I was in Tokyo a few years ago on business and grabbed a beer with a former colleague of mine. He had moved to Japan from the UK a few months previously and was settling into this new environment. I was curious to learn more about the business culture differences, so I asked him what had surprised him most. Interesting to me was the difference he had observed between ‘Western’ and ‘Eastern’ approaches to decision making and execution.

In the ‘Western’ approach, decision making happens pretty quickly, driven by majority approval. Execution starts quickly too, but takes frequent iteration and further decision making to get to a final product. He had discovered the ‘Eastern’ approach to be quite different; decision making is slow, with long deliberation, careful planning and a consensus driven approach. This was, however, followed by rapid and complete execution. He had originally found this ‘Eastern’ approach frustrating; getting everyone on board and planning seemingly every detail took so much time! It was when he saw how rapidly complete execution followed once the decision was made that he realised this approach also had value.

In many modern organisations, particularly those that have adopted ‘agile’-style methodologies, the rapid release and iterate model prevails. My personal opinion is that for most analytical and data related projects, this makes sense; you can get an MVP up and running, learn from your customers' feedback and then improve and iterate. Trying to apply this approach when working in a more traditional organisation, however, will likely lead to failure; short planning phases could be perceived as haphazard and those who aren’t used to iterative cycles might see early MVPs as poor quality or unfinished work.

In these situations, gaining a deep understanding of, and adapting to, the cultural environment will help you be successful. This doesn’t mean the culture can’t evolve, but changing culture is like steering an oil tanker; it takes time to shift direction. Trying to force a change towards more modern operating processes will usually result in resistance, antipathy and churn. Building comfort and taking people on the journey with you is much easier in the long term than the brute force approach.

It's hard to turn a big ship around. Image by Gerhard Traschütz

If you want to really transform a business with data, you’ll need to transform some element of the business culture too. True digital transformation isn’t a bolt-on; it’s a fundamental change that has to come from within an organisation. This takes time and significant effort, and should be as holistic as possible. Attempting this transformation in a silo or through developing a parallel organisation is risky; you can create a great structure that ends up shouting into the void of a broader business not ready, willing or able to utilize the full value of that data capability. The key point is that regardless of what the ‘best’ decision making approach is to you, it is important to be mindful of the environment and culture in which you are operating. Digital transformation isn’t just about cloud platforms and data science stuff. It’s about culture.

--‌‌‌‌‌‌ Colm