'Kiasu' Singapore, 'yao mianzi' China, and 'leela' India: How does culture influence innovation?

In a study conducted by academics from the NUS Business School surveying the China, India, and Singapore landscape, respondents often described the Chinese as disciplined and focused, Singaporeans as structured, fearing failure and sticking to the plan, and Indians as creative, flexible and frugal. While it is not the only or most pertinent factor, cultural traits matter when it comes to managing teams and maximising their potential to innovate.
Attendees browse as a humanoid robot stands in the exhibition display area at the World AI Conference in Shanghai, 9 July 2020. (Qilai Shen/Bloomberg)
Attendees browse as a humanoid robot stands in the exhibition display area at the World AI Conference in Shanghai, 9 July 2020. (Qilai Shen/Bloomberg)

The geography of innovation is changing. Economic powerhouses such as China and India are steadily climbing up global innovation ranking tables. Singapore — the top innovation economy in Asia — has consistently ranked among the top ten economies on the Global Innovation Index. 

This story of Asia’s blossoming innovation can be painted in broad strokes: public policies are now prioritising innovation and the region’s economic growth has been resilient in recent years. 

What organisations and leaders need, however, is a more nuanced understanding of the varied national cultures within Asia and how cultural differences feed into innovation processes. Such insight can inform the way they manage their innovation teams.

Asia is no monolith, so a blanket East versus West analysis does little to clarify how cultural differences affect innovation. This is why we decided to apply an Asia-centric perspective to investigate cultural differences across China, India, and Singapore. Our aim was to tease out how culture affects team innovation in terms of the way groups surface, discuss, pursue and implement new ideas.

Since voicing a new idea often requires challenging the status quo and taking on individual risks, it is reasonable to expect that the prevalence of guanxi, ting hua and yao mianzi attitudes might inhibit exploration activities in Chinese teams, while making exploitation efforts more efficient.

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Office workers at a busy pedestrian crossing in the CBD, 28 February 2020. (Ong Wee Jin/SPH)

How cultural traits influence team innovation 

One established way to think about team innovation is to see it as the product of a blend of “exploration” activities such as search, discovery, variation and experimentation and “exploitation” ones such as refinement, reducing variation, efficiency, production and selection.

With this framework, we derived hypotheses on how cultural traits unique to Chinese, Indian and Singaporean teams make them more likely to focus on exploration or exploitation activities.

In India on the other hand, the education system values leela – a playfulness and willingness to defy social norms that is expected and encouraged from childhood.

For Chinese culture, which is strongly influenced by Confucian thought and its emphasis on hierarchy and status, we chose three representative traits of guanxi (关系) — strong networks of reciprocal relationships, tinghua (听话) — an attitude of obedience and deference, particularly to a superior’s words, and yao mianzi (要面子) — concern with the preservation of face or image.

Since voicing a new idea often requires challenging the status quo and taking on individual risks, it is reasonable to expect that the prevalence of guanxi, ting hua and yao mianzi attitudes might inhibit exploration activities in Chinese teams, while making exploitation efforts more efficient.

In India on the other hand, the education system values leela – a playfulness and willingness to defy social norms that is expected and encouraged from childhood. Also celebrated in Indian culture is jugaad, the ability to resolve problems with limited resources in a creative and frugal way. These suggest that Indian innovation teams would tend towards more “exploration” in their pursuit of innovation.

As for Singapore, we identified two cultural traits as common and relevant to innovation: the tendency to be kiasu or afraid of losing, and niao, a bent towards fussiness, stinginess and “going by the book”.

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A man walks past the sign of "Google for India", the company's annual technology event in New Delhi, 19 September 2019. (Sankalp Phartiyal/REUTERS)

As for Singapore, we identified two cultural traits as common and relevant to innovation: the tendency to be kiasu or afraid of losing, and niao, a bent towards fussiness, stinginess and “going by the book”. Both of these point to lower levels of “exploration” for Singapore’s innovation teams.

By interviewing 15 managers with experience in innovation projects in at least one of these three countries, we teased out further characteristics of the three cultures. The Chinese were often described as disciplined and focused, Singaporeans as structured, fearing failure and sticking to the plan, while Indians were described as creative, flexible and frugal.

These gelled well with what we predicted — high exploitation in China, high exploration in India and low exploration in Singapore. Survey data collected from students in China, India and Singapore further verified these cultural traits to be reflective of each of those countries.

More interesting, however, was our survey of over 600 individuals from 138 innovation teams in companies across the three locations, which included evaluations of team supervisors.

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People wearing face masks following the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak stand near a robot at the venue for the World Artificial Intelligence Conference (WAIC) in Shanghai, 9 July 2020. (Aly Song/REUTERS)

As expected, Indian teams were more likely to engage in exploration activities — such as experimenting and searching — more so than their Chinese and Singaporean counterparts. Chinese teams also tended more towards exploitation activities — such as production and selection — more than the Indian and Singaporean ones.

Surprisingly though, Singaporean teams were less likely to engage in exploitation activities than both Chinese and Indian teams. And only exploration correlated well with overall team innovativeness across the three countries, suggesting that the blend of the two sorts of activities works differently in different cultures.

Whereas, in China and Singapore, where cultural traits like yao mianzi and kiasu lead teams to prioritise production and efficient outcomes, managers may find it more critical to create an atmosphere of trust that allows team members to raise original ideas or opinions.

Managing team innovation with cultural lenses on

What does this mean for those managing innovation in teams across Asia then? 

We believe it shows that being aware of a team’s cultural make-up may be more important than thought. Knowing the cultural traits of their team members can help organisations and managers to play on strengths, while ensuring that weaknesses are compensated for.

For example, in India, where teams lean heavily towards exploration-type activities, making sure to steer the project towards tangible implementation may be critical.

Whereas, in China and Singapore, where cultural traits like yao mianzi and kiasu lead teams to prioritise production and efficient outcomes, managers may find it more critical to create an atmosphere of trust that allows team members to raise original ideas or opinions.

More research is needed to show how Singapore succeeds in innovation despite cultural tendencies that might suggest otherwise. 

Of course, culture is but one of many factors — such as market conditions and government policies — that are boosting innovation activity in all the three markets we studied.

For instance, innovation is now a national priority in China. And although the prevalence and dominance of state-owned enterprises could dull innovation efficiency, that is countered by the advanced financial market and other factors that are facilitating innovation. The Chinese innovation system also seems to be shifting from a public-centred one to one centred on the firm.

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Staff members applaud as people visit Huawei's new flagship store, as it officially opens in Shanghai, 24 June 2020. (Aly Song/REUTERS)

In India, a complex web of regulations and licenses appears to complicate innovation activity. But it continues to rank among the top for quality in innovation among middle-income economies on the Global Innovation Index.

As for Singapore, the bulk of innovation activity there is either led by the large foreign multinational companies or policy-driven. Despite strong market competition, the government’s hand is very apparent in key sectors via government-linked companies. More research is needed to show how Singapore succeeds in innovation despite cultural tendencies that might suggest otherwise. 

But what we have found offers this much: that a nuanced understanding of Asia’s country-specific cultural factors is key for managers to steer their teams towards successful innovation.

Related: An innovative China has overtaken the US in patent numbers? | China and the US, who innovates better?