Choose Two

Published 2007-05-30

Someone recently asked me for some businessy advice about working in China. Specifically, about team dynamics and the decision-making process. All four regular readers of 大黑狗 can probably guess my opinions on the matter, but this presents a golden opportunity to wrap them all up.

First, the usual disclaimer: this is a huge topic and my experiences are limited. I’ve only been here a year, I work in IT for an apparel company, and Xiamen is kind of in the sticks. All this might be different elsewhere in China and in other industries. Also, China is changing very rapidly. My advice will probably be obsolete in a couple of years.

As for team dynamics and decision-making, I can only offer my experiences:

  • My work is much less collaborative than in the U.S.
  • My Chinese coworkers are uncomfortable doing tasks they haven’t performed previously.
  • A lot of work is “borrowed” from other sources (usually competitors). This is so common that objections to the practice are literally incomprehensible.
  • Many people see their jobs as paying bills, not vocations. Westerners tend to read this as a lack of craftsmanship, personal initiative, or pride of work.
  • The ladder of responsibility is much more hierarchical than at US web companies. I have a boss and I have subordinates. In the US these people would all be my peers.
  • I am called upon to solve many problems that are outside my domains of expertise.
  • I can’t delegate tasks as easily as in the U.S. — I need to break large tasks into many small tasks.
  • The Chinese work ethic favors long hours over efficiency. Doing tasks quickly/with few resources is seen as subverting the need to fill 60-hour, 7-day work weeks.
  • Most decisions require extensive consensus-building.
  • Language barriers flatten conversations; there’s not a lot of horsing around or tangent-chasing. The barrier is easier to cross in writing than in conversation. We frequently write while we talk.
  • Documentation is looked upon as kind of “cute.” I keep a large pad of newsprint on my desk. When we’re working through a problem we’ll map it out in writing. The sheet of paper becomes the only document necessary to start work. p.s. I love this.
  • If I didn’t force them to do so, no one would test anything.

An example is in order:

We’re redesigning a shopping website. Let’s say I want to add a GUI widget that allows users to browse to other products without having to reload the page. I know this can be done but we’re not familiar with the technology.

With a Western team I can propose the solution in a brief or electronic document. A coworker will implement a competent (but probably not perfect) solution from scratch or using open-source libraries. They will see this as an opportunity to grow our collective capabilities. The important part is: I can ask someone else to take on a high-level problem, confident they will return a workable solution. Successive iterations, building on a well-understood codebase, are usually just tinkering and optimizing.

When I propose this to my Chinese team, they roundly denounce it as impossible. I find a competitor’s website that does exactly what I’m proposing. A subordinate copies the code and graphics from the competitor and tries to shoehorn it onto our site; it looks bad and works worse. When I point this out, no one sees the problem. I need to break down the code and research the technology. I divide the solution into many small problem domains (graphics production, different code components) that I then delegate. Throughout this process I must make frequent unscheduled “check-ins” to ensure everyone is actually working on the problem. Successive iterations usually involve trashing large bodies of previous work and starting over.

It’s hard to say one approach is better than the other but, I’m certainly used to working in a certain way. That way involves lots of trust and collaboration, with well-paid coworkers who all regard each other as equals, in a legal/ethical/social universe that punishes sloppiness and intellectual appropriation. In that cultural universe, labor is expensive, so we take great care in what we do and reward ourselves for doing it quickly. But it’s also a cautious universe. Every step is mapped out in some Process somewhere, and requires documentation and foresight. Nothing is impossible but everything is expensive.

In my other cultural universe, the profound cheapness of human labor swamps almost all other considerations. Work gets done off-the-cuff, using templates provided from elsewhere. The consequences for failure have historically been dire, so undertaking a task that may fail could literally mean life or death. Extensive consensus helps dissipate culpability. Everything is cheap and many things are impossible.

There’s an old IT saw that goes: “Fast. Cheap. Good. Choose two.” In the U.S. the two are usually chosen for you; in particular, I have a lot of trouble sacrificing “good” so the only free variable is “do you want it fast or do you want it cheap?” In China, “cheap” is chosen by default, so I have to ask “do you want this good, or do you want it fast?” And since “fast” is usually off the table, that leaves one choice. Which is really hard for my personality (i.e. craftsmanlike).