TEM Lab: Vietnam – Sharp Ideas Inc.
A sunrise workout where David worked us each into a pool of sweat. Morning meetings. Research. Two lunch meetings. Afternoon brainstorming session that felt more like pulling teeth than creative banter.
By the time our 4pm, and final meeting for the day arrived, David and I were exhausted – mentally and physically, headed into what would turn out to be the most difficult interview yet.
The interview with the Chief Accountant was critical to understanding some of the resource allocation issues we’ve been charged with attacking, but less than two minutes into the meeting it was clear that our target interviewee was not at all comfortable with English, and we weren’t going to make any progress until Jane, the HR Manager, was able to finish another meeting and join us to translate.
My mind – and notepad – were bursting with questions for her, but I couldn’t seem to put any of them into simple enough vocabulary that she would understand. I stared at David. He stared back at me. I tried another question. She stared at me blankly.
I looked back at David – and saw the light bulb go off. He drew five faces on his notepad, frowns and smiles, and asked “How do you like Sharp Ideas?”
She nodded, then pointed to a face. Finally, we were able to continue with questions and take the conversation forward until Jane arrived.
10 Points: Global Mindset.
Can you please pass the crocodile? That sounds like a question from an Indiana Jones movie, one I never imagined myself asking. As it turns out, for lunch today with a Vietnamese prospective student, we had a hot pot assortment including crocodile, camel, and fresh shrimp. So fresh, in fact, that it was still moving on the plate. TEM Lab has taken us many places and introduced us to new faces, and we’ve certainly had our share of adventure and unique Thunderbird quality experiences.
Team Helper has ventured up north to the capital city of Hanoi, and we are hot on the trail of finding the missing links that will provide us with valuable insight for completing our business plan for the Helper launch of the environmentally friendly EM product.
In Hanoi, we’ve had several meetings with government institutions and development centers to gain a better understanding of the business environment for green technology. There is only so much information you can find in a database or a book; the real answers come from “boots on the ground” intel and digging deeper than the books allow. We’ve worked hard at developing a live network of key influencers for Helper to launch their product.
On Friday we met with Dr. Le Khac Quang, the head of the Vina Nichi Center for Technology Development. He is Vietnam’s leading director of research, and has been studying EM and its various applications in Vietnam for the past 12 years. We wanted to have face time with Dr. Quang so that we could get an accurate read on whether our product recommendations to Helper matched his intuition for which industries Helper should focus on for a successful product launch.
We also met with Brent Omdahl, with the US Commercial Services at the US Embassy. Mr. Omdahl works with environmental sustainability initiatives between the US government and industry and Vietnam. His experience and insight shed light on the realities of the speed at which Vietnam is mandating change for environmental protection from manufacturers and the extent to which they are enforcing the new laws.
Our time on the project is coming to a close, and I can’t help but think that this trip to Hanoi would have been much more strategic had we come towards the beginning of our project, because of the wealth of valuable information we have come across from this network. Although 6 weeks seems like a long time, it just flies by. And just when all the pieces of the puzzle seem to make sense, it is time to wrap up the project and move on. Professor Finney touches on this in Organizational Consulting class: that we often become attached to our projects, and it is hard to pull away when time is up. We will keep this is mind as we make our final recommendations and turn over the business plan to Helper.
And yes, I highly recommend trying the crocodile.
Last week, Team Saigon attended First Tuesday in Ho Chi Minh. There were only three other T-birds in attendance outside of our regular group of five, but it was still heartening to know that the Thunderbird community remains strong even in the furthest reaches of the world.
One of the T-birds in attendance, Jim Echle ’72, the head of the Thunderbird Vietnam Chapter, has been working with animal feed in Asia for the past twenty years. Brian Smith ‘90, who has been working in the export industry in Vietnam for the past 16 years, provided us with a contact who has worked with microorganisms similar to EM. Both Brian and Jim have remained supportive of the Thunderbird community through their generous donations towards scholarships and the school.
Yesterday, we met with Jim again, and he gave us some extremely useful information about his experience with pig feed and how it may apply to our research of EM. In one hour with Jim, we learned more about the animal husbandry industry in Vietnam than we did in our entire three weeks of researching it blindly online. Our Thunderbird contacts have been the single most valuable resource for our research, hands down.
