Lost in Translation

Eat poop you cat illustration

We spend an awful lot of time (and $$) in Corporate America on Meyers Briggs and other personality typing tools in an effort to better understand our peers and hone our soft skills to work with them more effectively.

You really believe you’re being thoughtful and purposeful to treat everyone with respect and kindness and that things are just going to go so much more smoothly.  And then you’re sitting in a demo where your team delivers something so wildly deviated from your user story discussions that you can barely believe you all speak the same language.  What went wrong?  Well, it’s probably you.While studies have shown that the typing in these diagnostic tools are still effective, what they fail to address is differing cultural norms and only teach an ethnocentric view of functional teams.

As an example, I was working with a team in India to build a large new feature in an existing platform.  Where I thought we were on the same page through phone calls and documentation, I was stunned when the finished product technically met the functionality required but would be completely unusable to my user base. It was then that I realized some very important lessons working against me:

  • Our meetings were at the end of their work day. Frequently many were on the way home or at home (you could hear the traffic of family chatter in the background). These folks were tired and ready to get on with their evening.
  • Having phone only meetings meant a lot of repeating since we could not also use lipreading to understand each other. This also led to people figuring things out by context and frequently taking away the wrong message.
  • We were working against a power dynamic in me being a woman in pushing for the outcome I really needed for my product.
  • Admitting not to know or understand something is frowned upon.
  • Saying no to a request is incredibly difficult and downright impolite in some cases.

There is a party game, Eat Poop You Cat with several variations (some published) that best captures the essence of what’s going on in this scenario.  The game begins with someone writing down a phrase. The paper is folded and handed to the next person who then tries to draw a visual representation of the words. When it is handed to the next person, only the picture is seen and that person must make a best guess at what was written and write their own sentence. This continues throughout the room until it comes back to the original author. The end result is rarely, if ever in the same ballpark as the beginning.

So too, this example shows that leaving people to their best guesses with little context and not shoring up assumptions will result in a poop-eating cat… I may have lost the metaphor here…

So what do you do?!  This team was super talented and we needed a way to make us all shine. So we changed our way of doing business:

  • I changed meetings to the evening (my time) so that I was the only one needing to accommodate, and they were having the conversations when they were fresh in the morning and without distractions.
  • We moved to a video only model. By changing the time, and for many venue, it also cleared up the noise issues.
  • We began doing virtual white boards to outline concepts as we spoke. I started using Balsamiq for mockups and to show intended flow. This was a huge help to the team to understand what I was trying to accomplish and expected to see.
  • While I would never recommend a woman shrink herself for the sake of getting along, you can find different ways to communicate that come across less confrontational. I found with this team in particular, dealing in facts, such as competitive features in other products and user research explaining the need, or even productivity metrics. These were no longer my educated opinion based on my experience and work, but things that would allow them to come to the same conclusion.  It greatly reduced the friction without either needing to feel like we ceded control.
  • I also checked for understanding not by asking “Does this make sense?”, but by asking them to explain things to me such as “How would you solve for this?” or “What ideas do you have?”  I wanted to push them in a way that both, gave them the respect they deserved for their talent rather than dictating, but also gave them a way to explain what they understood in a way that wasn’t right or wrong. It also gave them an out for when something would truly be a bad idea but they would otherwise not say no.

This is only one example.  As I wrote in June regarding global teams, take the time to really understand the culture of your team members.  It’s not enough to know the surface highlights if you want to make the most of your success together.

Crystal Larsh is a strategic leader, fierce DEI advocate, and delivery professional leading global teams out of Austin, TX. She has been working in the project and product space since 2001 and has focused on organizational design and operational improvements over the last several years. She has earned an MBA in eCommerce, a Masters in Project Management, a number of certifications (NPDP, PMP, CSM), and actively pursues opportunities for growth (DEI Blueprint, SAFe SPC training, and more). She uses her education and over 20 years of experience to help bring up the next generation, particularly women in tech.

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