Hi everyone, long-time reader of Core77 here. Core77’s community has been so helpful to me over my decade-long design career that I thought I should give back a little. So I’m inviting everyone to ask me questions—any questions related to being a designer in China vs. the US, working environments, design methodologies/philosophies, etc.—and I’ll answer them to the very best of my abilities, honestly and openly. Even if you hadn’t thought of Asia before or have no plans to ever step in Asia, I encourage you to be curious and inquire about design on the other side of the world.
(Moderators: Since I’m opening this up to those who aren’t necessarily interested in the specific topic of Asia but rather how design works in different parts of the world, I thought this would be more helpful in the General Discussion section. Hope this is OK.)
Just to give you a little bit of background:
I am an American designer;
I’ve worked at in-house studios, independent design studios, and as a freelancer;
I was sent to Shanghai, China as an expatriate to serve as a Design Manager;
I work for a multi-billion-dollar, Fortune 500 company;
My work encompasses industrial design, package design, branding, and design strategy.
I’ll try to answer questions as long as the topic is active.
Do you work for a Chinese or American boss? Discuss about differences, challenges etc.
How much creative freedom do you have under your management? Chinese style of a “guru” boss or a more western approach of a “coach” boss?
How big is your organisation and how do you communicate? How is the cross-cultural team-work working out?
What’s your standard of living? Do you feel like you’re upper class super rich person in China, or would you actually be better off financially home in US, all things considered.
Have you freelanced in China or only worked for the F500 company? If yes - how is design valued among Chinese companies? How much are they willing to pay for it, and do they see it as a good business investment?
These are a few quick ones off the top of my head. Will think of more later.
1. Do you work for a Chinese or American boss? Discuss about differences, challenges etc.
A: I respond to both American and Chinese bosses, but in different ways. I directly represent the U.S. office—so on broader, strategic issues I am sometimes a bit of a “mouthpiece” for the U.S.—but I also must consider the input of high-level executives in the Greater China regional offices. After all, the latter are the most familiar with the market. The key criteria for solving differences of opinion—and there are many—is understanding which of them are personal, political, or simply symptoms of inexperience or complacency. Being able to discern that is equal parts my own work experience in the U.S. and also my cultural experience built up from just living and working in China. I’m also lucky that it’s understood that I’m a “foreigner”, so my Chinese colleagues give me a certain level of trust and respect—even those whose titles are technically higher than mine—whereas if I were “local” then I would be more subject to the rigidity of the typical Chinese hierarchal structure.
2. How much creative freedom do you have under your management? Chinese style of a “guru” boss or a more western approach of a “coach” boss?
A: I have quite a bit of creative freedom on a day-to-day basis, in terms of art directing designers and creative agencies. Of course, I’m still responsible for making sure that the work satisfies our internal U.S. standards, for which my American directors would give me input. I definitely have a more American, “coaching” style of management, but from time to time, I have to resort to the more dictative, Chinese style of management. The reason for the latter is primarily because of designers’ inexperience. As a result of the more top-down educational structure and the client-agency relationship in China, designers here tend to be more passive and more risk-adverse. So, on the one hand, I try to be as much of a mentor as possible and encourage them to think more on their feet; but on the other, if there are things that will simply take a lot of practice to get right and time is of the essence, then I’ll resort to dictating the changes or even take on the design work myself.
3. How big is your organisation and how do you communicate? How is the cross-cultural team-work working out?
A: My company has several thousands of employees in China—this is typical of large, multinationals with a big stake in China—so I really interact with a tiny percentage of the entire company. But that still numbers in a few dozen. I manage several brands, and each brand has its own marketing, sales, and engineering teams with whom I work. It’s really interesting, too, to see how different each brand and team can be, simply because of the personality of its upper-most director. The cross-cultural teamwork has been quite good, but I also happen to be fluent in Chinese. Communications would be much more difficult and time-consuming if I were not, and I witness misunderstandings all the time—even if everyone was speaking in, what is to Americans, very plain English. Connotations of words can vary wildly depending on the person, so I try to remind my American colleagues to use more basic terminologies (and avoid marketing speak, such as “aligning” or “from a … perspective”) and speak in shorter, more complete sentences. In China, I also think it’s much more efficient to talk in person; people tend to take you more seriously. And you really have to observe their facial expressions, body language, etc. to get a good feel for where they stand on a particular issue—it’s often very different from what they verbalize. Whereas in the States, I can take more for granted that I can have email exchanges and be relatively sure that we’re having an honest, open conversation. Finally, I ALWAYS summarize meetings (i.e. conference calls or in-person discussions) with a follow-up email; it serves as both a “check-to-make-sure-we’re-talking-about-the-same-things” but it also holds everyone in the discussion accountable for his/her deliverables.
