Doing Business In China: Assume Nothing.

One of my favorite China business how-to blogs, China Solved, just ran an interesting piece on “managing by checklists” in China.  The article, appropriately entitled, “Checklist Management,” [link no longer exists] talks about how giving a checklist to Chinese employees can minimize cultural misunderstandings.  The post uses the making of a travel reservation as an example:

When we tell a colleague or manager back home, “make a reservation to go to San Francisco on the 15th,” we have all the same steps in mind. We may have a quick discussion about details like Business Class vs. Supersaver, but all the big-picture points are part of our common experience. Of course we will fly there, of course we will leave from the closest airport, of course we will use the regular travel agent or online service. 95% of the process is a “no-brainer.” But in China there’s a good chance you are dealing with someone with no common background or shared experience. They may assume you want them to take a train because it’s cheaper, or book first class tickets because the company is so rich that price doesn’t matter.

This information reminds me of a an article I wrote around ten years ago, entitled “Four Essential Principles of Emerging Market Success.”  In that article,  I listed “Assume Nothing” as Principle Two:

PRINCIPLE TWO: Keep an Open Mind. Assume Nothing.

Doing business in an emerging market means taking nothing for granted. I have a mantra for my own legal work in these countries that translates well to the business world: “Assume nothing, but assume that you are assuming things without even realizing you are doing so.”

Things will be different. Very different. Things you take for granted in your home country might not exist in the emerging market country. Things you take for granted in your home country might be the exact opposite in the emerging market country. Things you think will be totally different in the emerging market country may be exactly the same. Things you thought you knew about emerging market countries based on what you know from another emerging market country may be completely different in a neighboring country, or even in another region within the same country.

On one level, Shanghai could be New York, but at the same time, China is still an emerging market country with a business culture very different from the West.  ChinaSolved’s advice to use checklists with your employees in China as a way to avoid false assumptions makes good sense.

What do you think?

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