Cross-cultural environments and innovation
One of the things I enjoy during interviews with job candidates is when they ask me questions that are intellectually challenging to answer. One such question I was recently asked was why I thought that cross-cultural environments were conducive to innovation. At the interview, I gave a relatively concise answer (meaning less than 10 minutes!), but upon reflection, I felt that there was more to it. I have been pondering the question since and thought I would share my view.
What do we mean by culture?
There are many ways to define the word culture, and we often associate it with tradition, language, habits, art, etc. For our purpose, however, I would like to suggest a more practical definition: a culture is a collection of social norms and heuristics. This definition may look a bit technical, but it is much simpler than it sounds.
Norms are ideas, concepts, rules, etc., that define what is commonly accepted as “normal”, and what is considered as “good” or “bad”. They are of judgmental (value) nature. For example, it is the norm to stand on the left side of an escalator in the Kanto region of Japan.
Heuristics are cognitive shortcuts we use to simplify problem-solving or decision-making. They are of decisional or behavioral nature. For example, waiting for a crowd to cross the street at a pedestrian signal is a heuristic that removes the need of having to decide whether it is safe enough to cross the road while the light is still red. We go through our day making countless decisions. Having heuristics helps us reduce the number of decisions we actually care about and operate on autopilot for more trivial matters.
Having a cultural background comes with many norms based on which we judge or value things and with numerous heuristics (conscious or not) that we use as decisional shortcuts within our social interactions.
High-context cultures are usually highly normative (many norms) and also tend to demonstrate a high propensity for heuristics, often unconscious or unspoken. High-context cultures generally result in a stronger sense of identity and belonging, and to some extent, to more peaceful interactions, with less friction. On the other end of the spectrum, low-context cultures tend to be more individualistic with fewer norms and with more conflictual interactions.
Alright, where am I going with this? To see how it relates to the discussion, let’s first talk about innovation.
Are there necessary conditions for innovation?
I admit that the word “innovation” sounds a little bit like clickbait, and its importance may be overrated. We don’t need to innovate on a daily basis. Sometimes, we need to stick to a plan and get things done.
But in highly competitive industries (and gaming is of course included), being innovative can give that extra edge that separates successful products from mediocre ones.
Fundamentally, being innovative is coming up with novel ideas or methods to accomplish a goal. Or even to come up with a novel goal altogether! There are many conditions for innovation, but I find that two, in particular, are essential:
Creativity, or the ability to think outside the box, to see things from a different angle, to look at what others are ignoring, or to try a different route to the same destination
Courage, to dare disrupt the status quo, to adventure outside our comfort zone, and be willing to remove the safety net of habit
Innovation is hard because it requires a combination of the right mindset (creative + courageous) coupled with an environment that is conducive to such a mindset. Clearly, an environment that doesn’t welcome different perspectives or ideas, and which doesn’t reward (or at least embrace) risk-taking will not foster innovation.
Now that we have looked at innovation let’s see how it all ties together.
Why a cross-cultural environment can be conducive to innovation
Cross-cultural environments offer a unique opportunity to acknowledge the social norms and heuristics coming from the culture of each participant and to move beyond. Our norms and heuristics can act as creative blinders, like walking the same path to the same train station every day and not seeing what is on the side of the road because we don’t have to, or are not supposed to.
Confronting different norms can help us remove prejudice and free ourselves from self-imposed creative restraints. And that it is the first step to innovation.
This being said, we also need the courage to innovate, and courage needs the right kind of environment to flourish; an environment of mutual trust. It’s already hard to step up and take the risk of being potentially wrong and failing. It’s even harder when we don’t know if our peers will have our back. Courage needs trust.
But what is trust concretely speaking? It’s a form of predictability. I can trust someone because I can predict, to some extent, how that person will act in any given situation, judgmentally or behaviorally speaking. In that sense, high-context cultures tend to provide a better foundation for trust because of the commonality of social norms and heuristics.
In contrast, a cross-cultural environment needs extra care because it will not offer such a foundation.
How to make it work
We are social animals. I would go further and say that we are cultural animals. Social norms and heuristics are essential for us to thrive in society without falling prey to social anxiety and decision fatigue.
The best way to build trust within a team or organization is to create its own culture. And it’s particularly true for cross-cultural teams. We need a set of values and principles that supersede the different cultural norms and heuristics of its participants.
Of course, teams are usually goal-oriented, and so the cultures we build need to be tailored to our goal, otherwise, it will create a social (psychological) dissonance between the team’s raison-d’etre and its values rendering it dysfunctional and not conducing to trust.
When deciding on values and principles, it is primordial to recognize different cultural biases and to embrace differences because these differences are what makes us potentially more creative.
Once values are defined, ideas should be judged based on these values and these values alone. That’s how trust can be built in cross-cultural teams. We share the norms of our own culture and are therefore mutually predictable in our judgments and behaviors.
You may have noticed that I didn’t say at any point that it was easy to build a functional cross-cultural team with its own culture, values, and principles. Because it isn’t. It is very hard. But so is innovation.
With the advancement of technology, it has never been easier to connect people from all around the globe to work together. But that’s the easy part. Leveraging differences in perspectives and experiences requires a clear common goal and the right environment to realize it.
This post is a little bit longer and maybe denser than usual, but let me summarize the main takeaways.
Cultures are made of social norms and heuristics
Innovation needs creativity and courage
Cross-cultural environments can bolster creativity by freeing us from prejudice
But courage needs trust
Trust can be achieved by building a team culture
Wizcorp has been a cross-cultural team pretty much from its inception in 2008. While it has never been easy, nor do we believe that we have always done a great job at it, we have always tackled cultural challenges with candor and openness.
The importance of building a culture within our company is something we have learned the hard way and are still learning every day. But that is why we have become vocal about it. Because we understand how essential it is. And we really hope we can make an impact by caring about our people, their ideas, their experiences, and their differences.
If you want to know more about our philosophy and benefits, please visit our career page.
Interested in joining? Please have a look at our job openings. We are actively looking for new team members.