4. What’s your standard of living? Do you feel like you’re upper class super rich person in China, or would you actually be better off financially home in US, all things considered.
A: Shanghai was just named (I forget the source) the most expensive place to live in Asia for an expatriate (or “expat”, for short). The main factor here is your personal living standards back home. If, say, you ate only organic foods—which is widely available in the States—then you’re looking at a very expensive grocery list. If you’re willing to go “local”, then it can be very cheap. But then you have to be more careful of the quality. This goes for all other aspects of living: housing, transportation, etc. For example, an electric Vespa knock-off scooter is $500 USD, but the license plate (which is limited in quantity and must be bid for at auctions) for a passenger car costs over $20,000 USD. I have a salary that would be considered high to locals, but I don’t consider myself “upper class”, since Shanghai is filled with many TRULY rich Chinese folks. Subjectively, I think my quality of life was higher in the States, but I have also saved more money by working in China. All that being said, Shanghai is very likely the easiest place in China for a foreigner to live.
5. Have you freelanced in China or only worked for the F500 company? If yes - how is design valued among Chinese companies? How much are they willing to pay for it, and do they see it as a good business investment?
A: I’ve also freelanced in China—mainly to keep my mind fresh. Design, in short, is highly trendy but grossly misunderstood and undervalued in China. Every company knows design is important as a competitive advantage, but they also qualify very poor work as design, so the monetary and strategy values assigned to design are very low. There are many reasons for this. First, design is a relatively new phenomenon in China, having come to the forefront in the minds of most businesses only in the past decade or so. Second, design is taught in thousands of colleges in China, but there’s a huge gap in the quality of teaching versus the west. So there are hundreds of thousands, if not millions of “designers” out there, offering “design services” on the cheap and most clients can’t tell the difference between good and bad design. Third, the rapid pace and turnover of the consumer market in China forces most businesses to constantly stay “new”. We are talking about being able to push out new ads and TV commercials within DAYS of a new social trend, or an entire product lineup redesign within a couple of months. Small businesses rise and fall by the hundreds every day. Add in consumers who are often brand-conscious but not brand-loyal and a business culture that still depends heavily on word-of-mouth, and you have tremendous downward pressure on design being “of the moment” and less about building long-term brand strategies. So yes, all companies want “innovative” designs, but design as a profession/service is mostly treated as a market trend-driven commodity. The relatively few exceptions are foreign multinationals (such as my employer) and some large local players, who are willing to spend on more well-known, international branding and creative consultancies. But, again, these consultancies are drawing from a limited pool of truly good designers, so the quality of work is often more “miss” than “hit”.
1. You say you speak fluent Chinese - how come? Did you know it before you moved to China or picked it up when there?
A: I picked up Chinese through my parents, who are immigrants to the U.S. over 30 years ago. I later improved significantly through Chinese friends and, of course, living in China. But having that constant exposure in my youth was really the key for me, I believe.
2. Roughly how old are you? 25-30; 30-35; 35-40? How long have you been in China by now? Do you have any plans to return to the States?
A: I’m in my mid-30s and have been in China/Asia, on and off, for about 8 years of my life. My latest stint for work has lasted 2 years, but I return to the U.S. a few times a year to “recharge” mentally. I don’t really plan out far ahead, career-wise, because I think it keeps me on my toes and focused on enjoying the moment. My personal belief is that a focus on career-building actually takes a bit of the “soul” out of being a designer. Being kind of a “nomadic designer” has worked out for me personally, since most of my best jobs have come without warning. As an alternative to Steve Job’s “Stay Hungry, Stay Foolish”, I just try to stay both naive and open-minded, with a kick of stupid courage once in a while.
