Following on from recent international experience, I will be speaking at Agile Manchester on “How to make multicultural agility work“.
The blurb: “People are different, and when you add country and culture into the mix, a complicated collaboration problem becomes even more complex. In order to lead an organisational change, you need to understand how different cultures behave and work. Whilst agile has many prescribed methodologies, such as scrum, things need to be tweaked: It’s not one size-fits-all.
In this session, I will share my recent experience of working with teams in Poland and Iceland, across retail, betting and shipping technology industries.”
More info here.
I have spent quite a lot of time in Krakow, Poland, working with tech firms. I’ve been really lucky and made some amazing friends (and some annoying friends too, you know who you are). I like to think I’ve learned some things, and I hope they will be of interest and of use to others working across the UK-Poland cultural divide.
As part of this post, I’m going to make some hugely sweeping generalisations on national sentiment. These are just what I feel from the people I’ve met in Britain and Poland, and in the interest of brevity I’m not caveating that in each case. Feedback is welcome!
Don’t mention the war
- The British feel like they entered the war because of Poland, so the Polish should feel some affinity for Britain.
- The Polish feel like Britain didn’t enter the war until France was invaded. Betrayal may be an appropriate term. (Honestly, I’m probably more in the Polish camp now. Read Churchill’s History of World War Two and try not to be annoyed or frustrated at the “Twilight War” chapters.)
- Pro tip: Do your research before weighing in on historical events.
- Humour. The British know their humour is weird, and think others should enjoy it too by repeated exposure. Jokes are often woven into the fabric of work conversation.
- The Polish sense of humour seems mixed, to an outsider. Some people like to keep work serious, and then joke when they are not working. Some like to blend work and joking. Universally though, no-one understands British humour except the British.
- Pro tip: Keep jokes more “Big Bang Theory” than “Monty Python”
- British introductions go something like:
- A: “Hi, how are you?” B: “Hi, how are you?”
- Polish introductions go something like:
- A: “Hi, how are you?” B: “Everything is terrible, I had a lousy weekend and I wish I was still asleep, I’ve got a bit of a cold and my mum made the porridge too dry this morning. How are you?”
- Pro tip: I personally now prefer the more honest and descriptive Polish way. Maybe give it a go! Perhaps less negative than the Poles often describe themselves, though.
These, it turns out, as with animal sounds, are not universal. Saying “oh” or “ah” may not convey the information or expression you were expecting. Just be careful. I had intended to make a table of these and might do that later if there is any interest.
This article is written with thanks to the many Polish and British people who encouraged my silly inquisitiveness. If I’ve got anything wrong, or if I’ve missed anything interesting, I’d really appreciate you letting me know either in the comments below or email.
I thought it might be good to share some of the things I’ve learned from my five years working in international teams. This is purely based on my experience, so feel free to share any differing opinions.
Firstly, I’d like to point out that multi-country collaboration can work! I’ve worked in teams and had many meetings with one person in Brazil, France, Spain, and the UK. The most challenging part is the very few hours of shared time together (if across multiple timezones) so make the most of those hours together. I’ll be focusing on video-calls as I found these essential for international working.
Videocall setup tips:
- Make sure the camera can see everyone (a lot of communication is nonverbal).
- Power imbalances make communication hard, so try to switch “hosting”.
- Everyone being in the same social situation helps eg evenly sized groups or all individually dialling in (yes, even if in the same office go to different spaces).
- Having a constant Hangout/Skype on can help, depending on the amount of collaboration required. If you don’t need to collaborate, I find it distracting.
- Arrive on time LIKE IT IS A NORMAL MEETING.
Improving videocall quality:
- Background noise adds up and interrupts others: put yourself on mute if not talking.
- Using headphones stops Skype’s auto-cut-out and allows you both to speak and listen at the same time.
- Plug in the ethernet (not just wifi).
Building team connections in other ways:
- It is very much worth (early on in the relationship) visiting each other’s locations for at least 2 weeks. 2 weeks because it gives a weekend to relax and understand the culture better, as well as to know the people you will be working with.
- Go to the pub, sportsbar, or culture-appropriate-alternative together.
- Don’t forget you can do 1:1’s and other small meetings over videocalls too. I’d recommend building these confidential meetings into your rituals where possible, as it helps build trust. Also 1 to 1 video calls are actually pretty good.
- If you’re coding, agree your coding standards together. Lots of collaborative software exists (Slack, Jira, Trello, Google, Github,…). I can’t advise what will be best for you: simply explore and see what works best for your needs.
So those are my tips. As ever I’d suggest Inspect and Adapt! For example in retrospectives it might be helpful to add in an activity to talk about how you collaborate and any experiments you might like to try.