The Difference Between Eastern and Western Innovation Management

By Derek Handova
February 5, 2017

Hand shakeIn the intellectual property (IP) space, knowledge workers come from both Eastern and Western cultural backgrounds. In Silicon Valley and other hubs of innovation, the melding of societal variations most often goes smoothly. However, sometimes not-fully-assimilated Eastern managers get named to groups heavily involved with patents and trade secrets by well-meaning CEOs or founders. What have they missed? That these Eastern managers do not always sync with Western wage earners put in their charge—especially when it comes to workstyles and idea formation.

How can management bridge differences between these two approaches to intellectual property innovation to optimize workflow and minimize workplace dissent? What mindsets do Eastern managers possess that make it difficult for them to recruit and collaborate with Western workers? How should they change to comport themselves more closely to Western mores and norms? Let’s compare and contrast approaches among the Americas, China, India and other places.

More Dictatorial in Nature?

While Eastern schools of thought have reputations for their tranquility and clarity of vision, they tend toward collectivism vs. western individualism. Many managers who have personal development under these kinds of upbringing may default to command-and-control organization, according to some employee-employer relationship experts.

“Managers more dictatorial in nature struggle when recruiting and working with top talent,” says Mark Babbitt, CEO and founder, YouTern, a social resource for young professionals, and author A World Gone Social: How Companies Must Adapt to Survive. “With a ‘just do your job’ mindset, they fail to fully introduce newer employees to the company culture. They also neglect embracing the personal culture of new contributors, which leads to poor communication and lack of understanding. In this micro-work environment, mistrust—even active disengagement—typically results.”

And with corporate policies designed to enforce conformity atop Eastern collectivism, innovation and original thinking suffer a double whammy. That despite the fact a universe of ideas comes at us from all angles, and no one can tell from which source—or sources—they will spring. For example, Alexander Graham Bell made his patent filing for the telephone on the same day as Elisha Gray, the other man to “invent” the phone.

Ideas from All Around the World

In contrast, the attitude among some Eastern startups in Silicon Valley comes off like they have cornered the market on knowledge. As if they could write non-compete agreements binding on all planet Earth. Out-of-date, hierarchical traditions of the East live on in the 21st century.

“Asian office culture is dominated by higher power-distance levels compared to Western countries,” says Michael Teoh, founder, Thriving Talents, a Millennial-focused talent solutions company. “It is normal for younger people in Asia to seek permission from a more senior person before they would even share their ideas. Some younger Millennials even fear challenging ideas of senior associates—fear of causing workplace disharmony.”

However, enlightened entrepreneurs realize the truth. They know innovative thoughts can come from anywhere.

“We receive ideas, opportunities and pull requests from individual developers and businesses from around the world,” says Josh Rosenthal, co-founder, CloudSploit, a tech startup offering AWS security and configuration monitoring. “Though cyber security for SaaS infrastructure is international and our solution is automated, growing our community is individual. Our exceptionality comes from continual attention to subtle feedback given us by DevOps and SecOps communities on a person-to-person basis.”

Relating to a Culture of Innovation

Culture shock can—and does—happen to many outsiders who parachute into the West’s data-driven world of mass media advertising, omnichannel marketing, conversational commerce and other year 2017 customer experiences. But like vaccination against stocks of smallpox, if Eastern managers at first get a mild exposure to Western civilization, they can eventually develop tolerance—if not actual immunity—toward it. Some startups that include senior leaders from non-American backgrounds have had good fortune to avoid misunderstandings with their red-white-and-blue brethren by shuttling and rotating personnel between foreign and domestic locations, engendering a company antibody response to promote overall corporate wellness.

“With development operations in Israel and headquarters in San Francisco, our employees have diverse backgrounds,” says Mike Grandinetti, chief marketing and corporate strategy officer, Reduxio, an enterprise hybrid storage company. “From our experience working with a development team in India, they are professional, responsive and competent. Born in India, our VP of product management manages the relationship, visiting the tech team in India, further cementing it. This is critical to maintain a respectful, productive relationship.”

Serving in a different CXO role at another startup, Grandinetti also recalls that company rotated personnel between Bangalore and Boston in three- to six-month assignments. This had the effect of spreading its culture of innovation and building deep, meaningful relationships among engineers, marketing and other employees. For example, its CTO worked in Bangalore, further ensuring harmonious, trusting and mutually respectful relationships among heterogeneous groups of managers and staffers, according to Grandinetti.

Regarding relationships, another successful approach for highly innovative startups working with developers in India and managers on the U.S. East Coast boils down to resolving creative conflict in a positive way, according to leadership consultants. Specifically, have ability to have the frank conversations that need to be had.