3. Do you have a family? If yes - how is everything working out with kids, schools etc…
A: Yes, I do. It’s not easy, but it helps to frame “a career in another country” within the perspective of “hey, we’re still young, we should spend our lives exploring and absorbing new experiences, rather than sitting as a desk.” (No offense to any desk-bound designers, it’s just that I’ve already done that for many years.) So it’s not really about building a career or finding the best school in the neighborhood, but rather designing a life you want to live. That’s what I’m doing now. But I do count my lucky stars that I have a supportive family.
4. Is your company American or Chinese owned, technically.
A: My employer is headquartered in the U.S. and is considered to be an American company.
5. Is your company American or Chinese at heart? I mean if you told me your brands, where would I place them?
A: My employer is “American at heart”, with the vast majority of its portfolio being American in origin. However, it also owns numerous local brands in different markets around the world.
6. Can you give a hint about what category it is? Consumer electronics, athletic, or something else? How many new products are launched in a year? 1-5; 5-25; 25-100; >100?
A: My employer has brands mostly in the category of personal care. We launch dozens of products a year, but many are simply different offerings within a single platform or brand.
7. Do you have any advise for someone looking into a Design position at a Chinese company, but at a design office in a western country?
A: I’m not personally familiar with Chinese companies that set up studios in a western country, but I have anecdotal stories from friends who are directly involved. The biggest challenge for Chinese companies in the U.S., my friends tell me, is balancing their trust in the way things are done in China versus how things are done in the West. I completely believe this. For example, a Chinese electronics company I know is setting up a studio in Silicon Valley, where the technology sector is very mature and “design thinking” as a methodology is widely used. Those are in massive contrast to the way technology has worked in China—that is, take a proven platform/technology, tweak it until it’s suitable for the lowest common denominator (read: pretty good for everyone), and then sell it en masse. That doesn’t work in the U.S. if you want to be a leader in your category. But if you have mid- and high-level executives from China leading the studio, it’ll be hard to shake off the pre-established corporate culture. The good news is that many Chinese companies have already tried and failed at this before; those who are still trying or trying for the first time have learned from their mistakes and are more willing to bring in foreigners to run the studios. So, you will see studios that are probably more like start-ups in structure—for better or for worse, depending on what you’re looking for. But my gut feeling is that the heavily results-driven corporate culture of China (rather than the more innovation-driven culture of California) will always be a constant, just in varying degrees, and you’ll continue to see high turnovers in personnel and talent. The similarity between western companies in China and Chinese companies in the west? They all still got a long way to go.
This is really hit or miss. Unless you’ve actually been a product developer or related position in China, you won’t believe the amount of work that goes into validating the quality of manufacturers—or any vendors for that matter—in China. We’ve all heard about quality issues of China, so I won’t beat a dead horse here.
I can, however, talk about what it’s like to deal with my employer’s vendors in China, who have all been extensively vetted by our internal procurement teams. Fortunately, everyone I’ve worked with from Shanghai to Beijing to Suzhou to Shenzhen have been friendly, professional, and eager to please. I know that’s not always the case, but we have good suppliers. Anyways, a list of insights:
Vendors/suppliers have to be constantly checked, no matter how reputable/consistent they are or have been.
The high turnover of personnel can mean great quality one week and terrible the next. As more tier-2, -3, and -4 cities in the China interior start to develop, less migrant workers are willing to travel out to coastal cities such as Shanghai to find work. This means manufacturers are literally fighting over workers, offering them high pay that’s unheard of even 5 years ago. But this has the downside of workers jump ship to other companies in as short as time as 2, 3 months. So hands-on knowledge and experience (e.g. working with and maintaining massive machinery) don’t get transferred and quality can drop very quickly without notice. This is extra important if your particular product involves critical industry secrets (e.g. Apple), since you really need to stay on top of any news leakage.
Having a great relationship with a vendor is key.
