Demystifying Chinese Business Culture Through the INSEAD Capstone

As a former Chinese business journalist, I’m pleasantly surprised by how realistic the INSEAD Capstone simulation captured the subtle culture of the Chinese business world.

This intensive three-day project has taken me on a reflective journey, putting my former on-the-ground observations into context and deriving new inspirations on where Chinese culture meets the global scene.

The INSEAD Capstone project, modelled on the well-known ‘Your First Hundred Days’ elective that was perfected over many years, is designed to be an all-rounded experience allowing MBA students to tie together all their course learnings into practice application through a real-life-like scenario.

The scenario I chose for my Capstone relates to accelerating growth for a Chinese company called Happy Life Enterprise. The story is, Happy Life Enterprise is an Internet of Things company in China, purchased by a private equity firm, and five young INSEAD alumni (that’s me and my team-members Jack, Shelby, Smith and Orgil) are to manage it.

Running a whole company is a heavy responsibility!

Across the three-day experience, we constantly had to respond to dramatic events happening – a banker came to warn us about our unpromising cash position, a factory worker lost his finger due to mis-use of a machine and another tried to commit suicide. The media grilled us through a virtual TV interview about the worker incidents, and a worried workers union leader was unhappy that we had neglected communication with him for months…

We had to quickly make plans to improve our cash flows, and put in place new HR rules to look after our employees through sufficient financial rewards and emotional support. We even turned crisis into opportunity, building a great relationship with the union leader and strengthening corporate governance, whilst securing land for a new expansion and launching new products!

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We set ambitious targets for future expansion, riding on the wave of China's fast growth
We set ambitious targets for future expansion, riding on the wave of China's fast growth

The breakneck speed of expansion we drove Happy Life Enterprise at is an insightful reflection of how fast companies grow in China, and the emphasis on relationships is also very close to China’s business environment. For example, the fact that we kindled a very strong relationship with the mayor of Salt City (the location of our new factory) means we were able to significantly improve our cash position because the local mayor had in turn relationships with many local firms, and was able to influence speeding up their payments to us.

In another instance, the union leader invited us to his daughter’s wedding (a subtle way of asking for a cash contribution), and we managed to satisfy him without breaching ethical grounds by giving him a contribution from our own ‘pockets’ instead of company funds.

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We took a holistic approach to strengthen the company's sustainability, governance and company culture
We took a holistic approach to strengthen the company's sustainability, governance and company culture

What I found particularly insightful is the fact that our course leaders and role play contributors told us that there is no right or wrong answer in how we tackle these local market nuances.

In other words, the classroom theory doesn’t apply fully, and we have to work out our own decision and justify it, while paying attention to the local culture and context. This mindset was really helpful in allowing me to transition my thoughts from the classroom to the real-world practice.

What I particularly liked about the Capstone is how close it brought me and my group members as a team. As the five of us assumed different roles (CEO, CFO, CMO, COO, CHRO respectively), we were given different information (actually, we were flooded with more information than we could meaningfully interpret). Sifting information and efficiently sharing them with each other to jointly make optimal business decisions is something we learnt.

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We turned crisis into an opportunity to strengthen all-rounded practices looking after employee well-being
We turned crisis into an opportunity to strengthen all-rounded practices looking after employee well-being

Another highlight was meeting INSEAD alumni! Many came and met us as role play participants – they “landed” into our Zoom breakout rooms, straight away assuming the character of the role they were given (be it the banker, the mayor, the auditor, the union leader, or others). We often had a tough conversations at first, and in the debrief we laughed, chatted, and chilled, and they often gave us a little snapshot of their post-MBA journey, which is always a treat!

The Capstone made me feel a lot more confident about my journey post-MBA, and it will always be a fun experience I can look back to and have a laugh about with my group mates at reunions for many years to come!