DMin, Leadership and Global Perspectives: Crafting Ministry in an Interconnected World

Design Thinking Across Cultures – Receiving Egalitarian Thought in a Hierarchical Culture

Written by: on September 16, 2019

With my working title defining me as “Team Leader for International Missions Innovation,” Erin Meyer’s The Culture Map provides applicable insight. My R&D team exists “to innovate and expand opportunities to further God’s Kingdom around the world.” Working with people from differing cultures along Meyer’s eight continuums of cultural differences is a large part of our daily work. Making these differences more explicit and supplying a language for conversations is very helpful.


In the innovation ecosystem, words like “rapid,” “agile,” “sprint,” and “quick” abound. Cultural differences can be further triggered or bull-dozed when pause isn’t given in a “Due date?: Yesterday” type of environment. A moment of pause is well worth the time. The advertisement blurb on the cover, “How people think, lead, and get things done,” suggests that these differences are simply “cute” observations, but important values that could accelerate or impede progress on getting things done.


Design Thinking and the current innovation theory coming out of Silicon Valley highlights the need for egalitarian thought. According to these thought leaders, ideas could come from every level of the organization. Large organizations like Google have worked diligently to flatten the organization and have a two-way communication pathway between the CEOs and the lowest level with activities like TGIF, an all-hands meeting where employees from every level can approach the CEOs. This describes the far left side of lower power distance and egalitarian on Meyer’s spectrum (Meyer, 125).


My R&D team was recently approached from a staff member who serves as a country director from a highly hierarchical culture. Due to recent security, his field staff could not meet with recently converted students and use paper copies of follow up materials or Bible studies. The staff quickly created a short-term solution by simply taking photos of each lesson and then open their photo library on their smartphone and working from there. While that is very resourceful, there has to be a better and more transferrable way – an app, document viewer, something. 


Ministry practitioners often quickly move to a single idea as a solution. While snap-judgment and quick intuition can sometimes serve well, it also violates a couple Design Thinking principles. First, one major principle is to “go broad to go narrow.” There needs to be several ideas, not just one, to prototype and test. While a smartphone app might be the best solution, there might exist a much less labor-intensive and costly solution like a PDF viewer. Second, Design Thinking has two steps before ideating:  gaining empathy with the end-user and clearly defining the problem. Sometimes this process is quickly and subconsciously carried out, sounding something like, “I heard from our staff (empathy) that they can’t use paper copies due to security (problem), so we need a smartphone app (solution).” However, there might be a lot of assumptions or missed opportunities along the way. Security is an issue for whom? Expatriate missionaries? Indigenous people? Both? What type of security? Physical witnesses? Mobile? Is web access monitored? How many of your staff have smartphones? With so many variable and assumptions, we need the thought and input from the end-user.


Here exists the challenge: Design Thinking is at its best when serving the end-user (in this case the field staff, volunteer, or student), not simply the boss’s demands. How can our team gain the egalitarian thought needed to gain empathy and define the actual problem, while not offending the hierarchy of the client’s culture? I’m open to input from the cohort, especially as it results to applying Meyer’s work. The following are our team’s attempts in implementing Meyer’s suggestions on working with a hierarchical and top-down decision making culture:


  • When talking with the country’s leader, we told him, “This is great! In order to give you the tool that will most fulfill your vision and give you the best tool possible, we’d love to interview your field staff. Can you please provide us with a few of their names?” This allows him to see why we are contacting subordinates and allows him to be part of the selection process. 
  • When communicating to the field staff, we copy the country’s leader so he can be aware of our communication to his staff. 
  • While interviewing the field staff, we are asking descriptive questions about their actions and behaviors during a follow-up discipleship meeting, not asking their opinions about whether they agree or disagree with the country’s leader. 
  • Most of our direct communication with the country’s leader is between him and our national director for R&D, trying to match as best as possible, level for level (Meyer, 138). 
  • If we find out through our innovative process that the country’s leader was right about the problem, but just a little off on the solution, we plan to communicate that in a way that makes him still save face and remain looking like the hero. “You were right that your staff are having a problem with security, and we were able to find a solution to your problem that is even better – quicker, cheaper, and more effective. Your staff are going to love that you, in your leadership, brought us in to solve the problem.” (As I type that, it has an heir of ego-stroking, so I’d particularly love the cohort’s input here.)
  • The hardest interaction might be if, again through our process, we find that the leader was completely off either from identifying the problem or suggesting the solution (the app), we would need to proceed with caution. If this were the case, we’d have our leader at his level, meet with him one on one and let him know the findings of our interviews. 