That means, as a client, you need to resist your own internal pressures for cost-cutting on the manufacturing side. If you keep asking your vendor to cut prices while their labor costs are soaring, you can’t expect to get the best people on the job. On the other hand, if you are respectful to the vendors and show them that you are willing to go out of your way to make things easier for them—by sending representatives who really know what they’re talking about to communicate with the vendors or designing to their capabilities, for example—then they will most likely return the favor and make sure that even when they have an “talent drain”, they’ll allocate the remaining best people to you.
It pays to speak Chinese.
I can’t emphasize this enough. Again, many, if not most, of the people working at these manufacturers are what we call “migrant workers”, meaning they are natives of distant (read: likely poorer) cities and provinces. They won’t speak a lick of English, so you’re wholly dependent on the translation skills of the vendor’s client service manager or of someone on your own team. This hasn’t even included misunderstandings stemming from strong local accents. Even when you are using profession-specific terminology, it’s hard to decipher if the translator is saying it correctly. For example, the Chinese word for “bright” can mean a lighter shade, less ink, a more saturated color, or even just a higher surface polish. You really need to know what you’re talking about, both in terms of design intention and the nuances of the technology being implemented; otherwise, you won’t get the results you want.
Try to be there in person for discussions and reviews.
For basically the reasons stated above. I think most designers who have communicated with vendors over the phone knows that nothing beats being there in person. This is doubly true for China and if you don’t speak the same language. You’d be amazed how often scribbling on a piece of paper can be more universal than talking. If you’re trying to save on travel costs, then you’re not investing enough, because this will bite you in the end.
Beware of subcontracting
Aside from constantly checking the quality of the goods you’re ordering, you should also check to see if your contractor is subcontracting the work to someone else. This is hard to verify, but unfortunately subcontracting is a common practice, especially if you’re a small client and your orders aren’t large or consistent. And so, the vendor you’ve contracted may have done a good job on the samples, but then when you see the production parts, the quality can suffer because it was actually done by someone else. Again, without a good relationship, this is something you simply won’t be able to prove nor pursue legally. (On a side note: if you’ve seen how contractors can game you in China, you will understand why Apple has to have the kind of control that it has over their vendors. There’s just no way you can ensure over 99.9% quality consistency without literally OWNING that production line.)
So basically, money speaks. If you happen to know that you’ll be putting down large orders on a consistent basis, you have much more leeway in terms getting the kind of quality you need (e.g. you can literally put in your contract that you will only pay for parts that are within x tolerances, which both parties have to agree to).
Always ask for a sample first. You’ll probably need to pay for that sampling, but it’s worth the money. I know it’s not necessarily representative of the subsequent pieces, but at the very least, you’ll have a reference to use to push for better quality later on. Assuming the sample is correct and to your satisfaction, make sure you bring that to your meetings every time—you won’t be able to win any verbal arguments, but if you have something physical (“Just make every piece just like this.”), that’ll be your trump card. I’ve had clients who wanted to skip the sample stage, because the vendor wanted to charge a large fee for it, but then the final production quality is mediocre (to the clients’ surprise, no less, but they really had no one to blame but themselves), so the clients basically paid even more money for useless products that they couldn’t sell or have to use to the detriment of their brand image.
Make sure you have an accurate Chinese version. That’ll be the only one that’s valid—the English one is not valid and should be considered “for your own benefit” only. Sure, you can take your chances and simply bet that the vendor will make the pieces right the first time, but if not, you won’t have any recourse and all the money you have spent will be considered sunk.
Made—and checked—in the U.S.A.
Having had personally flown to China for personal projects in the past, my general recommendation for American start-ups, entrepreneurs—basically anyone who’s not a big company or who doesn’t have the large financial resources—is to invest in having a small, initial batch of your products made in the States. Yes, the piece cost may be high, but you will have several advantages:
You will be able to control the quality much more and test for the unexpected;
This will save you time and resources down the road.
You’ll have the key “sample” with which you can use for your vendors once you ramp up production—that is, if you decide to go overseas.
