Mian Zi (Face)
My challenge in Hong Kong was a flagging project management office and system integration. The Hong Kong business was throwing money into a new system that was simply not delivering.
The local Chinese employees knew exactly what the issues were but didn’t feel it was their place to tell their ex-Pat bosses what to do. It was a case of losing face. When it comes to doing business with the Chinese, respect for people’s feelings is paramount — this sensitivity that needs to be taken in respect to people’s ‘face,’ as it is the currency of advancement.
I built a strong relationship and rapport with my Chinese colleagues where I could bridge this gap between the two cultures. Together we analysed the issues, and I was blunt and direct with the ex-Pat Management team as to the issues they should have identified, the questions they should have asked and the cultural bridge they should have built to ensure a collaborative working relationship.
There were several reasons that contributed to my recommendations that the project be cancelled. This was a brave move as a lot of very senior people had put their name to this initiative and simply wanted it implemented. My analysis demonstrated that the nature of the build was unique and complex. Building a system doesn’t end when it goes live and this would have required a dedicated team 24/7 to make changes and keep it going.
If we had to build everything ourselves from scratch the wish list would have taken years to develop. An unintelligent approach was being taken with the data, with overall costs spiralling out of control with little or no progress. This was a money pit and no one dared say so. Until now. The Board listened carefully to my presentation and reviewed each point of my recommendations, challenging the rationale and analysing the demonstrable evidence provided. They thanked me for my work, but chose to continue the slippery slope.
I left the next day for my next role in Johannesburg. Within three months, having thrown more money at the project and delivered nothing, the Management team was changed and the project cancelled. Again, senior people were not accountable and lacked the courage to make the right decision at the right time - to simply stop an area of business that was dragging the rest down. They were more concerned about the impact on their careers of saying no, which ironically at the end of the day cost them what they feared the most anyway!
If you are in a hot air balloon plummeting to the ground the first thing you do is to jettison everything you don’t need to gain more height. Losing a part of the business that is beyond repair to save the rest must be a nuclear option within your armoury and you must be strong enough to press the button when required.