Thursday, September 08, 2011

Timezone trumps culture any day

I'm feeling more and more that my ability to collaborate with a remote team isn't limited by culture, but by timezone.

I work with a lot of Germans. And if you are an American and you've worked with Germans, you know how their worldview is different. VERY DIFFERENT. Much more formal. More respectful of credentials. Theoretical. Smarter on average (it's true). Pessimistic. Risk averse. Lots of things, I could go on and on. As could my German colleagues about Americans. It is a parlor game where I work -- how are we different, let me count the ways.

But I find that when we are together in person, the differences recede. We work it out. Germans get more playful, Americans get more serious. We find a middle ground. It is all the result of talking. A lot. Explaining. The Germans will often ask "what do you mean when you say 'table stakes'?" We use a lot of idioms. Actually everyone does. But since the world speaks English, we expect that everyone in the world not only understands our language, but our idioms. Pay attention the next time you are talking. You will be shocked how many you use without thinking twice. See, there I go right now. I'll bet the Germans wouldn't understand the phrase "don't think twice about it."  It's pervasive in our dialect.

One of the conclusions most people draw is that the only way to be truly productive is by having in-person meetings. This is a reasonable answer. But ultimately in a global interconnected company it doesn't work. You can't travel enough. Some people try, but it's expensive and both physically and emotionally draining.

So, the next best thing is to try and replicate this with phone, email and web tools. This sort of works, but take idiomatic differences and multiply them by the hazards of email. Even two Americans misunderstand emotions in email!! If the timezone spread is 8-10 hours different, your collaborative work grinds to a halt.

As I pondered this recently I realized that in the end, all the other issues pale in comparison to one thing -- the timezone. I think this is most important. Seems almost too simple to be true. We'd all like to ascribe mischievous intentions to other cultures -- it's fun and much deeper (duuuuude!). But I think timezone is the simplest explanation.

I find that based on the reality of my life and the reality of the life of most of the Germans I work with that we have about 3 hours a day, give or take, of overlapping time to spend together. We can selectively make more time if we need to, but it is "bursty." I can do calls at midnight, as can they, but we can't sustain it for long. We have families, and errands, and friends, and LIFE STUFF to attend to (sometimes called sleeping) that really don't allow us to fundamentally work on each others timezones for very long.

Now apply this same formula to Californians trying to work with India or China. The overlap is even less. Culture is irrelevent if you can't find any time to talk! Even if I had Americans who were JUST LIKE ME (big assumption) on the other end of the phone, it wouldn't work very well.

So what is the insight here?

Clearly when you are building a global organization for knowledge work (things like software development), you don't always get a choice of where people are located.  Skills are unequally distributed, and expertise tends to clump in strange locales.

But if you do get a choice, hemispheric choices make more sense to me. Even if distance separates, keeping the timezones close seems like the way to go, 3-5 hours. This way you get a good chunk of the day to talk on the phone, email, chat, etc. What this means in practical terms is that from the US, choose Brazil instead of China.  From Germany, choose India instead of China.  From Australia, choose China instead of Brazil.  And so forth.  Looking to the future, I've got to believe that the best thing for US global innovation is the rise of Brazil. Even if it's a long flight, it's a short call.

If you can't choose, it seems like the only way to go is "loosely coupled." I just don't see how you can be productive in a  time-zone separated working model when it's more than say 5 hours. Build the business in ways that enables local control and decision-making so that all of the collaboration happens "in zone."

I think it's why you see a lot of companies pulling back ops from India and China regardless of cost advantage. It really is an impossible model.