Don’t expect to resolve issues at the manufacturing site; your flexibility at that point will be limited. Make sure you get real-world issues ironed out as much as you can before going to China for large-scale manufacturing.
Gift-giving is still commonplace, but my personal recommendation is to skip it. If you come across a vendor who expects gifting just to get a business, it’s better to move onto someone else, because there’ll always be someone who can gift more and put you at a disadvantage. Next thing you know, you’re spending more money on the gifting than on the product itself—just to get the product itself. It’s a black hole. Once you’ve gotten a business contract down, however, gifts are ok as a sign of appreciation; just don’t overdo it. Again, maintain good relationships and cut your losses with bad ones.
Just want to chime in with appreciation for your candidness, DesignerInShanghai. I wasn’t nearly as high, position-wise, as you and don’t speak much Mandarin, but a lot of what you say, sounds awfully familiar. Thanks for paying it forward!
Thanks for the kind words, holtag. I see lots of the same cross-cultural issues pop up in my line of work, whether it’s designers, developers, marketers, or executives coming from abroad. The underlying gaps are generally not specific to a particular profession, but rather due to the different social, political, and philosophical pathways that exist in the “east” and “west”. It’s probably a good time to explain a bit…
Generalizations are helpful for finding your own truths
These are certainly broad generalizations, but I think they’re still valid. It’s not unlike driving: you must first understand the day-to-day rules, street signs, how a car feels, how to turn a steering wheel at the right rate, brake smoothly and abruptly, use the gas pedal, how to visually assess distance/speed, avoid moving and still obstacles, maintain road etiquette, etc. When you advance to driving off-road in a 4x4 or on a track with a race car, then you will find certain road rules don’t apply but some still do—mainly your ability to anticipate and navigate through a course. Learning about generalizations is not about stereotyping; it’s about preparing you for the specific challenges that you will undoubtedly meet, and through which you will find your own ways to resolve them.
Explore differences, find commonalities. Without losing your self
Furthermore, I’ve observed many expats—not simply visitors, but those who work here—have a hard time adjusting, because the shock of China is almost always more than they had expected. And nothing really changes, despite the constant building and rebuilding of the physical environment. And these people may never truly adjust—just like I still have my own challenges adopting to life here—but what really helps maximize their time and personal development here is being mentally prepared. Being OPEN. And not be bounded by the eternal surprise that the Chinese don’t, in fact, think or behave like westerners. But at the same time, being prepared is also about being honest about and staying true to who you are, so that some of the negative aspects of the culture (as all cultures are wont to have) won’t rub off on you. (Funny story: I have had several western friends who’ve returned to the States and one of the first things that they experienced was getting yelled at by other drivers.) As designers and creatives, we owe it to ourselves to explore our differences with others and find our commonalities, but also not lose sight of who we are.
Anyone who’s interested in expanding their social knowledge should pick this up. It’ll help you open up your designer’s mind, even if you don’t ever plan to go to China. I promise.
Will pick up the book for sure. How I love ebooks - I just got to in to work and a free sample is already on my kindle at home
Forgive me if this next question offends you in any way - my intention is completely opposite. You say you learned Chinese from your parents who are immigrants, I assume from China? Which means in China you likely look Chinese to anyone who doesn’t know you. So the question is: do you experience any (relevant) differences in attitudes when meeting with vendors/factories when you are in a group of “foreigners”, or when you are “undercover”? How much “foul play” should one be cautious off?
I was recently introduced to the concepts of “monochronic” and “polychronic”, which means doing one thing at a time or many, west vs east. As a manager, how do you lay out your projects and time plans dealing with both worlds?
I actually feel that Polychronic describes the design process quite well. Designers are probably notched somewhere in the middle ground (again).
Another eye-opener for me when dealing with Confucianism culture, was when I was told that western communication is: State your opinion → motivate opinion with facts. Whereas eastern communication is usually: give all the context, facts, options → state opinion. This leads to long talks that never seem to get to the point, and westerns lose patience. Also explains why when you ask an English speaking manager a simple yes/no question → he speaks to a technician for 10 min → finally replies to you “Yes.” (which actually means “no”).
Can you verify this?
