Published 2007-05-14

Working with a Chinese team (OK, my particular Chinese team) makes me long for a collaborative work environment like you wouldn’t believe. All my attempts to enliven the office environment have launched like lead balloons. Exhortations to share music, make lunch dates, meet daily: tried them all, but none of it sticks. We sit, all six of us, in stony silence except when some work-related action is required. Is this just my particular failing as a boss-man? I know I’m not the best at it, but I don’t remember being this bad at the rah-rah boss-stuff when I was an Art Director.

Today it hit a horrible nadir. I’m laboring mightily to rebuild PortsInternational.com, the website for the China-only brand. Unlike the nascent redesign for PCDStores.com (AKA “Printemps China Department Stores”), I want to involve my team in the effort. (With PCDStores.com I got greedy and am simply doing the entire thing myself, with a little translation help from the content manager.) Moreover, we want to add online shopping to the site, and as we already have some shopping code for Ports 1961, I figured we should build ports-intl.com with the same technology and leverage a little of that past work. So that means working in JSP/JavaBeans/Struts, stuff I’ve never done before.

Because I don’t know a JavaBean from a cockroach, I’m really dependent on the team, and thus my frustration. In other (i.e. “collaborative”) situations this is where you rely on your team. “Hey guys, what do you think is the best way to do this?” Such an attitude does not fly here. Around here, Laoban is supposed to have all the answers. After all, he’s the boss. If he didn’t know how to, for example, internationalize an e-commerce website using JSP/JavaBeans/Struts, well then obviously no one knows how to do it and it is ipso facto impossible. I probably don’t need to describe how this might not be a particularly productive or speedy development environment.

All of which would be less of an issue if I had a coworker who both a) knew something about building websites and b) was willing to have a conversation about how to do it. My designers and developers all, to varying degrees, have (a), but precious few of them have (b). This is where working in a First World context has spoiled me, obviously. In a North American office, a collective knowledge gap becomes an opportunity (“Great! We get to learn something new!”). In China (at least the 30 square meters of China in my immediate vicinity), it’s an immovable barrier.

On my best days Art Directing at Curiosity or User Experience Designing Seniorly at ID, I felt sometimes like I was designing by proxy using the minds of my colleagues. Riffing, I suppose. This flowed in no small measure from a tacit assumption I have always had: that everyone I work with is at least as smart, and capable, and motivated as I am. It is soooo tempting to turn that assumption backwards when working with my team here at Ports. I have the uncomfortable suspicion that therein lies the key to business success in China.