“It’s particularly important around the need for reprioritization to meet dynamic customer needs,” says Karin Hurt, leadership consultant and CEO, Let’s Grow Leaders. “Training managers on how to get the results they need, while taking the time to slow down and invest in the relationships is critical.”

More to Building a Harmonious Work Environment

But building a harmonious work environment can require more than just mixing persons from East and West and letting stuff happen. It can take active effort on the part of Eastern managers to put aside their bias against Westerners who speak their minds—in impolitic ways occasionally. Let’s look at a typical scenario where this occurs.

Common knowledge tells us that many Americans remain quite direct, blunt and, perhaps, too honest in internal communications. An Indian manager may feel uncomfortable getting such raw feedback, expecting a more respectful, genteel tone from her direct reports. So in meetings where she receives unwelcome information, she sends unmistakable body language as to her discomfort by folding her arms and narrowing her gaze—if looks could kill. How does she deal with her lack of equanimity and still manage a team? A workplace culture consultant provides some analysis.

According to Wayne Shabaz, co-founder and president, CDAWN Learning, a consulting and eLearning course organization prepping companies for culturally different and changing times, first the manager must identify commonalities between herself and American team members. Shabaz assumes that they all want:

  • Successful goal achievement
  • Harmonious work environment
  • Clear communication

According to Shabaz, the best way to build bridges remains understanding demonstration differences of commonly held values. His firm has an online presentation that looks at general descriptors of Western (i.e., closure) and Eastern (i.e., affective) value demonstrations—click on the human symbols on the right.

“Behaviors will be most effectively managed and altered when underlying values and corresponding demonstrations are understood,” Shabaz says. “Success will be achieved by applying intercultural skills of phasing and basis of appeal. Americans phase into relationship-building efforts after measurable goals are achieved. Whereas Indians pursue achievable goals after warm, harmonious, genteel relationships are established. Each wants both demonstrations but in opposite order.”

Managers and workers must appeal to the value demonstrations of the other party—not their own—to accommodate the other’s needs, as Shabaz thinks.

“In today’s global economy they need each other,” Shabaz says. “And they need to cover the entire closure-affective continuum to succeed globally.”

Innovation in China: Think Globally, Act Locally

Indeed, with today’s global economic interconnectedness, hard to imagine that parochial interests could outweigh worldly concerns about IP practices. But when it comes to mainland China, informed observers beg to differ. From their perspective, Chinese innovation culture and IP legal system have not matured to the level of the USPTO or other western regulators, and managers must reverse-engineer their administrative methodologies.

“In the West, we assume employees will abide contracts and high ethics, so it’s a given that company IP will be protected—it’s the norm,” Stanley Chao, president, All In Consulting, which assists Western companies with China business strategies, and author Selling to China: A Guide to Doing Business in China for Small- and Medium-Sized Companies. “In China, you have to think the exact opposite. Assume that local employees will somehow, someway steal your company’s IP and not abide any contracts or ethical values. Once Western companies accept this, then can they look for ways to protect their IP.”

One way he recommends includes hiring locals with educational and living experience in the West, who may one day want to transfer to the company’s western offices. These people think more like Westerners and understand IP belongs to the company, according to Chao.

“Promise of transferring the engineer to the West also creates a bond between company and individual,” Chao says. “He or she will be less likely to cheat the company based on this kind of long-term commitment.”

Don’t Be Shy!

At day’s end, Eastern managers must have no fear. Face-to-face exchange in the West has its roots in mythological underpinnings from tales of pioneers and frontiersmen pushing ever outward—literally and figuratively. They had no time for niceties. Plain talk was all that mattered. In contrast, consultants feel that Eastern-style managers behave too much like shrinking violets and evade anything that even smells like confrontation.

“Subtly and face-saving style causes some Eastern managers to struggle with confident and direct communication,” says David Dye, president, Trailblaze Inc., a leadership training and consulting firm. “Thus, their Western colleagues won’t receive feedback and change their behavior because it was presented too subtly.”

So don’t be shy! Extroversion often feels uncomfortable, but Western workers will appreciate knowing exactly what their Eastern managers want of them without guesswork or interpretation. Everything from B2B processes to martech stack building could benefit.

“If they know that you are proud of your team and their achievements, it can boost productivity and innovation,” Dye says.

The Author

Derek Handova

Derek Handova is a project-based corporate content marketer and freelance journalist who has contributed to TechCrunch, B2B News Network, Talkin Cloud, Intelligent Utility, Economy Lead and InfotechLead. You can also find him on Medium expressing independent views on technology trends and issues of the day. He started his career in the consumer publishing sector working for automotive publications associated with Motor Trend and Hot Rod magazine.

Warning & Disclaimer: The pages, articles and comments on IPWatchdog.com do not constitute legal advice, nor do they create any attorney-client relationship. The articles published express the personal opinion and views of the author and should not be attributed to the author’s employer, clients or the sponsors of IPWatchdog.com. Read more.

