Monthly Archives: July 2015

Accidental Cultural Imposition

I wrote in my last blog here about Intelligent Disobedience and how that technique – and approaches in general based upon innovation and applied intelligence – have much to offer in the service management space.

One of the interesting points about Intelligent Disobedience is an apparent conflict. While recognising the need for it and the benefits it can offer in delivering customer satisfaction, procedures should be designed to prevent the need for it. The experiences and lessons learned from effective intelligent disobedience should form an input into writing procedures that prevent the need for further disobedience in the future.

There is something often found in company procedures – and rules and even in countries’ laws – that creates a need for Intelligent Disobedience. And it is a need that is mostly avoidable. I have been calling it ‘Accidental Cultural Imposition” (ACI). So this seems a logical blog for me to write to follow the one on Intelligent Disobedience.

What is ACI

ACI is my term for where the creator – or maintainer – of procedures (or software or whatever, it applies broadly) has unconsciously built in aspects that reflect the way they think and live – and presumes the rest of the world lives like that too. Let me illustrate it with an example:

A company’s travel and subsistence rules limit what will be repaid to cover meals when employees are travelling on business. This is to keep costs reasonable and sounds fair. The rules say the meals will be reimbursed subject to maximum amounts of $10 for breakfast, $20 for lunch and $40 for dinner. This almost certainly reflects they way the author eats. For a global company this is going to cause a cascade of needless work. Other parts of the world might eat in a different pattern, with main meal at lunchtime, or two meals rather than three. And if you have just flown across 8 time zones in 12 hours it may be perfectly reasonable to want to eat dinner at breakfast time. This invites a non-stop stream of expense rejection, calls to point out the inappropriateness of the laid down claiming structure and – hopefully – after some discussion an intelligent decision will be agreed. Of course, what the author should have written was ‘$70 a day’, why would the company really care about how many meals were eaten or which one was larger?

That sounds quite trivial – indeed it is and should be easily resolved by sensible discussion. But all that questioning and discussion and interpretation take time and money that shouldn’t need to be spent.

We see other examples too – screen and page layouts that the author believes are intuitive because the logic flows left to right. But that won’t be so logical if significant parts of your user community think in Arabic or one of the other Right to Left languages! And most southern hemisphere employees of global companies have had to get used to hearing their VP talk about ‘releasing in the summer’ without mentioning just whose summer.

Wider then you might think 

Of course, like most things in ITSM, this isn’t a new thing but as old as cultural differences. But it is something that costs organisations today: costs time, money and aggravates and isolates users from the procedure writers back at HQ.

Take a different example. When should banks schedule maintenance on an ATM system? If you are a boring old man like me, then you might think 2am on a Sunday morning is the obvious quiet time. Talk to someone who knows the industry in modern western culture and they will laugh at you. Sunday 2am in a big city is critical business period, it’s late Saturday night and youngsters out on the town need cash to get back home or to party on. Of course in other parts of the world and other cultures it will be different again. But we all have suffered from someone accidentally imposing their culture on our services.

What can we do about it

First and foremost, we can stop thinking that procedures have to address every possible situation in the finest detail. Instead of that microscopic focus, if they aim at getting the right people in the right conversation, with the right skills and information to make a good decision, then perhaps that’s a decent enough target to aim for.

Let’s try to avoid the ‘applying best practice in detail’ myth that wants to see a set of rules that always applies, even when that isn’t a sensible scenario.

The procedures and rules we do build should be designed to do the job they are needed for, that might not be the same as being pervasive and detailed. Ways to find out include:

  • Involving people across the whole range of those who will use and be affected by the procedures
  • Don’t go into details unless you know why you are doing it and what the benefits will be.
  • Build in space and room for interpretations; expect intelligent disobedience to solve the spaces you leave. That may well be the best and cheapest way to deliver the service quality needed
  • Use feedback from documented intelligent disobedience experiences to drive changes in rules and procedures
  • Be especially careful when rolling out services, rules or anything else, to new areas: geographical, cultural, linguistically or anything else. Get someone from the new community involved beforehand.

And finally, we can come clean and admit that we have all been guilty of this at some point. Never mind the work environment, every parent is guilty of expecting their children to behave according to parental cultural norms. If you haven’t done it as a parent yet, you likely can recall it from the child’s perspective.

It is human nature, so it isn’t about blaming people for doing it, it should be about being aware and taking deliberate steps to avoid it.