The ‘pull’ of the dual forces within our cultural thinking

I lived for about fifteen years in Asia until a short while ago, and in the before and in the in-between period, I travelled there a lot. Participating in Asia, watching how Asia has evolved has been a real experience, that stays with you as something hugely valuable, as it partly shapes your thinking and how you look at things going on in the world. Some events today set me thinking that resulted in this blog.

It was August 3rd 2010, exactly one year ago today,  I wrote one of my first blog entries for this site, entitled “the Yin and Yang of Innovation” (  and talked about the ‘fluidness’ in innovation that makes it hard to manage. How do you get the balance right in managing the innovation activity?

I described yin yang as polar opposites or seemingly contrary forces that are interconnected and interdependent in the natural world, and how they give rise to each other in turn. Opposites thus only exist in relation to each other.

Yin and yang are bound together as parts of a mutual whole

I’m presently working through Langdon Morris’s new book “the Innovation Master Plan”, written to compliment his previous book “Permanent Innovation”. Both offer such good, solid common sense around innovation. I recommend you lay your hands on copies if you can.

One comment made in this latest book by Langdon was talking through the strategic viewpoint and what and where innovation fits. He was describing this strategic viewpoint stating innovation is the means of gaining advantage while from the operational viewpoint it is often the means of survival. He suggests the most effective approaches to innovation will continually strive to address both the strategic and operational benefits, neither to the exclusion of the others.

So here I am one year later back at my feeling of yin yang of innovation. Again the two aspects discussed by Langdon are in need of mutual support. I value the mutual forces innovation needs.

The cultural opposites when East meets West are worth considering also.

East and West- the different meeting points in understanding

This yin yang triggered me to reflect on the constant dilemma we have between Asian and Western thinking and I thought I should share these orientation opposites with you. They might help you.

These orientations have built up for me in my understanding over this extensive periods, living, travelling  and working in Asia over many years. They are structured on cultural aspects well studied, certainly well written about and discussed with many people trying to figure out the many cultural differences they seemingly encounter in dealing with the East or visa-versa, the West ,and trying to understand the behaviours behind these differences.

Clearly not each person can be ‘assigned’ a specific label but these suggested observations serve as useful generalizations and as a broad reference to refer too, that might help resolve ‘cultural differences’ and gain a better understanding of why innovation is often seen through different cultural lenses and can produce very different insights and observations that can lead onto completely different innovation solutions to meet different cultural needs.

Dilemmas of orientation and management when East meets West.

There is a real importance in fully appreciating sometimes really big differences between not only cultures but ways different groups go about their ‘collective’ business.  For instance we, in the West, often fall into a trap of ‘forcing’ the pace, whereas in Asia ‘pace’ is determined by a number of often complex factors that need to be fully appreciated and accounted for. We need to recognise differences and balance them.

When you assess your progress in Asia, your ability to engage effectively,  this handy list might be a useful guide and reminder to refer too on measuring your progress and ‘seeing’ why you are often not making the necessary progress you expected or get caught out by surprise. This clearly is a generalization but more often than not, stands the test of difference.

Western orientation                                                                      Asian orientation

Focus on the individual Focus on the group
Individualist cultures promote individual success and self-assertiveness. Individual responsibility, individual uniqueness, and freedom of decision are highly appreciated and valued. In cultures, which focus on group affiliation (often called collectivist cultures), loyalty to groups and social relationships is more important than individual principles and success.
Achievement orientation Status orientation
Often Power and influence are determined by achievement and by the results of actions and clearly acknowledged. Power and influence on ascribed status parameters such as academic degrees, social background, age, position within the organisation etc
Hierarchical organisation and authority Participative orientation and autonomy
Inequalities are accepted, often freely discussed openly outside the organisation; responsibilities and obligations are hierarchically structured. Decisions are centralised and limited to a few persons. Participation and consensual decision making is highly appreciated. Symbols of status and power are minimised. Decisions are passed up the chain of command and debated, often at great length
Time orientation monochronical Time orientation polychronical
Structured time schedules, punctuality, sequential organisation of daily and long-term activities, strict time management are dominant and valued. Flexible time schedule, synchronically organisation of variant activities at the same time and minor importance placed on punctuality, are markers of this cultural orientation.
Time orientation past/present/future
Time perspectives are differently valued: orientation towards the past values tradition and traditional types of corporate identities, often symbolized by historical heroes;

Orientation towards the present focuses on the here and now, on short-term consequences and immediate profit;

Future orientation is guided more by long-term perspectives, and a tendency for planning on a well-founded empirical basis.

Pragmatic approach Conceptual approach
Decisions are favoured if based on empirical facts and are evaluated according to their concrete effects on clearly defined areas. Decisions are favoured if based on knowledge and coherence; they are evaluated by criteria of logical coherence and intellectual insight.
Universalism Particularism
The search for the single best solution and strategy is a dominant idea, often totally dismissing the opening up to new possibilities as to hard to achieve. The necessity to adapt to concrete situations, changing conditions and specific relationships is a guiding principle. Compromise and flexibility are sought by knowing the others position.
Communication and Social Relationships
Explicit Implicit
The ideal communication means are written detailed and explicitly formulated texts, agreements and contracts. A lot of important information is transmitted by the “non-said’; the context, partner and subject influence the interpretation of information. This keeps it fluid and open
Conflict oriented Harmony maintenance
Conflicts should be expressed as early as possible and tackled in a direct and overt way. Often this creates embarrassment to the other party and creates inner conflict Resolution of conflicts is less important than maintenance of good relationships; group harmony influences the interpretation of information.
Affective Neutral
The overt expression of affective and emotional reactions is considered normal and freely offered as establishing a ‘relationship’ but this really occurs over a long time of mutual trust and reciprocation. Emotional reactions have to be avoided as a potential source of embarrassment and status loss.  Personal thoughts are rarely expressed in private and non-professional life until the parties become extremely comfortable and trusting.
Diffuse Specific
Role and status ascriptions are not limited to specific areas or tasks. Many often superfluous relationships prevail and seen as normal and valuable but don’t have great value attached to them. Personal relationships are well defined and often very specific, as far as their range and importance are concerned. Long-term value of the personal relationship is highly valued

Valuing these orientations, respecting what they mean can help yield better results through appreciation.

These orientations have given me a good understanding while working in Asia.  Over my extensive periods living and working in Asia for the past 20 plus years I’ve been able to validate many of them. Innovation needs equally  a clear balance in orientation, so does our cultural lenses we view the world through. I hope they provide you a useful way to balance out and appreciate differences in a world of growing mutual dependence.

Valuing cultural differences and diversity offers many more innovative possibilities, explore them all, one is not mutually exclusive, they offer different perspectives .

One thought on “The ‘pull’ of the dual forces within our cultural thinking

  1. Pingback: The immediate shift in work and social norms needs innovation | Paul4innovating's Innovation Views

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