Discuss this

There are currently 5 Comments comments.

  1. Jeff Lindsay February 5, 2017 8:59 pm

    I think this article is far too optimistic about Western respect for IP and integrity, while overly pessimistic about innovation and IP in China.

    Come over here and look at what Chinese innovators have done with WeChat, Taobao, and numerous apps that are far ahead of the state of the mobile experience in the West. Come look at the rapid innovations in bicycle renting apps and hardware in cities like Shanghai or numerous other aspects of life and innovation here in China, and then we might realize that Silicon Valley needs an infusion of capable innovators and managers who have experience and skills in these areas.

    Yes, there are still many with the old-school attitudes that we can critique, but there is a rich, dynamic innovation culture in several vital parts of China which will lead this nation forward and continuously surprise the West, just as the rapid strengthening of China’s IP system will continue to help China overtake the West as a global leader in IP and innovation. The trends here are very strong and not to be underestimated. China is learning quickly, while the West, especially under the anti-patent hostility of the USPTO, the AIA, and US courts in recent years, is shedding its competitive advantage as a protector and nurturer of innovation and instead seems to be preparing for a long haul in the dark ages.

    Many US managers have been trained in an era of crony capitalism and burgeoning regulations and seem to lack the entrepreneurial skills and mindset needed for this era. The bureaucratic survival skills they have honed are not what the future requires. Some Chinese innovators, however, have developed skills to cut past the challenges and race for success. Don’t underestimate what the right people from China can do with a great opportunity. The legacy of dictatorial and bureaucratic attitudes is not what I see driving the most influential innovators over here.

  2. Stanley Chao February 6, 2017 5:53 pm

    I 100% agree with Jeff’s comments on how China will someday surpass the West in IP technologies and is even now developing many new Internet apps, making the US look like like a 3rd world country.

    However, do not confuse China’s technology development with a its ability to protect IP. These are 2 different things. My comments in the article refer to the poor stance that the Chinese government, takes on IP, trademarks and copyright protection. It is still today, relatively non-existence. Private companies, both Western and Chinese ones, are indeed developing and using IP in China, but do so knowingly that they have little legal protection. They, therefore, have to find other ways to protect their IP. My job, as a consultant, has been to help these companies find non-traditional ways to protect their IP.

    I also, unfortunately, spend a great of my time helping Western companies get back their stolen IP. We try going through the court system, but it seldom works. The Chinese government is not too interested in favoring rich, Western medium-sized companies over Chinese-owned ones. And forget trying to sue a state-owned enterprise. You are basically asking the Chinese courts, a state sponsored entity, to go against another state-owned entity. Remember, separation of powers do not exist in China.

    I work with many companies in China that try to compete with the WeChats and Taobaos of China. We develop new IP in China, use them in China, and make money in China, lots of it; but we do so knowing that our IP could be come public domain. WeChat and Taobao also face the same risk.

    So again, we must differentiate between developing IP and protecting IP in China. They are 2 totally different things.

  3. Jeff Lindsay February 6, 2017 8:33 pm

    Thanks, Stanley. There are serious IP issues here, as you note, but the good news is a positive trajectory of increasing IP strength in China. Settlements are still too low and yes, some jurisdictions favor local companies, but in general Western companies litigating patents or trademarks usually win in court (trade secret litigation is more difficult with much less litigation), though the settlements are too low. And yes, the approach to contracts is too flexible in my opinion and quite difficult for Western companies. I think you have excellent points in your list of “Top Ten Mistakes” at http://www.allinconsult.com/id2.html, by the way. And your book, Selling to China, looks very practical. Are there plans for a Kindle edition? That’s the easiest way to get new foreign books for many of us expats in China.

  4. Stanley Chao February 6, 2017 10:58 pm

    Jeff: Yes, the book is on Kindle via Amazon.com. Thanks for asking. Yes, I agree that things are improving in China with respect to IP protection. The larger multinationals fair better in the courts than compared to 10 or 20 years ago.

    My main concerns though are with the smaller companies that lack resources, boots on the ground, time, and local knowledge to combat the culprits. Most of my consulting work is with companies smaller than $200M in revenue and they seemingly always get hit hard with IP theft.

    But yes, things are getting better, and I suspect China will be in par with the West in 20 years as the government itself has more IP to protect.

  5. Jeff Lindsay February 7, 2017 9:46 am

    Thanks, Stanley. I bought a copy today, and really enjoy it already. Great book. Thanks! I really see your point about the unique needs smaller companies face here in China. I hope with the next round of progress in IP law and IP courts, they will have stronger remedies and protections, but many dangers may remain. Meanwhile, I remain optimistic about the bold progress China is making in that area, and also very bullish on the potential of Chinese innovators.