Engio, no offense taken! It might sound funny, but your looks—literally, where you look like you come from—will set very first tone for any business or social interaction in China. But it’s not just being racially aware; it more than that, which I’ll get to in a moment. I’ll answer your questions in two parts; this will be easier for anyone who’s following this.
Know how you are seen
Many Chinese can immediately pick up that I’m, at the very least, not a mainlander from looks alone. So they’ll ignore me if I’m with foreigners (more on that later). But I speak Chinese fluently enough such that, when they hear me talk, most people will then think that I’m simply from elsewhere in China. Which, to your question, gives me: 1) the advantage of them being more honest with me (Chinese to Chinese, all else being equal), and 2) a slightly more bit of respect that they usually reserve for foreigners (because I look like a foreign-educated or lived-abroad Chinese). The key is knowing how you’re seen by the Chinese. Ask your local friends what their first impression of you is, or have locals guess your country of origin, age, and personality (don’t get offended) when you meet them for the first time. Laugh it all off, but remember what they said.
When I’m part of a group of foreigners, I’m first assumed to be secondary to them—which means I’m mostly ignored—and the foreigners are assumed to be of higher positions than I am. I’m totally OK with this, because it allows me to be quiet and observe their interactions with my colleagues for a while. By doing so, I can usually identity who the real decision makers are, which gives me an advantage later on. And believe me: if they’re working with you for the first time, they likely will send a junior “manager” to you (the title will sound great, though). The best thing to do is ask to go see the machines; the head foreman is likely to be there rather than in the meeting room anyway. You will talk more but won’t get too far, but take this time to observe the people in the room. The head foreman will likely be older than everyone else and quiet. The junior people, on the other hand, will be the ones who keep talking but are giving vague answers, because 1) they don’t really know what they’re talking about, or 2) they want to reduce their efforts so they preemptively tell you everything you want is too hard to do. Don’t fall for it; keep asking until someone new chimes in. This is usually the head foreman because he couldn’t stand discussing the same things over and over again. And this is when I jump in with a “Great, let’s try what he just said.” The vendor’s people will tense up because they didn’t realize that I had been able to understand everything and that I’m actually the decision maker.
So now I know who the real manager is, and he also knows that he no longer has a junior “wingman” to shield him. But it’s very important that, at this moment, I put them at ease with a very friendly chat about how I appreciate all their hard work and that we know we have the best vendors in the business, etc. Why? Because they will realize that I’m not the kind of person who will take advantage of them when they’ve been “exposed”; and that I actually just want everyone to pitch in and get the job done as quickly and as correctly as possible. Basically, if they help me, I can help them. And so—FINALLY—I, the decision maker on the client side, and the vendor’s own decision maker, are face-to-face and discussing the issues with efficiency. The best part? I get someone who knows what he’s doing on my project.
Is this a complicated song-and-dance? Yes. But you also have to realize that Chinese vendors often have the sleaziest, the most unprofessional, and the most unreasonable clients. They HAVE to put up a shield; be on the defensive; and be leery of the kind of people they’re dealing with. It’s not laziness (well, it’s not FULLY laziness.) It’s just part of doing business in China. Meanwhile, I’m here to get things done—not at any cost, but with a certain level of respect to everyone who’s involved. But they don’ t know that I’m a good client right off the bat; I need to prove it.
Forget foul play or going undercover. Just be professional
The foul play reputation of Chinese vendors is something that I understand and am aware of, but I never assume it. I think it just sets people off on the wrong foot. The Chinese are very good at observing your body language, your tone of voice, and your demeanor (kind of like how I do the same above); if you’re giving off strongly defensive aura, they’ll do the same and be extra reserved and unwilling to take risks. Because you might just be that client who will try to wriggle out of any payment because you’re not “satisfied”. I don’t do that. I go into and leave the meetings professionally. I might stay quiet at first, but I don’t hide anything. I ALWAYS thank the factory workers in front of their managers for their hard work before and after I go to the factory. I fight for their lunch breaks (I’ve literally told the foreman, “I want them to have their 1/2-hour break, because I want happy people to be working on this. I don’t want to see them back here until it’s 1pm. Everyone heard that, right?”) It’s over-the-top courtesy, perhaps, but it’ll pay off later.
