At the Global Leaders Conference I listened to an American professor speak on change. It was his first trip to China. What I heard, which at face value made good sense, was your typical ‘change theory’ proposition. There were two obvious problems with what I heard.

The first problem was that no effort was made to contextualize the ‘change message’. Contextualization goes beyond knowing the Chinese word for change! Speaking about what amounted to a personal change framework in China, requires doing some translation as to how, and if, the model works in a Chinese context. The more things are the same, the more they are different. Change in China is not the same as change in the United States. The context at every level is different with several subtle and not-so-subtle nuances. This disregard for context has been a frustratingly recurring theme from American keynote presenters that I have heard speak in China, Africa and even Russia. It is not intentional but rather emerges from a cultural ignorance that doesn’t see or feel the need to adjust, adapt and more importantly…learn from others.

Understanding context takes work. It requires a heightened sense of self-awareness and the ability to hold loosely to you own worldview and that what constitutes ‘normality’ for you. This ability to ‘step out of your skin’ is fundamental in accommodating and assimilating – two key ingredients in adaptive intelligence. How could this speaker have done it differently? Well, a start would have been to ask if his change curve even applies to China. His approach came across as patronizing in a context where maybe he had more to learn than offer. After all, this is a country that has managed to change the health care of 400 million of its citizens; America has just got health-care!

The second problem was that his message ran into some serious inter-generational rip tides. Change is not only cultural nuanced but also it is generationally nuanced.  There was no acknowledgment of this reality and a reference to the film ‘Jaws’ would have left many in the audience with some guess work to do in order to connect the dots!

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