As Thunderbirds, we should be thankful that we have such a supportive community throughout the world. We have been inspired by these Thunderbirds in Ho Chi Minh City, and we hope that we can also give back to our fellow T-birds some day…once we all have jobs.
To all the brand gurus:
For the TEM-Lab project, we are working with Helper, a green, cleaning company who is launching an environmentally-friendly water treatment product designed for commercial use. This week, the team created a few labels for this product and we would like to get as much feedback as possible from T-birds before they start manufacturing the product.
Target customer: Manufacturers who are heavy polluters in South Vietnam
Purpose: Utilized in the beginning of the water treatment process to eliminate micro-toxins
Image: Premium. Green. Socially-conscious.
Value add: Replaces existing water treatment chemical for this lower cost, organic compound called Effective Microorganisms (EM).
Future plans: Helper plans to launch other green products for odor neutralizer, fertilizer, animal husbandry, and commercial cleaning services. Essentially, this label sets the tone for their entire product and image.
Please give us any feedback, positive or negative. You can either make a comment on the blog, or send me an e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org. Thanks!
While in the middle of a 12-hour bus ride back to Saigon from Cambodia, a place I had never imagined wanting to go, I found myself with a lot of time. Time enough, in fact, to read an entire collection of essays by Malcolm Gladwell called “What the Dog Saw,” about all sorts of things: finance, the difference between choking and panicking, and hair dye, to name a few.
But what really got me thinking was a series of essays at the end of his collection. The topics ranged from late bloomers, to the myth of talent, to the danger of relying too heavily upon our snap impressions of people. All the topics got me thinking about the experience so far of working with Sharp Ideas and their CEO, Tuan.
On April 2nd, we met with Tuan in the morning to review our progress so far and to go over the draft of an employee survey we’d created. Instead of meeting with him (he got pulled into a client meeting of his own), we met with Jane, the company’s HR Manager.
Our working relationship with Jane so far had been great. WIth her help, we had previously made some progress in defining the scope of the project and with steering it in a certain direction. But in this meeting she expressed Tuan’s concern that we weren’t getting enough contact time with the company to be able to figure out exactly what the employees go through every day.
This topic was a surprise, as we thought we had previously made it clear that given our short time-frame, and the language gap between us and many of the employees, we wouldn’t be spending time observing their daily tasks. That Tuan would raise this concern through Jane was doubly troubling, as we had attempted to always communicate directly with him personally. So we left the Friday meeting with plenty to chew on, and with none of it tasting particularly good.
At that point, four of us embarked on a two-pronged bus trip into Cambodia that totaled 12 hours. The roads were paved, but rough, and the bus from Phnom Penh (Cambodia’s capitol) to Siem Reap (near which lay the temples of Angkor Wat, our ultimate destination) was filthy, hot, and cramped. But we made it to the temples, and after an afternoon recuperating, turned back around to return to Ho Chi Minh City.
This is when the trip turned sour. This time, not only was the bus filthy, hot, and cramped, but there was all kinds of noise and disruption. Babies cried. The bus played Cambodian theater recordings at high volume. People talked loudly on their mobile phones, and literally dropped used food wrappers and water bottles into the aisles. And the bus stopped what seemed to be every 20-30 minutes on the side of the road to either pick up or drop off a local passenger without a ticket!
It was at this stage of the journey, while attempting to remain calm during the storm around me, that I read Gladwell’s account of how the author Ben Fountain found inspiration for a book he was writing on a long bus ride to the remote Central Plateau of Haiti. Gladwell quotes Fountain as saying, of the Central Plateau, “which takes about twelve hours to get to on a bus, and I had no reason to go there. But I went up there. Suffered on that bus, and ate dust. It was a hard trip, but it was a glorious trip. It had nothing to do with the book, but it wasn’t wasted knowledge.”
Believe me, I felt like I could relate exactly to Fountain’s experiences. The trip to Angkor Wat had nothing to do with our project for Sharp Ideas, and it was frankly often more painful than seemed worth it. But if there’s one thing a long bus ride is good for, it’s reading. And while I read, I was constantly reminded of our project.
Gladwell wrote another thing that struck me as powerfully applicable. In a piece that begins with noting how accurate humans’ first impressions are, he also notes the mistake in applying that snap judgment to other scenarios. Schools hire teachers based on scholastic achievement, and on good interviews, but make a mistake in assuming that those successes automatically translate to the job of teaching. Teachers need to try teaching before their performance can be evaluated.
