How effective are meetings in Cambodia?

In Cambodia, I needed to adapt my approach to meeting effectiveness to suit the local cultural reality. I have quite a few funny stories to tell!

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How effective are meetings in Cambodia?

Known to facilitate effective meetings

I have the reputation at work of making sure that meetings are effective, so that all participants get the most from them, and do not waste time. During my three months stint doing development work in Cambodia, I needed to adapt my approach to suit the local cultural reality. Sometimes my expectations collided with the Asian culture. In many situations I needed to leave my normal way of doing things to one side, observe and accept things as they were. This experience also taught me a lot about my work with different company cultures.

In 2011 I fulfilled a long-term dream! I carried out a 3-month project in Cambodia with the British charitable organisation VSO (Voluntary Services Overseas: http://www.vsointernational.org/). VSO works in developing countries in order to improve the living condition of the poorest members of society. In this context I carried out market analyses for free range chickens, farmed fish and pineapple. The goal of these analyses was to help improve the living conditions of the subsistence paddy rice farmers. In order to supplement their income they breed and sell chickens or fish. I carried out studies and interviews through local teams, and I was able to put forward valuable improvement suggestions. After their full implementation the income of the poorest farmers in the target areas could be doubled.

As much as I tried – the Cambodian culture is not conducive to effective meetings!

During this study, I participated and led numerous meetings, and finally presented my findings and improvement suggestions to stakeholders. I put a lot of emphasis on making sure that meetings I participate in are as effective as possible, and that participants should have the greatest benefit from participating. In Cambodia, my expectations were often challenged. In the following paragraphs I contrast some rules for effective meetings with my experiences in Cambodia.
Rule # 1: Mobile phones and laptops are switched off before the meeting, in order to enable a focused work atmosphere
During my final presentation I experienced something for the first time in my whole professional career. I presented my findings in English and had to rely on the support of my translator Phally, as some of the participants in the meeting spoke little or no English. Phally translated my presentation into Khmer – the language spoken in Cambodia. About one third through the presentation Phally’s mobile phone rang. Of course I expected him to switch off the phone and continue with the translation, as Phally was in the middle of translating a complex concept into Khmer. But no! He answers the phone and kneels down (almost hiding from the meeting participants underneath the table), and goes on to negotiate for a few minutes with the caller from underneath the table. During the presentation I was totally dependent on Phally, as I couldn’t speak Khmer and therefore couldn’t fully discuss the concepts on my own. All meeting participants therefore had to wait for Phally to finish his phone conversation, then I had to repeat myself for him to translate it to the group.

I learned that in Cambodia it is very impolite not to answer your mobile phone, especially if a person of higher social or professional standing calls, as you would “lose face” if you didn’t answer. Interrupting the meeting that was going on was less impolite in Phally’s eyes than not answering his phone.
Rule # 2: Allow an appropriate time duration for a meeting to quickly discuss the relevant topics and agree on actions and next steps
You generally start a meeting in Cambodia with friendly small talk. The host offers snacks and drinks. This also happened at the start of a meeting with an interview team after their last day of interviewing. It was the end of a long interview day and we still had a long car journey of about one and a half hours ahead of us. Rather than quickly discuss the open points and wrap up, I was presented with a plastic sieve full of freshly cooked crabs and snails, which the interview team had purchased from a paddy rice farmer.

Cambodians are constantly eating snacks as the effect from eating white rice (the basis of the local diet), does not seem to last very long. Snacks I have seen and been offered are fantastic exotic fruits, small rice parcels filled with meat or vegetables or even fried beetles, spiders or other insects tastily prepared with chili and other herbs.
Rule # 3: In order to hold an efficient and results-orientated meeting, it is important to have the correct participants in the meeting
The interviews for data collection were held on-site, often on the farmers’ premises. My project happened to coincide with the worst floods in Cambodia in decades, and so some of the interviews were not very focused. Often the farmers gathered around them their families: children, grandchildren, grandparents, aunts and neighbours. Of course all these people had contributions to make to the interviews as well. Most of the time the family’s chickens also ran around. Cattle that the family had brought in to protect them from the floods, also stood nearby.
Rule # 4: Meeting participants should be open and honest in their contribution to the meeting
Due to the recent past and people’s experiences during the Khmer Rouge regime, it is still difficult to get people to talk openly in meetings or interviews. There is an intrinsic reluctance or fear to speak critically in public. These circumstances have an impact if your task is to work out improvements regarding the existing system. I found it very difficult to gauge whether I should accept statements, or whether I should ask a bit further. Furthermore I couldn’t rely on gestures or facial expressions, as they are not often not transferable between the different cultures.
Rule # 5: Agreed actions are recorded and are allocated to a person responsible with a target completion date; meeting participants are accountable for the completion of their actions in the agreed timeframes
As I only had 3 months time to complete my analysis in Cambodia, I was under quite a lot of time pressure. I established a milestone plan, which I distributed and discussed with the stakeholders. During the meetings I also agreed actions and completion dates with different people. However, when I first arrived, it was not clear to me that I would be carrying out my work during a time of numerous religious festivals and ceremonies. I sometimes found out the day before or on the day itself that the office would be closed and members of staff would not available for work, as they would be off over the long weekend or for a whole week in order to spend these religious festivals in their home villages with their families. Although there was a calendar with the religious festivals in the office, my Cambodian colleagues or clients didn’t think to explain to a Barang (foreigner), what implications these religious festivals could have for the tight timetable. In any case, also see Rule # 4 – no-one would have ever criticised or corrected my time plan!

In the context of major change initiatives, it is important to hold effective meetings, in order to achieve the agreed results. If you feel that your meetings are not effective enough yet, I can conduct meeting audits in your organisation and recommend improvements. I also provide feedback and help meeting chairs to improve their effectiveness through coaching. People will spend less time in meetings, and they will be much more focused and effective.

If you want to find out more about Effective Meetings give me a call!

Please call me on +44 7855 919748 or send me an E-mail to Cathrin.Kolb@frekja.com. I am looking forward to an informal conversation to discuss your change programme.