Author: Verity Corbett | Business Development Manager | Maier+Vidorno
First published in September 2016

India is a land of adaptability so if you work with Indian outsourcing agencies you probably won’t notice too many cultural differences in the way a team behaves – maybe a little more thinking around the edges, a little more trying to fit your requirements or sometimes a few deadlines may be fuzzy; but probably plans were made and carried out in a way that would seem “normal” to someone from a Western country who is used to multinational projects.  In these cases there is a clear hierarchy with a foreign client, and the incredible flexibility and accommodating nature of Indian workspaces means that people will try to work to this client’s rhythms and expectations.

Things work differently in teams where the majority of the team are based in India, and especially in Indian teams who have less exposure to “foreign” ways of thinking and/or the head of the project is also from India.  In these teams the lone foreigner can often get frustrated because things aren’t working the way he or she would expect – and they can even start thinking that nothing is happening or it is all out of control.  This is often very far from the case, but you need to know a few things to help make collaborating with Indian teams the fun and exhilarating experience it can be.  Here we aim to explain some of the differences to Western thinking and give some tips to help.

Health warning: Please don’t expect these tips to work outside India – or in every situation within India.  There are many offices here – not just BPOs – where time management and collaborative time-bound teamwork are essential elements of corporate culture and there are individuals within every other office who strive against the default settings.  However there are many occasions when our foreign clients ask us “why on earth did that happen?  I thought we were all clear and agreed” and this article is written for them to help them understand those situations better.

Tip 1

Indians really hate to say no
It is really, really important to understand this.  In India many kids get told off if they say no.  It’s rude and an Indian is as uncomfortable saying no in a business setting as many Westerners would feel in swearing.  It doesn’t mean that no Indian will ever say no to you but it does mean (a) few will come straight out and say it and (b) you have to learn to read the body language, pauses and verbal cues to help see where people really want to say no but also do not wish to be impolite.  Sometimes this will come across to outsiders as unconstructive or passive aggressive but this is far from the truth, watch carefully for the signs that agreement is not being reached or a lot of small hindrances are being mentioned one after another and give people more prompts and more opportunities to tell you in their own way where the barriers are – wherever possible avoiding asking questions which require an outright contradiction to a position you have put forward.

Tip 2

India is a really collaborative AND hierarchical culture
Across much of India decisions are taken with a lot of people involved and it’s often necessary to involve more people than you would ask in Europe or America because many people are specialists and everyone has a perspective.   This can make consultations processes exhaustive and exhausting, but without asking everyone who may be involved you can have problems further down the line.

Hierarchies make things even more complex as many times you need buy-in from both the senior executive and the operational implementers to avoid either group blocking activities later.  The linchpin of these problems is the Government bureaucracies.  While Mr Modi is working hard to change the pattern, most people in India will be very familiar with situations where their paperwork is being processed only to reach a stumbling block because either someone more senior or more operational had not been involved and now they call a halt because some rule has been interpreted wrongly.  Part of the reason for this is the sheer complexity and comprehensibility of the regulations and differing interpretations of these.

What this means is that following due process and collaborating effectively may bring you to a perfectly good final product – but that product may get overturned at the very last minute because one person did not participate earlier and now points out that there’s a better way to do things.  That view will need to be considered whoever they are, but if they are the boss it will overshadow all work already completed.

Tip 3

Exceptions are important
In most Western cultures rules are made keeping the majority in focus.  In India the same will happen but the details will be elaborated to ensure that as many exceptions as possible are covered.  In a country of 1 billion people there are a lot of exceptions and people are used to thinking through who may be an exception and how to deal with them.  What does this mean?  In almost any project planning there will be times where plans are being developed to accommodate the maximum number of people or events and when working with India there will be times where the momentum stalls and focus is completely diverted to how to deal with an exceptional set of people or possible scenario.  Dealing with this approach often requires tons of patience and it also requires delicate nudging to stop projects stalling while dealing with one exceptional circumstance after another.  Momentum is usually possible with some gentle encouragement and the occasional check: “is that really likely to happen?  How often will that happen?” if the answers are “not really” or “not very often” then it’s probably possible to get back onto track without too much further thought – but it is really important that time is given to this process or else projects can often stall at the very last minute.

Tip 4

Time is polychronic in India
Most Western Societies are monochronic. This means that things happen one after another with certain orderliness; and this means that most Westerners are used to the idea that things will happen in a logical single linear manner.  In India, time is far more polychronic.  That means that many different things are normally happening at the same time and for most people deadlines are helpful milestones on the side of the road than individual finish lines.  For most situations a deadline or target date can be surpassed without any bad consequences and for this reason deadlines are often not approached in the same way in India.

In India one talks about “Indian Stretchable Time” and one really means it.  So please do not think indians are lazy or untrustworthy because they did not meet every deadline – please understand deadlines are often aspirational and for many people here, really not as important as most Americans and Europeans would think.  If you really need us to do something for you to a very specific deadline then you need to build a strong relationship and if not maybe give me a deadline about 20% earlier than you actually need it.

It’s always good if you test individuals to see how polychronic they are – as with all of India you can build an entire system with the exceptions, or you can build-in secret buffer time into the project planning to allow for the multiple other tasks and responsibilities people have.

In conclusion

Once again we stress these tips do not apply to everybody in India – if you have the chance to meet anyone from the Indian armed services you will know that many Indians of all ages are sticklers for strict timing and commitment to plans made – and they are not the only ones.  However there are a lot of situations where timing is adjustable, commitments are aspirational and barriers are hinted at, and when you find yourself getting frustrated in a meeting or project plan take a moment to check whether any of the above are coming into play – you may find that the problem is simply that you didn’t understand the situation and things and be adjusted to fit.  Wherever possible try to resolve any barriers with patience, humour and relationship building during the planning process rather than asking at the end why you didn’t get what you wanted when you told people it was due.