What might you affirm or critique in our approach?


Meyer, Erin. The Culture Map. (New York: PublicAffairs). 2014.

About the Author


Shawn Cramer

6 responses to “Design Thinking Across Cultures – Receiving Egalitarian Thought in a Hierarchical Culture”

  1. mm Steve Wingate says:

    The process sounds like a total quality management version. If the process is a bit esque from the telos and people recognize this change it is wise to assist the owner of the process looking like a hero. Good work

  2. mm Dylan Branson says:

    Shawn, I want to address your question of “ego-stroking”:

    When applied to a hierarchical context, it isn’t so much stroking the ego so much as showing respect (which, from the plan you’ve outlined it appears that your team is doing well; particularly in making sure that communication is on equal footing). There have been several times where I have done editing for my colleagues for a newsletter and they tell me that I need to make sure I express gratitude/honor to our principal for something that (in my mind) he may not have had something to do with.

    But that’s part of the culture. When I was assistant director for the organization I worked with previously, the director would tell me about the various meetings he had with other schools in Hong Kong. He would take feedback from the previous years and try to implement them into the current program while giving thanks and honor to the one who suggested it. When I asked him about all of the schmoozing and how frustrating it seemed, he responded by saying, “You know, it is frustrating, but it’s humanity. Humanity is frustrating. Sometimes you have to play by others rules, knowing that God will redeem it somehow or another.”

  3. mm Greg Reich says:

    Shawn I must admit what your doing is way outside my area of expertise. It appears you have adjusted well to the multi-cultural challenges that you are facing. It would be nice to say we all see things the same and that the parameters that guide our lives are all based on the same foundation beliefs and understanding, but in reality when working with others especially from vastly different cultures we are often forced to step outside of our norm and embrace theirs. My prayers are with you.

  4. mm John McLarty says:

    I’m probably missing something, so this may be out of line, but there seems to be something in the approach you’ve described that begins with the assumption that the solution will still come from the American team, after a process of receiving input from those in the cultural context. I appreciate the intentionality toward cultural intelligence and desire to include the perspective from the “boots on the ground,” but what if the answers are all generated from the experts who live and work in the context and the R&D approach is simply to stay curious and open to where the process leads them?

  5. Nancy Blackman says:

    “How can our team gain the egalitarian thought needed to gain empathy and define the actual problem, while not offending the hierarchy of the client’s culture? ”

    Is there only one culture you are working with, or is it a multi cultural environment? If it is the first, then perhaps understanding that egalitarian might be a longer road because, as a missionary in Thailand once mentioned to my husband and I, to take the Thai out of the Thai is near impossible. In other words, Thais are Buddhist and those two things are so closely related that you can generally assume that if someone is Thai (in Thailand) they are most likely Buddhist. To think that they might convert to Christianity would mean they would not be Thai anymore. Make sense?

    I do agree with one of the other comments or posts, that with hierarchy, it is most often about saving face and respect, not so much about hierarchy. It’s only been labeled as such. What makes a culture value saving face and respect?

    If it is the latter (multicultural), I wonder if adapting Meyer’s thoughts on slowly changing the tide with open discussions is possible. One of the things that I have adopted in my multicultural church, as a leader of small groups, is to create group guidelines. Everyone participates in adding something on the guideline that is important to them so that the group can feel like a safe place.

    Thanks for sharing and lots to unpack!

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