Top Tips For Getting Innovative In Other Cultures

There is nothing more energizing than waking up jet-lagged after a 12-hour flight knowing that you will soon be leading a creative innovation session in front of a room full of people who speak a different language, are from a different culture, and have different values, beliefs and even sense of humor. It can also be downright intimidating if you’ve never done it before. I’ve been lucky enough to have taken on this type of work in over 35 countries in virtually every part of the world. First with The Coca-Cola Company, and now as one of the founders of The Green Room Collective.  I thought it would be useful to share some of my experiences, learnings and top tips for leading innovation sessions in other cultures. I will add a footnote, however, that my insights relate to running creative ideas and innovation sessions. However, most if not all these tips will apply to virtually any type of work in other cultures and countries and even domestic ones where you are working with a diverse group. In the spirit of keeping it simple and easy to digest, I’ll release these top tips in a blog series over the next few weeks.

Tip #1 – Know thy culture

In the din of getting ready for a project, the business planning, the preparation, the gathering of materials, and everything else that goes into running a session, it’s easy to overlook the culture piece. This reminds me of my early days at Coke running a creative session in Istanbul, Turkey for one of the company’s key customers, the big box retailer Migros. My co-facilitator, who was smart, well-intentioned and good-natured kicked things off by saying this to the group, “Welcome, it’s so great to be here in Constantinople!” You could hear the collective gasp in the room as people began to fidget uncomfortably in their seats. Now it’s true, at one time Istanbul was called Constantinople, but it was at a tainted time in the country’s history when it was under the control of the Byzantine Empire rather than the Ottoman or Turkish rule that succeeded it. In the grand scheme of things, it was a small mistake, and we were able to apologize and quickly move on. However, it does illustrate an important point. As a leader, especially in the creativity and business innovation space, you play an important role in getting your participants to open-up, engage and trust you. A cultural gaff, no matter how small or well-intentioned, can set you back and undermine efforts to gain confidence with the people you are trying to lead.

Do your research

It’s important to familiarize yourself with the country and culture you will be visiting. One way to do this is to travel to the city or part of the country you are visiting a day or two early and spend some time exploring. You can learn a lot just by observation, walking the streets, shopping the stores, and visiting museums and restaurants. It’s amazing what you can pick up on in a short amount of time, and it adds to the small talk you can build a relationship on with your participants during breaks and meals. If you have a travel guide, even better, because then you can get answers to your questions. That said, time is a luxury in business and you may not have the hours to spend. Do your research online, and spend some time learning about the country, the culture and the major milestones in its history.

Gauge the market

It also helps to talk to your client (especially if they know what it takes to be a great client) based in the market you are visiting ahead of the session. One time when we were in Japan speaking to our client, originally from Brazil, and he said, “The thing you have to remember about the Japanese is that culture is all about harmony and keeping the collective culture in harmony so you will have to push real hard to get people to speak out and think differently.” That was a revelation, and one that we would not have picked up on just by sightseeing. It greatly informed how we approached the session. Ideas and innovation are all about disrupting the status quo, so we asked participants to come to the session with an avatar of themselves, a visual representation of their alter egos, freeing them to create and ideate without fear of upsetting the harmony of the room. During introductions, we asked participants to share their avatars and what they represented. We then told the room that during our time together they were free to act as their avatars. It was a small thing, but it made a big difference in setting the tone of the session, giving our participants the license to act and behave differently.

Empathy and understanding are important to leading any group of people and is particularly true when working internationally or with multi-cultural groups. This is your opportunity to find out as much as you can about the country and culture you are visiting. Not only will you appear smarter, your participants will notice and appreciate the effort. In this vein, they will be much more likely to embrace and trust your leadership.

In the next blog post of this series on running international session, we’ll explore how to use humility to your advantage. Until then, peace, love and creativity!