Stand by your personal standards
Like I’ve said in an earlier post, the vast majority of factory workers are migrant workers. That means they’ve left their homes and families for better pay. They will see their wives/husbands, parents, and children maybe 1 week out of the year, traveling hours upon hours on trains and buses during Chinese New Year to head back home. They’ve literally put their lives on the line to do the work we need them to do. So I see them as equals, if not greater than those of us who get to sit in air-conditioned rooms with great pay.
As such, I don’t allow unprofessionalism on my side representing the company I work for. In fact, I’ve directly requested (and gotten) the termination of agencies or the expulsion of their head honchos from ALL future meetings because they crossed the line of unprofessionalism. You’d be surprised how many people are full of themselves when they’ve landed a big client like my company. I don’t mind taking pride in your work (as you should), but I do mind if you think you’ve earned the right to step on other people’s heads. That also means that I don’t allow people on my team—lower or higher—to ever demean the vendors. If they do, I report it to their superiors within 24 hours. In fact, what I dislike the most is probably foreigners who obviously left their sense of decency and professionalism back home, because they think that they don’t need to have it in China. I don’t accept that and I know my superiors in the U.S. won’t accept that, so I maintain the same expectations of the people I work with, in or out of China. This way, I get terrible people off my team and I have vendors who are willing to go the extra mile for me because I’m sympathetic to their challenges. Yes, I’m easy to work with, but I also uphold high professional and personal standards. And you know what? I get the same level of respect back, top to bottom.
Fundamentals of Eastern and Western thinking
The book I recommended will explain a lot of this—I can’t possibly cover everything here. Basically, the western way of thinking—tracing back to ancient Greek philosophers—is primarily focused on singularity (not the physics theory), thus giving rise to our understanding and exploration of causes and effects. Our ability to focus also gives us the clarity we need to pursue the various sciences, because we are able to trace through sequential iterations and logical framework to find an answer. We also have the system of argument (also a Greek invention), which promotes the exchange of different, objective ideas. In general, most scientific advancements and discoveries have been developed in the west. The downside to that is our habit of ignoring other factors when determining the source/cause of an event. You will see this kind of polarity of thought in criminal investigations (“he killed him because…”), politics (“he is conservative/liberal”), and other aspects of western society. We’re quick to jump to familiar conclusions, but we are also generally willing to challenge assumptions.
The east—particularly China—subscribes to the thinking that everything is connected. In reality, that is actually often the case; the cause of, say, the extinction of an animal may be a combination of many factors, even if one of them is the primary culprit. The Chinese are much more inclined than Americans to accept multiple explanations and perspectives, and assign them equal weight. The downside to this is their inability to make decisions without having considered (and tried) every possibility, and consequently, take responsibility for their own actions. This, in turn, wreaks havoc on their legal system and general sense of civic duty. In short, the Chinese are hugely risk-adverse (and therefore, scientific discoveries are very difficult and relatively rare in Asian countries).
Anticipate, and offer a way out
Ok, now that I’ve gotten that out of the way…I manage all of this by anticipating this kind of thought process and always preparing a “way out”. The risk-adverse aspect of the Chinese basically boils down to: 1) not wanting to have overlooked any options (thus wasting time/resources, or they’ll try to find a way to combine EVERYTHING into one), and 2) not wanting to try anything that hasn’t yet been proven (which is the root cause for all of the copycat products out there, but I digress…) This means that, as a manager, I need to take the responsibility of cutting down the options to try and also taking full responsibility if anything should go wrong. This needs to be stated, not implied. I’ll literally write this in an email: “Dear colleagues, I have asked our agency to pursue options 1 and 2 with the following changes. I believe this is the best way forward. If you have any concerns, please ask me directly.” Then I’ll CC this to the agency, so they know that I’m shouldering the decisions I made and I won’t leave them high and dry. Same thing if I’m discussing with colleagues. They’ll often push back on a design, but as soon as I say “Tell your manager this is my decision. If he has questions, have him ask me”, they’ll quickly agree. They won’t SAY this—they’ll even fight tooth-and-nail against your wishes—but oftentimes it’s just them wanting a safety net.
