How Our Ability to Cope With Uncertainty Affects Innovativeness

I’m currently reading Cultures and Organizations by Geert Hofstede. What struck the most so far, and I’m on page 212, is the idea how uncertainty avoidance impacts our ability to innovate. In retrospect, it seems quite obvious that “the extent to which the members of a culture feel threatened by ambiguous or unknown situations” – uncertainty avoidance –  has an impact on how innovative people are.

But what is even more fascinating to me is the fact that while countries that score lower on uncertainty-avoidance are more willing to come up with different, new ideas, their lack of urgency and punctuality to finish a project often hinders them in completing a project. In other words: they have more innovative ideas, but they are often less able to deliver finished products.

This offers awesome opportunities for us to work together. Bring Singaporeans and Germans together and you will create a great team that can generate creative ideas which are then implemented strictly and on time. Singaporeans feel comfortable with uncertainty, Germans are great at implementing ideas. So what could possibly go wrong?

Well, many things. Bring a German company to Singapore and you are likely to face trouble. Singaporeans score high on power distance and low on individualism. Now, what does this mean? On average, Singaporeans are likely to be obedient towards their superiors and very unlikely to voice opinions that challenge the status quo. They strive for harmony.

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With a German company doing business in Singapore, in most cases the top management will be German. And this is a problem. Singaporean employees might come up with great, innovative ideas, but they are unlikely to share them if they challenge the views of top management.

What to do about it?

First of all: make sure that there is a local representative in the top management. He will know better how to make local employees speak up. Next, change your approach on how to gain input from your employees. Do not expect them to speak up in meetings without directly addressing them. Before the meeting starts, let them come together in groups, task-forces or whatever you want to call them, and  find a solution for a problem, come up with new product ideas or whatever area it is you need to innovate. Next as one employee to present the ideas as a representative of the group. 

This is important. Do not ask her to state her opinions. Ask her to share the ideas of the group. That way she won’t feel like she is speaking up to promote herself, but to share the opinions of the group. Let her state her point of view first, before you talk about the issue. Otherwise, if she realizes that their ideas are in conflict with yours, they will not share them. You are the leader, after all. You must be right.

Ask them to provide three possible solutions. Do not disagree with any of them openly, it might cause them to “lose face”. Instead, if you feel that an idea has potential but isn’t perfect yet, use a method of inquiry. Ask them questions about specific details that lead them to refine their own ideas.

After all groups have presented their proposals, make a firm decision. Choose the option you think is best. If you make the decision based on group-consensus, it might backfire. In countries with high levels of power distance, people often perceive the participative leadership style of the west as a weakness. You already heard their suggestions and opinions, now you should make the final decision yourself. Both sides should be happy that way.

Final note: of course this doesn’t make that you should take credit for the idea! You made the decision, you didn’t invent the solution. Give the group the reward they deserve.

And hey – feel free to tell us about your own experiences about innovation in Asia in the comment section.


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