As a veteran of the Business Intelligence and FORAD classes at Thunderbird, I am no stranger to intense group work. Without fail, in intense projects like these, there comes a point where the novelty wears off and you start feeling the full weight of what you have taken on. For BI, that point came somewhere between midnight phone calls to India and 6:00 am phone calls to Africa as we scrambled for primary source information a week before our final client presentation. In FORAD, it came early – exactly half way through the tri – which made for a particularly long and grueling march to the gates of hell, better known as Defense. In TEM Labs, as we were warned by our professor, it comes right about now.
Normal consulting and simulation projects are stressful, and by the end of our Thunderbird careers, we all have the joy of experiencing one. Some things are the same for each project – it is stressful, intense, everything takes twice as long as you anticipated, and to varying degrees, by the end you are thankful to not be forced to sit in a small room with the same people day after day. TEM Labs face these same obstacles with a few small additions.
This is my first time in China, and I speak zero Mandarin. This means that I have exactly 5 people in Anyue that I can talk to, and I am completely dependent on them for getting around town, eating, and whatever else I want to do. Also, I am the only girl in the team which adds a unique level of isolation to the mix. There is definitely no stopping at the pub on the way home to unwind or catching up with other friends via facebook.
Week 3 of our TEM Lab consisted of a mini holiday as the country celebrated tomb sweeping day. This meant that we got to travel back to Chengdu for a few days and gorge ourselves on Western food (which was awesome), but it also meant we got a taste of what we were missing. After 2 ½ weeks in the Chinese countryside, strolling in Chengdu felt like we had arrived in El Dorado.
Returning to Anyue was a bit of a hard landing, and it seemed somehow smaller, more removed from the modern world than ever. Then add in all of the difficulties from before: speaking no Mandarin, not being able to interact with the friendly locals, being constantly stared at in public, hearing all of your teammates’ jokes for the 80th time. All of these things create an acute sense of isolation that can add to the pressure of working overseas. To think that these issues aren’t going to affect the outcome of your work product is naive or negligent. You have to be honest with yourself about how your emotions and stress levels are playing into your thinking. By recognizing and acknowledging them, you’ll be better prepared to manage around them.
As we go into the final stretch of our project, we are faced with the limits of our ability and timeline. The lemon industry in Anyue differs significantly from developed industries, and there is much room for improvement. Many of these issues, however, are systemic and beyond the power of our client to affect change. We also wonder about the probability of our actionable recommendations being fulfilled. Even in the short time we have left, our timeline continues to be moved around on us, and we’re grappling with how to prepare meaningful, actionable, and realistic recommendations that will actually be implemented. As our sleep is filled with dreams of Mexican (and Indian) food and graduation, our waking hours are filled with thoughts of capacity building and technology improvements. This ain’t our first rodeo and we know we can pull off a great project that our client will be happy with.