Meeting Facilitation Culture Crash: US vs. Asia

Part of my work for several years has included innovation and product or strategy development. I love working with teams and big groups and even certified as a group facilitator. Which is all to say that I thought I was reasonably experienced at meeting facilitation until I moved to Singapore. I was incredibly excited to take this passion to Singapore and do some cross cultural innovation management.

A few months into my new role we needed to redesign another one of our programs but were short on staff and on ideas. So, I created an innovation session and invited people from across our offices.

I usually do a few ice breakers at the beginning of a these sessions. They are silly little games, sometimes improv related, sometimes just unrelated quizzes to get the participants to wake up, get moving and laugh a bit before we dig into work that’s less like their daily tasks. In the US, these icebreakers are ALWAYS met with hesitation and some resistance. We get through it, and it’s usually fun. But it’s my first taste of how much ‘warm up’ the room is going to need for non-standard thinking. It’s also my first opportunity to judge how much ego we have in the room. It’s never truly a pleasant activity unless it’s with a group that has done this before and worked together for a while.

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But in Singapore I had nearly a dozen people raise their hands to participate in the very first game. And these participants went ALL in. The rest of the group was roaring with laughter right at the beginning of the meeting! There was no hesitation, no resistance, certainly no self-consciousness and my inner facilitator-nerd drooled with anticipation of the work to come. Because if this was the icebreaker… well! Just imagine what the rest of the work would be like!

Or not.

Innovation Session

Encouraging the individual participants to voice individual ideas, non-standard ideas, out of the box ideas, was like asking non-runners to give a marathon their best go. If you’ve read some of my other blogs, I’ve touched a bit on this before from another angle emphasizing the positive tribal/group culture. But it was the individualism of my strategy that was killing things. Most Asian cultures are consensus driven. Which means offering an idea that hasn’t been vetted (usually privately or with a small group beforehand) could potentially not be acceptable to all parties, and therefore be anti-consensus.

My meeting facilitation style relies on individuals hearing new and different ideas and building on them, playing with them, and taking them in new, different and unexpected directions. I had blithely applied the same strategy and style to Singapore and the Asian-culture without thinking twice.

You know what they say happens when you assume? Yep. I looked like quite an @**.

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I also make faces like this when I am headed towards utter disaster. 😉

Luckily, we gained traction, but after a lot more time than I had budgeted. That was mostly because my colleagues were used to some American habits and requests than the other way round. Clearly.

I frequently broke the 30-odd person group into smaller groups to complete tasks, then had everyone regroup periodically in the larger room to share and present a few ideas. The room would get so loud during the small group breakouts that I was forced to move some groups out of the room so everyone could hear themselves think.

“Fantastic!” My inner-facilitator would comment; perking back up after the crushing start. “We’re going to get some great stuff here.” And as I walked around and listen in to the various groups I would regain my confidence. I heard snippets of better and better sharing.

Picture5Only to run straight back into the consensus issue above. Because I would ask each group to present a few of their favorite ideas once we were back in a large group. First, this request took much longer than planned to select “favorite” ideas (because everyone had to agree) and then… no one would volunteer. It was like I had a room full of penguins lined up along the edge of the iceberg. No one wanted to be into the water first to see if there were seals waiting for a meal.

Except the seals in this metaphor were the entire population of the room. Someone had to share first, to ‘test the water,’ to see if there was consensus in the room. Which of course as an innovation and change facilitator I was desperately hoping there wasn’t.

I had budgeted 2.5 hours for that session and we made it through barely half of the material. I did get some great results and insights from the group, but most of it was by pouring through the notes and verifying insights individually after the fact.

Some days my job feels like one – very long – learning curve. Most days though, like the one above, I’m caught mentally using two hashtags at once: #winning and #epicfail. That seems to be one of the bests summaries for my expat experience to date. The learning, the exposure, the experience and the incredible – and nearly always unexpected – breakthroughs are so precious. But the metaphorical faceplants, the culture clashes, the deep uncertainty whether information was absorbed or if something will happen….. It’s quite a lumpy mixture to swallow.

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