Process vs Results: Which Way are You Oriented?

There are a thousand different ways to define and classify businesses and business cultures.  Most of them only matter internally. Others have only minor influence on relationships with other businesses. There are a few, however, which can majorly impact your ability to effectively communicate with other businesses.  And breakdowns in communication means breakdowns in business.

Process vs. Results

Before I start discussing the topic, we need to define the terms.  Oddly enough, I found disagreement regarding the terms “Process oriented” and “Results oriented”.  My definitions are:

Process Oriented
More interested in the “how” and “why” of the system, and focusing more on the procedures than the results. A process-oriented company (or individual) is willing to try new approaches, and follow new paths that appear during the creation process. Process-oriented people will take longer to reach a result, but are more likely to discover new things.
Results Oriented
More interested in the “what” and “when” of the system, and focusing more on the results than on how they are achieved. A results-oriented company (or individual) follows only the paths which appear to lead directly to the pre-defined result. Results-oriented people will reach a result quicker, but are unlikely to make new discoveries along the way.

Cultures Matter

When discussing the “process vs. results” distinction, it’s important to understand that the overall culture of the country or region will heavily influence the approach of the company in question.   It’s also important to understand that neither approach is inherently right or inherently better.

Tinker, Teacher, Tell Me Why

USA Rural vs Urban Population

The United States is, generally, a process-oriented culture.  We tinker with things, modify and improve them, and try new things just to see what happens.  While this has, in some respects been changing over the past generation or two, it’s still an integral part of who we are as a country and a people.

Historically, this fascination with tinkering comes from two places:  Schools and farms.

Up until about 1920, the US population was predominantly rural.  Farmers and immigrants are frequently in the lower income levels, and need to “make do” with older equipment.  Additionally, farmers have a cyclic work cycle–long hours for the spring planting and autumn harvest seasons, with more free time in the summer and (especially) winter months.   This leaves time to do repairs and “tinker”.

This tinkering mentality spilled over into the classrooms (where most teachers were also rural), and classes focused a lot on why things happen rather than just teaching the answers.  The idea in American education was that knowing how and why a thing works allows that knowledge to be applied to other areas.

As the United States became more industrialized–and, after the 1960s, more technological–this process-oriented approach became ingrained in the business, engineering, and eventually software development cultures.  The Open-Source community in software development is a prime example of this.

The Answer is Always Right

Say it with me!

The cultures of China, South Korea, and to an extent Japan focus on knowing the correct answer.  Having the correct answer has a higher value than understanding how to find the correct answer. While I haven’t read any studies or articles on this aspect of culture, my own supposition is that it’s a result of having a non-phonetic language.  It’s a fair hypothesis that the rote memorization of thousands of characters required to read and write in Chinese forced a system geared towards “this is the answer”  rather than “how do we find the answer”1Fun fact:  Chinese people can’t pronounce my Chinese name 穆燚猇 because, while they know the common surname “Mu”, they’ve never seen the characters 燚 or 猇, and there is no way to know how they should be pronounced.

When China opened up to foreign business in the late 1970s, and became “the world’s factory”, there was little-to-no incentive for businesses to engage in process-oriented operations.  The job was to produce as many widgets as possible–all exactly the same.  This simply reinforced the results-oriented ideal–sometimes at the cost of quality and/or honesty.

Discussions Across the Divide

What does this mean for your company if you want to do business in China?  Mostly it means you need to be aware of the focus and limitations of Chinese businesses.  If you’re entering China looking for fully-engaged partners who will help you to create and innovate, you’re not going to find it.  The small amount of actual innovation happening in China is being done at large companies like Tencent and Alibaba.  The “Anhui Factory #39” may be great for low-cost production and assembly, but it’s not going to help you become the next Apple.

They’re also not going to “partner” with you in the way that American and European companies think of it.  We tend to think of “win-win” scenarios and mutual reward.  We know that two companies sharing ideas and insights can build on each other’s strengths and create a something that is larger than the sum of its parts.  Chinese are going to be looking at ways to maximize profits–even by cheating their “partners”.

The benefit of China is low-cost, mass-production of low-to-medium quality products2High-quality production is possible, but it requires boots-on-the-ground management by foreigners, diligent recruitment of locals, and strong oversight of everything..  If you keep that in mind, and always be aware that Chinese companies are looking only at the “right answer”, you’ll be on firmer ground.

Footnotes   [ + ]

1. Fun fact:  Chinese people can’t pronounce my Chinese name 穆燚猇 because, while they know the common surname “Mu”, they’ve never seen the characters 燚 or 猇, and there is no way to know how they should be pronounced
2. High-quality production is possible, but it requires boots-on-the-ground management by foreigners, diligent recruitment of locals, and strong oversight of everything.
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Since 2011, Blaze has worked in China as an English-language consultant with top companies from Germany, France, Italy, and the U.S. He has over 25 years of experience in education, communication, and marketing.

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