likely just to say to themselves, “Why bother?” and return to their cubbyholes. This is exactly what government does not need.
Posted on Jul 17, 2012 at 7:03 PM9 comments