Product management across cultures: Working in Tokyo in 2020

Summary
I had to understand how to influence and make an impact in the Japanese work culture. I spent a lot of time learning how they work, and their processes, and learning how I could merge our work styles with theirs.
Read time: 5 minutes
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Date published
January 28, 2021

Early in 2020, I got the opportunity to work for our global fashion retailer client on their flagship e-commerce site. Following from the design system we had created together, our client was overhauling their site to implement the DS and a series of new features.

I jumped at the opportunity to work in Tokyo, and bring value to an organization I loved as a customer. I was able to stay in Tokyo for three months—but the pandemic cut my six-month work placement in half. Though my time there was short, I learned a lot about creating value as a product manager in a new culture. Here’s a list of my top five useful lessons from my time in Japan, that you can apply anywhere in the world.

1. Step out of your comfort zone

Moving to a country that I had only experienced from a single vacation was daunting. I didn’t speak the language, and I knew that the work culture was going to be different than what I was used to in North America. On top of this, while I have experience in a variety of industries, I had never worked with a fashion client before. All of these points were unfamiliar, but it motivated me to see if my broader experience could make an impact for the client. I leaned on my foundational skills as a senior product manager, and helped introduce a form of requirement triage to prioritize and categorize work on the defect log. Adapting and adjusting to the situation at hand when the client was feeling overwhelmed by the number of defects that had been logged left me with a sense of calm in knowing that I added value in the most difficult of situations. With the new requirement triage, we were able to prioritize and plan out the work to achieve a level of quality for the Japanese user.

2. Make time to earn the respect of your team

There are so many experiences that we take for granted in North America. Once I settled into the flow of work, I had to understand how to influence and make an impact in the Japanese work culture. Once I figured out how to survive the morning commute (it really was as crowded as you’ve heard, and a bit more!), I realized I had to ensure the respect of the senior colleagues and stakeholders on our team. I spent a lot of time learning how they work, and their processes, learning how I could merge our work styles with theirs. This was done through consistent coffee chats to get to know my new colleagues on the client side, and through delivering workshops that were directly beneficial to their business.

3. Consistency pays off

When I joined the team, the engagement with our client had already passed the one year anniversary. We were on the cusp of several milestone dates to align with the 2020 Summer Olympics, when the brand was poised to launch a capsule collection of official merchandise. With so much pressure already, my job to coach the client team and teach new concepts was more difficult. Many colleagues were afraid to take time, because they were already extremely busy—plus the ideas and concepts were new.

I kept the syncs with the client consistent even if we didn’t have escalations. In the sessions, I focused on ways to address problem points in their process. This not only helped the client team, but allowed me to work on improvements that would have a greater long-term benefit.

In the end, our processes were a combination of Waterfall, Agile, and a spectrum of digital techniques to clarify requirements, mitigate issues, and encourage technical syncing. While some Agile purists might turn up their noses, the reality of being a consultant is that you have to find a middle path between what your clients know, and what you want to coach in order to improve their practices. You can’t change a large organization overnight.

With that in mind...

4. Adaptability is key

As the reader already knows, 2020 had big surprises in store for us all. During my time in Tokyo, the rise of coronavirus equalled the cancellation of the Olympics. Suddenly, the big motivating goal for the team had disappeared. Just as quickly, the work environment changed: We switched for being 100% onsite to 100% remote. While remote work and collaborating with offsite colleagues is nothing new for Rangle, it was new for our client. Both of these changes had a negative effect on the mood of the client. But as a consultant, my job was to adapt to the situation and coach the team to accept the changes and thrive under the new circumstances. Relying on the coaching relationships I had carefully built, I tried to show up for the client team as much as possible and help them in every way, as well as ensuring the Rangle team stayed focused on delivering as much value as possible for the client. After all, the work we were doing was business critical for the client, with or without the Olympics.

5. Your presence matters

The most important lesson I learned was the value of consistently showing up. I was surprised by how much respect and trust I fostered by focusing on the coffee meetings and coaching presentations I mentioned above. In Japanese business, politeness, gratitude and availability matters. There’s no such thing as “too busy” for your colleagues, and it’s important to recognize good work and contributions from individuals and the team. With the baseline trust established, I was able to pitch my improvements and concepts. If I had tried to push ahead from Day One with these improvements, I would have failed.

It’s important to create trust with your clients before you attempt to implement big changes to their processes and their culture, even if you know that’s exactly what you were hired to do. No matter the culture you’re in, trust is key. In order to understand your client, regardless of what country you’re in, focus on discovering what success looks like in their culture. When you know what it means to win in the unique language of their company, you can tune your goals to support what’s best in their culture.

Most of all, as a consultant you have to lean on your past experience. However, you need to frame this experience as a tool, not a mandate. No two clients are alike, no matter where they are in the world. Therefore, you should be ready to adapt to their culture with the lessons you’ve learned previously in mind, but a willingness to learn something new at heart.

If you’d like to understand more about how we consult at Rangle, and dig deeper into how you can create empathy for clients as a consultant, check out:

Injecting empathy into your consulting practice: The Flash Gordon principle.

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