One challenge that faces any consultant is establishing a project’s scope. More often than not, a project has multiple stakeholders with different – if not opposing – motives, and as such, clarity in terms of what needs to be accomplished can be difficult to pinpoint, and scope creep often threatens to derail things. While this challenge is to be expected in any consulting project, introducing disparate cultures and languages makes clear communication an issue, only exacerbating the difficulty of defining scope.
It’s not that our team does not have its fair share of Chinese speakers. When it comes to conversing with locals about whom we are and what we are doing in Anyue, we have little difficulty explaining ourselves. Granted, I may have allowed a certain barbershop to believe that I was a movie star, in Anyue to film a top secret movie about lemons, instigating a brief but excited photo shoot. But it’s hard to resist such fame when it’s given to you and all you have to do is offer confirmation. The true difficulty comes from working in a high-context/high-power-distance culture when we are so used to being able to have direct conversations with our colleagues in order to fully understand what is expected of us.
Our first major challenge came when we were asked to submit an outline for our final report on Friday, when we had only begun to establish the scope of the project three days prior. We wondered how we could possibly be expected to create an outline for a report that we were in no way prepared to write. As such, we wrote a general outline referencing the topics that we hoped to discuss in the report, but without too much detail as we had not yet delved deep enough into our research to confidently convey the outcome of the report. After all, we had only been in Anyue for two days.
On Monday morning, a meeting was held, of which we had expected to be a part, in which members of the Lemon Bureau discussed our outline, and one of our Chinese counterparts, Mr. Tian, came back with notes that seemed rather grim. We had not given enough detail. They were uncertain of what we were trying to do. They seemed to have something very specific in mind, but we were unsure what it was. The feedback that we were given about what our client wanted in the final report was really no different from what we were working on. But how were we to give more details about a final report for a project which had only just begun? And why had they asked us to come if they weren’t confident in our ability? The reaction to our outline left a sour taste in our mouths.
Nonetheless, we revised the outline according to our client’s feedback and urged our student aids to help us set up a meeting with the leader of the Lemon Bureau, whom we had not yet met because he had been away on business. We were concerned that we would continue to send unsatisfactory outline drafts if we were unable to talk directly to the person in charge to understand what he wanted. This would only serve to delay a project that has a limited time for completion as is.
The meeting was set for 3pm, after everyone had returned from lunch. The anxiety in our office was palpable as we wondered whether what we were about to deliver would be considered satisfactory. At the meeting, we gave a presentation about product development and market research and discussed our revised outline. The head of the Lemon Bureau, Mr. Liu, seemed satisfied with our presentation and our revisions. As it turned out, they really wanted an outline of our work plan, rather than an outline of our final report, so that they could understand how best to aid us in our research. We returned to our office feeling much more confident in our understanding of what it was that our client wanted from us. In retrospect, we realized that Mr. Tian approaching us with notes for our outline before our meeting with Mr. Liu had helped us save face when we gave our presentation. This was because it prevented us from being openly criticized in front of everyone at the meeting. Who knew?