How do we know, for example, if a teacher knows how to let a student express their own engagement with the material? Will she squelch it by telling her student to “sit up straight” when they start to lean forward, or will she allow some wiggle room?
As Professor Michael Finney often exhorts in his courses, authentic consultants not only express their concerns and provide feedback immediately, but also leave a client stronger than upon arrival. That is, a consultant shouldn’t create consultant-dependent clients. Well that’s another way of saying that a consultant teaches the client something. It could be a process, or a product, or a methodology. But the point is that consultants teach, and teachers can only really learn how to teach by trying it. Which brings me back to our project.
As consultants we have to let the client choose the best way for his company to learn what we are attempting to teach. And were we effectively teaching our client about what we’re doing? In a word, no. We had a client who clearly did not understand the benefit of our project despite several clarification meetings. We simply hadn’t let him learn about what we were doing in his own way. We had been, momentarily, average teachers.
Thankfully, our client was giving us clues as to how they wanted to learn from us (we’d just missed them for a weekend). Our client’s preferred learning method is in contact with us, and this is because they as individuals and a group need to deepen our relationship to the point of trusting us enough to learn from us.
Today we met with Tuan all morning to work on his understanding of the project. We asked questions, then waited for his response. We let silence linger. We tried to encourage him to take the lead, by telling us what he knew of our project direction. After a few hours, a light clicked, and he began speaking with more enthusiasm about the results we’d attain.
Then we had lunch with the entire company, and didn’t talk about the work at all! We hope that by learning who we are a bit more, we’ll learn how to teach each other a little better.
So while our trip to Siem Reap really didn’t have anything to do with the project, the downtime gave me a chance to read, and to think about other ways of seeing things, and that makes for a better journey.
As mentioned earlier, the Ho Chi Minh team is in charge of two projects with two different organizations. The first is an organizational development project with Sharp Ideas, and the second is a marketing and strategy-related project with a sustainability-related company called Helper.
The Helper team (Mariana, Josh and myself) is completing a market analysis to determine a) if it is viable to launch a green product in Vietnam, and b) which industry Helper should focus on that will gain the most latitude in the Vietnamese business environment. This product is known as EM, or Effective Micro-organism. EM is a natural compound that was first developed in Japan in 1982 and is currently being researched and used in several countries around the world for the purpose of improving the environment. The application of EM has successfully resulted in better agricultural conditions, cleaner water, healthier livestock, the elimination of odors, and increased health in humans, among other benefits.
EM has huge potential for improving the environment in Vietnam, but as Thunderbirds, we are fully aware that just because something works well in one country, it does not always translate into another culture. In our first brainstorming session with our client, we used the IDEO-influenced “design thinking” process to determine the filters we must consider when deciding which industry to focus our efforts in. We concluded that in Vietnam, where over 40% of all businesses are state-owned enterprises, it is essential to get the government on our side. In our first week, we were fortunate enough to meet with a representative from the American Chamber of Commerce, who will be providing us with contacts to answer our questions and put us in touch with the appropriate people within the government as well as other key decision-making organizations in Vietnam.
In November, Helper will be hosting an event in conjunction with its “Green City Campaign,” a movement for the greening of Ho Chi Minh City. During this event, which is called, “One Million Apologies to Mother Earth,” volunteers will release one million EM-enhanced mud balls that will result in lowered pollutant levels in the Saigon River over time and raise awareness of EM’s environmental benefits. Pictured below are Mariana, Josh, and the CEO of Helper, Truong Ngoc Que Anh, holding some sample EM mud balls.
Our team is extremely excited about working on our project in the coming weeks. We are not only helping Helper launch a product that could bring them increased revenues and a wider customer reach, but we are also helping Vietnam by introducing a product that could potentially improve the country’s environment on a massive scale. We are wholeheartedly looking forward to helping Helper help Vietnam help the environment.
As Mariana McCready described in her blog, the first thing we were shown upon arrival here at the Sharp Ideas / Helper offices was a general introductory presentation by Nguyen Thi Thu Trang (Jane), SI/Helper’s head of HR. Sharp Ideas prizes Team-Building as their top priority, and conducts semi-annual team-building excursions. The Vietnamese in-group collectivism we learned about from both Professors Mansour Javidan and Denis Leclerc has emerged strongly, as SI has proclaimed “We Are One,” and that “Together, We can Achieve More” (TEAM).
