• Learn about self and others
  • Develop critical thinking skills
  • Learn how individuals are influenced by multiple cultures
  • Create inclusive and productive teams and organizations

First: The Worksheet/CD Method

The Cultural Detective method, particularly the Worksheet, was created as a way to enable multicultural groups to work together collaboratively by more deeply understanding their commonalties and their differences and by using both as assets.

In the mid 1980s Dianne Hofner Saphiere was working in Japan. There she was frequently asked to resolve conflict in heated business situations involving Japanese and Western and Eastern Europeans, East and South Asians, North and South Americans, Australians and New Zealanders. Often the parties concerned had vastly different preferences for how to deal with conflict: differing preferences for directness and triangulation, varied verbal and nonverbal communication styles, and diverse manners of expressing or constraining emotion. It seemed that no matter how well intentioned, one party would say something that would anger the other, and the entire discussion would spiral downward rather than progress toward mutual understanding, teamwork, and creation of a solution.

Dianne searched for a structured method of dialogue that would encourage all concerned parties to participate and to hear each other, while helping them avoid or minimize offending one another further. She was intuitively convinced that a simple explicit structure would provide freedom and a path forward, allowing the parties to learn about themselves, about the others and, most importantly, to be able to use their mutual expertise collaboratively and synergistically.

Answering a series of questions didn’t work: the verbal and linguistically fluent people would tend to dominate the conversation. Individual reflection, drawing or writing proved a useful learning tool, but did not lend itself as well to the sharing needed to build common ground. Appreciative inquiry proved very useful, until such point as the negative repercussions of the conflict had to be dealt with. Dianne needed a method for having difficult, authentic conversations. And, she almost always worked with multicultural teams. One party to a conflict would be quite linear, while another would want to jump around. Dianne needed a tool that would help her capture and organize all the points raised in a coherent fashion.

The structure she used needed to be a process, in order to reinforce ongoing learning and skill development. And the structure needed to remove blame. Often, the groups were debriefing their real-world miscommunications; they needed to make decisions about a stalemate they were currently in the midst of. Because their issues were real and immediate, because they related to their livelihoods and their egos, parties easily took offense at what someone else said or did. So, she looked for a way to be as practical as possible, to get to the “meat” of the matter, yet be as inoffensive as possible, to promote productive solution finding and bridge building.

Finally, Dianne knew the solutions that the parties would come up with had to include intra- and interpersonal skills, but as an OD professional she also knew that they needed systemic, procedural and structural support in order for the organization to really improve intercultural competence.

Amidst these clear needs and constraints, the Cultural Detective Worksheet emerged quite organically. It didn’t inhibit the jumping around; it encouraged it and graphically helped to capture the salient points. While the parties might voice anger and judgment, or other emotions, what was recorded in the Worksheet format focused the parties on the “positive intent,” shifting discussions to a constructive footing. The bridges or solutions could clearly leverage the differences, spelled out in the Worksheet, as assets. And the organization could look at how best to promote such intercultural competencies via its internal structures, strategies and processes.

Second: The Metaphor of the Detective

The metaphor of the detective developed in 1989, when Dianne founded the consulting firm Nipporica Associates. She began using the term “Cultural Detective” as a playful way to encourage people to become inquisitive about, and eager to learn how to learn about, culture.

One of the first ways Dianne used this metaphor was with what she called “reverse incidents.” She would write up a critical incident from the perspective of Culture A. She would then write up the same incident, the same reality, as experienced by members of Culture B. Dianne would assign a small group to work on each incident, letting the participants assume they were working on different incidents. Then they would report their findings to the other group. Halfway through the reports, learners would realize that they were working on the same “reality” but as experienced so very differently.

They would realize that, though the incidents sounded very different, the CulturalDetective Worksheets that they had completed for the two incidents were nearly identical. She’d ask participants to note the differences between the people in the incidents, their similarities and shared objectives, the causes of the friction between them, and the potential strengths they had working together.

She found this method to be a profoundly eye- and mind-opening experience for learners, and was thus encouraged to develop the idea further.

Third: The Values Lenses

The Values Lens idea developed after Dianne’s return to the US, in the 1990s, when she was teaching a lot of US Americans (and Europeans) about Japan. She felt that learners were too focused on whether to bow or shake hands, or how to exchange business cards. She knew from experience that these surface-level behaviors are nice to know, but they are not the keys to doing business successfully. Real trust and real friction occur at the deeper values and beliefs (common sense = cultural sense) levels of culture.

Thus, Dianne needed a way to capture the most important, deeper level core values of the (Japanese) culture. Recognizing the importance of yin-yang, of positive and negative, and the fact that people all too often saw the negative side of what the Japanese did, Dianne complemented the positive values with “negative perceptions” as gateways to further inquiry and discovery. The first Values Lenses were pie charts, with positive values and their “dark side” á la Star Wars.

Dianne soon developed core values for US Americans as well, and the staff of Nipporica Associates had great success using these Lenses in their proprietary client work. Over the years she and her staff developed Values Lenses for numerous other cultures.

Once she had the layout of the Values Lenses using the magnifying glass metaphor, Dianne used it to help people capture their own personal values. In this way they could begin to see in what ways they’d adopted some of the cultural values they’d experienced, and reflect on ways in which they could successfully be themselves in new and different contexts.

Fourth: The Cultural Detective Series

By about the year 2000, one of the world’s largest multinationals had declared CulturalDetective its most successful worldwide management development training ever. They asked Dianne if they could create Values Lenses for each of the nations in which they do business. Explaining that this was the fruit of her life’s work, Dianne opted instead to license her tool to the client and, in parallel, develop the Cultural Detective series as a publicly available product.

In about 2002 Dianne outlined the basic contents of a Cultural Detective package, wrote Cultural Detective Japan with Yuko Minami Kipnis as a sample, and asked 5-7 of her most esteemed and closest intercultural colleagues to author content for the Cultural Detective series. Over the next two years this small group worked on perfecting the process and piloting it in their various spheres of influence. The first package launched in 2004.

The idea was for the series to be a small side project, but it quickly took on a life of its own. Other colleagues asked to be involved, and the process proved valuable to more and more people, beyond business to study abroad, business schools, NGOs and even governments.

It is the dream of all of us who collaborate on this project that Cultural Detective might serve as a tool to help build equity, respect, justice and sustainability in this world of ours. Together we can make a difference!

To learn more about the authors who have collaborated with us in this effort, visit our Team page.


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