Strategy. Innovation. Brand.

organizational culture

Culture – Ambiguity and Anxiety

Dessert! Why wait?

Dessert! Why wait?

The future is uncertain. Eat dessert first.

If you act on this sage advice, you may well come from a culture that’s high on the Uncertainty Avoidance Index (UAI). As Geert and Gert Jan Hofstede have pointed out, the desire to avoid uncertainty varies dramatically from culture to culture and fundamentally affects how people think and behave.

The Hofstedes (father and son) study the influence of national cultures on organizational behavior. They write that there are five basic dimensions of culture: 1) power distance; 2) individualist/ collectivist; 3) masculine/feminine; 4) Uncertainty avoidance; 5) short-term/long-term orientation. I’ve written about the first three previously (herehere, and here). Today, let’s talk about uncertainty avoidance.

The Uncertainty Avoidance Index measures the degree to which a culture believes that what’s different is dangerous. Countries with high UAIs tend to be anxious about ambiguity and the future in general. They often establish laws, behavioral codes, religions, and technologies that reduce ambiguity. Countries with high UAIs include Greece (UAI = 114), Poland (93), Japan (92), France (86), South Korea (85), Israel (81), and Italy (75).

Countries with low UAIs tend to believe that what’s difference is curious. They are generally less rules-oriented and less anxious about the future. They tend to see the world as a relatively benevolent place and to give the benefit of the doubt to new ideas, situations, and people. Countries with low UAIs include the United States (46), India (40), Great Britain (35), Ireland (35), Sweden (29), and Denmark (23).

Uncertainty avoidance expresses itself in many different ways. Very generally speaking, families in affluent countries with high UAIs have fewer children than those in affluent countries with low UA indexes. People in high UAI cultures tend to be more stressed and rules for children are quite firm. People in low UAI culture tend to be more agreeable and more blasé about children’s play habits. They worry less about health and money.

Let’s say you want to market a product internationally, including both low and high UAI countries. Your message will need to be very different. In high UAI countries, consumers will want to know about the purity and cleanliness of the product. They also value expert opinion in their advertising. In low UAI countries, consumers tend to seek convenience rather than purity and prefer humorous ads.

Similarly, consumers in low UAI countries find used cars acceptable and are more likely to be do-it-yourself enthusiasts. They also tend to be early adopters of new technologies. Consumers in high UAI countries tend to prefer new cars and hire experts to do their home repairs. They’re also slower to adopt new technologies.

In the workplace, differences are equally pronounced. High UAI cultures emphasize the importance of rules – even those that are not obeyed.  They also prefer more structure, precision, and formality. Managers should be technical experts and tend to focus on daily operations.

Low UAI cultures have fewer rules in the workplace and value managers who are known more for common sense than technical expertise. Managers focus more on strategy than daily operations. Low UAI workplaces tend to be better at inventing new processes but high UAI workplaces are better at implementing them.

It’s a very interesting mix, especially when you combine uncertainty with masculinity, individualism, and power distance. To learn more, get the Hofstede’s book.

Time — The Infinite Resource

Budget this!

Budget this!

Time, cost, and quality. Pick any two.

It’s a good thought to keep in mind when managing a project. You can choose to optimize two  — and only two — of the three parameters. The third parameter will always go in the other direction. Let’s say you want something done in less time and at lower cost. By optimizing those two parameters, you’ve sub-optimized the third – quality will suffer. If you want high quality at low cost, well… it’s going to take a long time. Pick any two.

Interestingly, we only measure two of the three parameters.  We have armies of accountants to keep track of how we spend our money. We have quality control experts to measure quality. We have no one who keeps track of how we spend our time. Are we spending our time wisely? Are we allocating our time based on strategic objectives? Who knows? We treat time as an infinite resource.

Though we treat money and assets and goodwill as corporate resources, we treat time as a personal resource. How you spend your time is pretty much up to you. This higher you rise in the ranks, the more you control your own time.

And that’s a practice that needs to change according to “Making Time Management the Organization’s Priority,” a recent article from the McKinsey Quarterly. As the article notes, “Time management isn’t just a personal-productivity issue … [it’s] an organizational issue whose root causes are deeply embedded in corporate structures and cultures.”

How can you change the “time culture” in your organization? The McKinsey article provides six suggestions. To save time, I’ll cover three today and three more in an upcoming post.

Create a time leadership budget – this may sound obvious but far too few organizations actually do it. When you create a proposal for a new project, you always include a cost budget. How about a leadership time budget?  You can think of leadership time as a general corporate resource – just like money. Let’s say you have ten executives working on new projects. Assuming, that each works 2,000 hours per year, that’s an overall “budget” of 20,000 hours. If you add a new project, how much leadership time will it take? What will you take away to make the budget balance?

Think about time when introducing organizational change – organizational change takes enormous resources, much more than we typically estimate. That includes time. Yet we often ask managers to change things while also doing their “day” jobs. Establishing a leadership time budget can help here. So can managerial restructuring. My rule of thumb — call it the Travis rule — is that more managers mean more meetings. Reducing the number of managers can (within reason) reduce the number of hours spent in meetings and re-balance the time leadership budget.

Measure and manage time – ask your leaders to keep track of their time by keeping a simple diary. As McKinsey points out, “Executive are usually surprised to see the output from time analysis exercises, for it generally reveals how little of their activity is aligned with the company’s stated priorities.” As the old saying goes, if you don’t measure it, you can’t manage it.

Let’s exercise a little time budgeting here. Most people read at about 200 words per minute. This article is about 600 words long. So you’ve been reading for three minutes. Time to get back to work.

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