We’ve also learned of several projects being developed by Sharp Ideas (SI). The first is an extension of their existing Green campaign called “A Million Apologies to Mother Earth,” in which SI and their small army of volunteers (mostly students) will be hand-rolling 1,000,000 Effective Micro-organism mudballs, which will then be dropped en masse into local canals, rivers, and lakes.
We also learned of a “Stress Festival,” currently under development. It will be a partnership between SI, UNESCO, and the Vietnam Ministry of Nutrition (NIN). The content and format have yet to be determined, but the crux of the project is that SI seeks to alleviate the stress experienced by Vietnamese white-collar workers. Our SI partner Nicky made reference to a study placing Vietnamese WCWs as the 3rd-most stressed in the world. And after experiencing only 24 hours now of Ho Chi Minh City-area traffic, I am beginning to understand how that could be the case. Can you say “TIGNUM,” anyone?
Dr. Karen Brown would be interested to know that there’s an overview picture sitting over my head right now (in one of SI’s two communal work spaces) of the “6 Thinking Hats” method, although it remains to be seen it what context the company utilizes the problem-solving and -thinking method. As Dr. Brown teaches in her “Operations Management” and “Managing Projects” courses, the 6 Thinking Hat method can help a team make sure that all potential perspectives are considered when planning a project: Possibilities, Benefits and Positives, Negatives, and so on. It’s a great sign to see such techniques openly on display here.
We’ve also had very productive meetings with Tuán (Sharp Idea’s CEO) about the overall strategic direction he sees the firm moving in. As Professor Michael Finney likes to profess in “Organizational Consulting,” it’ll be important and ultimately more valuable to Sharp Ideas if they don’t need us after this project. We’ve therefore fine-tuned our work plan and set of deliverables to help address some perceived gaps between SI’s strategic goals and their current capabilities.
“Food is our common ground, a universal experience.”
— James Beard
During a lunch Jayme, Mariana, and I had with Dr. Kishore Dash (professor of RBE: Asia), we asked him how we could best communicate with the client. He answered by saying, “This” and pointing to his food. My confused expression prompted him to elaborate after what I would consider an awkward pause. “Eat dinner with them. It’s the best way to get to know your client in Vietnam,” he said.
Segue to our first day with the client. After hours of meetings, the clients invited us out to a traditional (and amazing) Vietnamese restaurant. Throughout the meal, barriers were lowered as we began to disclose our backgrounds and noticeable cultural differences between US and Vietnam. Being a “high-context” person, I felt this was the first time I was able listen (dialogue, non-verbals, and intonation) to the client. I believe this dinner helped clear the “cultural noise” when communicating with their team.
The impact of that dinner was immediate.The following day the Helper team brainstormed and collaborated with Ahn, the CEO, on how to launch a particular line of products. The degree of synergy between all participants reminded me why “two head are better than one”.
All this to say, T-birds, if you ever find yourself struggling to connect with your boss, client, or colleague in Southeast Asia, break bread with them. It truly is a common ground.
That is the motto at Sharp Ideas and Helper in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. As five eager Thunderbirds entered the office for the first time, we were told to remove our shoes at the front door and we remained barefoot for the rest of the day. This “thinking outside the shoe” technique was quite refreshing as we began our first day on the job. Sharp Ideas believes that all team members walk on equal ground, and this act is reflective of that principle.
Our first meeting with Sharp Ideas included a high level overview of their marketing company, their core values and the work they do. Under the same roof, Helper, their sister company explained to us their focus on sustainability and bringing green technology to Vietnam. It quickly became clear as the morning progressed that we would be working on two separate projects; one for SI and one for Helper, and that we would need to split into strategic teams.
Project 1: Help Sharp Ideas with some organizational issues. Jayme and David are teaming up for this and combining their strengths and past experiences to identify pain points and prescribe an action plan to address those points.
Project 2: Help Helper to develop a strategic marketing plan for the launch of a green product. Josh, Amanda and I are putting our creative hats on to make a plan to help launch a green product in the not-yet-green Vietnamese market.
As each team sorts through the challenges and ambiguities in hopes of honing in on the scope of the project, one thing remains clear, we MUST get a team pedicure before work tomorrow!