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?

Dan Harris

I am a founder of Harris Bricken, an international law firm with lawyers in Los Angeles, Portland, San Francisco, Seattle, China and Spain.

I mostly represent companies doing business in emerging market countries. It has taken me many years to build my network and it takes constant communication and travel to maintain it. My work has been as varied as securing the release of two improperly held helicopters in Papua New Guinea, setting up a legal framework to move slag from Canada to Poland’s interior, overseeing hundreds of litigation and arbitration matters in Korea, helping someone avoid terrorism charges in Japan, and seizing fish product in China to collect on a debt.

I was named as one of only three Washington State Amazing Lawyers in International Law, I am AV rated by Martindale-Hubbell Law Directory (its highest rating), I am rated 10.0 by (its highest rating), and I am a SuperLawyer.

I am a frequent writer and public speaker on doing business in Asia and I constantly travel between the United States and Asia. I most commonly speak on China law issues and I am the lead writer of the award winning China Law Blog ( Forbes Magazine, Fortune Magazine, the Wall Street Journal, Investors Business Daily, Business Week, The National Law Journal, The Washington Post, The ABA Journal, The Economist, Newsweek, NPR, The New York Times and Inside Counsel have all interviewed me regarding various aspects of my international law practice.

I am licensed in Washington, Illinois, and Alaska.

In tandem with the international law team at my firm, I focus on setting up/registering companies overseas (via WFOEs, Rep Offices or Joint Ventures), drafting international contracts (NDAs, OEM Agreements, licensing, distribution, etc.), protecting IP (trademarks, trade secrets, copyrights and patents), and overseeing M&A transactions.