How to manage indecision and your resources
It’s important to emphasize that the Chinese’ desire to try EVERY POSSIBILITY is a direct result of being risk-adverse (again, because they think anything can cause everything to happen). This is the antithesis to the clear-minded designer. So you need to work around this. From the very beginning, you need to establish a “hierarchy of wants”. This forces the team to decide, one by one, which aspect/features/goals are the most important and which are “optional”. This will be the standard to which you will hold the entire team to (although you should expect some changes).
When you’re in the design phase, instead of just saying “I believe this is the best concept”, you need to first consider and listen to all of the options that your Chinese colleagues put forth, no matter how unrealistic they are. Think them through and have a logical reason for why each of them is NOT the best or won’t work; don’t just brush them off. Finally, think about how your personal favorite concept(s) do a better job than all of them. If you truly believe in your own design, it should not take an immense amount of time to do this, and it’ll be worthwhile. And it’ll save you time and energy down the road when the topics inevitably rise again (“I understand your concern, but we’ve addressed it right here on this PDF, dated June 29, 2015” See? I can show this again in the next meeting if you’re concerned about your boss asking about it. Don’t worry, I’ll answer his questions."). If you have thought through your reasons and recorded them along the way, you can always pull them out. This will be WAY better than trying to argue verbally FOR your design over and over and over again.
I often make the analogy of being a designer and being a lawyer. In China, a designer should consider not only his/her own arguments but also all of the possible counter-arguments from the other party. This isn’t about you vs. them, but it’s about being as prepared as possible, so that you can be as persuasive as possible, because you’ll need everyone onboard to push your designs through. As the Chinese way of thinking goes: If you don’t have a good argument for dismissing something, then you didn’t try it. And if you didn’t try it, how do you KNOW it’s not a good possibility? You don’t, so you should try it.
Yes? No? Yes?
The final question you posed is about getting a “yes” when it turns out to be a “no”. In my experience, this has more to do with saving face—and also being risk adverse. It sounds ironic, but let me explain: by saying “yes”, your Chinese colleague really means “No problem, I’ll give it try,” even if he knows the answer is likely “no”. This goes back to the idea of trying all options; he can’t say “no” to you now because he hasn’t had the time to prepare all of the evidence that points to “no”. He also won’t take the risk of saying “no”, because there’s ALWAYS a small chance that YOU might find a “yes” solution and therefore make him lose face.
So: how do you find the right answer? State your questions more effectively, and minimize the level of open-ended-ness of your inquiries. Instead of asking, “Is this possible?” ask, “In your opinion, is this doable through method A? Or method B? If not, can you help me find another method to achieve this? It’ll be OK if you don’t, but it’ll be really awesome if you can. Let me know if you need any help from me, I’ll make myself available for you.” Again, give him a safety net; don’t challenge him (“Can YOU do this?” which is setting him up for possible failure); and ask more specific questions so he knows you’ve also thought it through and that he can’t just throw you a catch-all answer. Complicated, but if you understand the underlying motivations for this, and you practice it, you’ll actually reduce a lot of headaches and miscommunications.
Wow! Super useful info, thanks for the taking the time.
I’m running out of questions, but here’s one more: (edit: a couple more )
I’ve read that China (among many others) is what you call a low-trust society. Meaning that what IS today (for example legal safety net) could be GONE tomorrow. This supposedly echoes in everything from rather-be-doing-business-with-relatives and the whole guanxi-thing, to the unwillingness to create something that lasts. I’ve even heard that when people build a house they already expect to rebuild it in 5 or so years, so there’s no need to invest in “quality”. In light of this, do you:
See how this attitude affects developing new products, being that in the west we usually prefer to market products as “lasting” (although far from always the case, but I digress)
See any change to this attitude in your company, being American-driven
See any changes to this attitude in general, due to everchanging social and political climate, younger generation etc…
And this one unrelated to the above:
Do you socialize with Chinese people above and below yourself in the company hierarchy, outside of work?