Americans and Russians-Face to Face, Exploring New Frontiers


When you hear something repeated for 45 years, some of it sinks in. If you're a U.S. citizen and you hear "better dead than Red," "commies," "evil empire," "Soviet enemy," it gets into your system.

There is Russia, 11 time zones across, the shadow over our national psyche and budget, the compass for American foreign policy, educational, space, military, and economic activity for several generations. That strange intimate relationship was also a kind of obsessive-compulsive disorder. Now the FSU, the former Soviet Union, has become many countries. In our confusion over Russia with its republics and other subdivisions, the Russian Federation with dozens of autonomous republics, not to mention the Commonwealth of Independent States, it's hard to get our bearings.

I was invited to an international conference on conflict resolution in St. Petersburg in 1994. Since then, I have been involved with training people in Russia to be organizational consultants and managers.

There has been an explosion of business schools in the last 5 years. Many books about management theory are being translated from English and published. But I find that courses are focused on management theories from thirty years ago. Talking in 90s terms often sounds like science fiction because it builds upon and assumes prior familiarity with what came before. Russians are jumping across so many chasms that they don't want to be slowed down. I'm trying to bridge gaps as long as my lifetime.

It takes awhile to travel across the 20th century. Freud was forbidden. Psychology as a whole was forbidden. Cybernetics, genetics, yoga (!) were forbidden. A psychoanalytic approach to interpretation is still novel.

Having a "career" was related to being a loyal party member and was seen as compromising your conscience. Having a career meant taking a political and a moral stand. "Careerist" meant "collaborator."

The Russians I meet have a mixed reaction to American training styles and management methods--they're a shock to the system, rather undignified, and very appealing. Russians look for the scientific theorems behind any proposition. Lenin introduced scientific management in 1911--building on Frederick W. Taylor, Frank and Lillian Galbreth, and others. Things that seem technical fare better than things that seem more informal.

There is a well-established foundation for being a management consultant in the U.S.--a long history, experience, resources, support, and cultural acceptance along with the associated infrastruture and financial framework.

To be a consultant in Russia means you have to be an entrepreneur. More than that--you are a pioneer. You need to figure out how to define and describe the work you do and explain it to others as a legitimate activity.

I'm a futurist--we had to coin a term for it in Russian. But it wasn't just the language. Planning ahead doesn't make sense if you cannot predict any of the variables, if your future can be rewritten by one catastrophe after another. Being a futurist seems surreal. And, like so many things I am, such as a professional speaker, it doesn't strike Russians as a valid way to make a living.

There is little precedent for many areas I take for granted. To me, creative knowledge work is a viable enterprise and gainful employment. There is no Russian vocabulary for many of the words I use in my work in the US--learning organization, training, marketing, logistics, creativity (outside the arts), promotion, are words that appeared in the last few years, imported from English or French.

Luckily, I have a translator who understands that the kind of translation needed is not literal but cultural and is able to provide the necessary context--my wife Svetlana. Indeed, we find that we are introducing a form of co-facilitating that Russian groups are not used to and were resistant to--a translator is usually a nondescript voice without a role in elaborating the core of a program.

We are modeling a new meaning of collaboration--between American and Russian, man and woman, content and process, and between experts and the audience. These are innovations above and beyond the announced topic. But in fact this is our purpose, our hidden agenda is brought out in the open. We are doing democracy, in real time, experientially, and inviting participation. This has led to stimulating, exasperating, and rewarding sessions.

Just as in the U.S., there is a need for skillful facilitation, helping to facilitate organizational process and social dynamics. I want to help people facilitate the future into emerging. But we are always conscious of the two strikes against us--one meaning of the word "Soviet" is "advice" (as in what a consultant might provide), so it is tainted. And recent experience with Western consultants has left many Russians with a bad taste in their mouth.

What I find most striking are the similarities in the two countries. Both are moving from government subsidy and control to free enterprise. In the U.S. this is happening in three spheres--people leaving welfare, privatizing government bureaucracies, and economic conversion from the military sector. I also see parallels in dealing with the forces of technology and living in a society with a hundred ethnic minorities.

I've been invited back, so I'll get another chance to sort this out.
--published in Executive Citizen, July/August 1997