Product Management with Offshore Manufacturers: What Are You Sinking About?, Part I

If I had a video recorder strapped to my head 24/7, I would be able to show you at least 300 clips of situations I have been in where cross-cultural communication went in a downward spiral to awkwardness, misunderstanding, and killed productivity.  I wasn’t on a sinking ship in any of them, thankfully.  But I have ordered some bizarre dishes of various animals’ anatomical parts when I thought I asked for peanuts.  This entertaining commercial for language lessons by Berlitz is an example of the tip of the iceberg in terms of communicating across geography, culture, language, through different mediums like email, phone, etc.  It could be ordering food.  It could be explaining major and minor quality defects.  It could be conveying the reasons behind a product’s engineering.  Product management is tricky.  Product management with global team members, offshore manufacturers, and 3rd parties is trickier.

Paul Young, author of the Product Beautiful blog (I like that name), writes great posts focusing on the ins-n-outs of product management and life as a product manager.  To introduce his blog, I have highlighted this post, in which he outlines The Most Important Trait a Product Manager Needs.  In it, he posts 7 traits highlighted from the Michael on Product Management blog:

  • Communications Skills
  • Leading without Authority
  • Learning Skills
  • Business Acumen
  • Love for Products
  • Eye for Details
  • Routing Product Management Skills

Notice that communication is at the top.  I don’t think you can communicate too much in the product management process.  But, I like what Paul Young adds to this in terms of what he sees as the #1 trait in a product manager: curiosity. 

The #1 trait I look for in people who would make good Product Managers is an extreme sense of curiosity.  Curious people are wonderful – they ask the most powerful question in the World: “why?”
Curious people read a lot and tend to self-teach valuable skills. Most
importantly, curious people aren’t satisfied with what people tell
them, they stay awake at night wondering what they’re missing and love
the process of discovery. Some skills can be taught; curiosity is a
character trait.

I think this can be extended to cross-cultural communication as well.  Many might cite an affinity for foreign languages as the foremost useful trait.  I don’t believe so.  I have seen many jerks speak a language fluently while they step all over the customs and ignore the culture of the country they are in.  In the end, people won’t like interacting with this individual and that can slow productivity.  I have to second Paul here, and propose that an attitude of curiosity, and asking questions, is the best trait that will lead you to success in communicating and developing relationships across cultures.  Here are my reasons why:

  • Curiosity and asking questions shows a basic respect that someone and something else is worth learning about. 

These gestures go a long way when doing business in other countries.  Many countries do not move as quickly into business matters the way Americans do.  They like to get to know each other and get a feel for the person and company they are dealing with.  Business is much more relationship driven, so you better put some effort into driving relationships  with the people you need help from to get things done.

  • As a non-native, you are going to make mistakes (and so will they).  But curiosity and asking questions will begin to teach you why you did not get the result you expected.

I always chuckle at those guys who have spent a couple weeks in a country and like to act as if they are now ‘one’ with the culture.  Horse puckey.  This takes years, perhaps decades, if even possible.  And most people who have spent that kind of time, would be too humble about the challenge to ever claim something like that.  I digress… 

Your efforts are important, but you will be making mistakes no matter what.  Asking questions about why you didn’t get the results you expected will help you understand the deeper contexts and perspectives your counterparts are coming from.   You’ll never stop making mistakes or making statements out of context, but you can cut down on it dramatically.

For product management, and this is essential, asking questions several different ways, through several mediums, can help ensure that your message gets across effectively and you are on the same page with everyone.  This is critical.  Days and weeks can be wasted when you think someone understands what you said, goes off to work on the issue for a week, and comes back with an entirely different result.  Your mad.  They don’t understand and might be embarrassed.  You’ve lost time.   And yelling "what were you sinking about when you made this change?!", will do you no good.