When attacked Russians hunker down to out-wait their opponent: Muscovites abandoned their city to Napoleon, letting his army dissipate in it; and the Soviet Union drew red lines around its main cities, as their defenders bloodily drained Hitler's army through attrition. The magnitude of these victories testifies to the potency of Russian resilience under attack.
Spending time in another BRICS country recently I was had discussions about two transformational events in South African history: the Afrikaners 'Great Trek', as whole towns upped and resettled thousands of miles away to avoid British rule; and the post-apartheid 'Great Transformation', as the country avoided a descent into a widely-expected civil war .
The reason these historical narratives are important is that they define how leaders make decisions in times of pressure in Russia and South Africa today. Faced by it's current opponents the Russian cultural reaction is to tighten belts for the long-run. While in modern South Africa the 'Great trek' provides a common reference for how far one might need to go for a solution, while the post-apartheid transition (though not yet finished) steels South African determination to defy expectations.
The different culture of decision-making reveals themselves at a practical level:
In Johannesburg - we're invited by a room full of senior decision-makers to discuss why our highly innovative approach may help meet their challenges. As risk is tolerated failure is understood in the 'great trek' towards trying ten things to discover the one that may change the entire game for them. Collectively they look for compelling reasons to conclude 'there is enough evidence to try your approach'.
In Moscow - we're challenged by gate-keepers to prove upfront that our offering is superior. Should we manage this we're ambushed by other gate-keepers on the long road to the budget holder. Failure is not an option, no risks can be taken. Case studies are demanded (even though the discussion is about innovation, which by definition has not been tried before in their market) and collectively the organisation is looking for any reason to opt out.
Decision-making is defined by cultural-historical narratives. Russia defensive stance when under threat - a failure avoidance position - is historically robust (Napoleon and Hitler were both sent packing). But the cost to Russia is huge. In this crisis state-owned enterprises will draw from the reserve fund to survive and multi-nationals will live off the fat they have accumulated. But for many Russian business owners these are not options. So cutting and running - exacerbating a brain drain that undermines Russia's long-term capabilities - is the chosen path.
This is a slow death for Russian business! But is there an alternative?
Political leaders call for economic diversification as a response - 10 or even 40 years too late - for one must diversify from a position of strength, when the resources required are in abundance. Furthermore, such calls come without instructions on how to make it happen. Witness the throwing of (now) scarcely available capital at the potential white elephant that is Skolkovo, which confused cause (an innovative business climate) and effect (a Russian Silicon Valley).
Russia doesn't have its own 'Voortrekkers' who made the 'Great Trek' 175 years ago, so must seek to evolve in line with its own cultural narrative. If Russia is to become a modern, innovative economy - one better able 'to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune' - it must exploit every opportunity that presents itself. Some of these will not work, while some will catapult the entire economy forward. The next blog in this short series will introduce pragmatic steps organisations can take to recognise the difference and help usher in a Russian spring for business.