Bridging cultures, particularly regional cultures, produces a broader perspective that gives collaborators an edge. In disciplines like aerospace engineering, team members trained in one country’s engineering tradition may view a creative challenge differently than their colleagues who were trained in a different country’s system. Drawing from their collective global knowledge, cross-cultural collaborators can spark synergies and create greater value. In The Culture of Collaboration book, I call this the Dynamic Dimension of Cross-Cultural Collaboration.
This dimension is alive and well at Archimedes Banya, a spa complex that opened in San Francisco last New Year’s Eve after twelve years of development and construction. People from twenty different countries collaborated on the project. Managing partner Mikhail Brodsky of Russia had the original idea. Reinhard Imhof of Switzerland led the indoor construction. Architect Sam Kwong of China developed the plans. Other partners are from countries including Korea, Israel, Germany, Japan, and Mexico.
The concept began when Brodsky, a mathematician, arrived in San Francisco from Moscow in 1989. A lover of Russian bath complexes or banyas, Brodsky was disappointed to find no such facilities in his adopted city. He longed to start a banya. In the summer of 1998, Brodsky, then a professor at the University of California at Berkeley, applied for a job as chair of the mathematics department at San Francisco State University. SFSU’s rejection sparked Brodsky’s interest in doing something significant in San Francisco while delivering on his banya dream.
Brodsky, Imhof and two other partners formed a company, and in 1999 bought a lot in India Basin near San Francisco’s former Hunters Point Shipyard. Though in an obscure neighborhood, the lot provided sweeping views of San Francisco Bay. To construct the building, Brodsky and his partners would need to recruit more partners. Like many ethnic groups living in the United States, many Russians do business only within their community. Therefore, logic would dictate engaging Russians to finance, design and build the project. But some Russians who Brodsky approached had difficulty seeing past the many roadblocks to the project ranging from building permits and location to construction costs and customer base. So, Brodsky decided to broaden his reach, involving people from as many countries as possible. The common thread was a passion for the Banya project plus mutual trust and common goals, two of the Ten Cultural Elements of Collaboration I identify in The Culture of Collaboration book.
In a departure from the command-and-control approach to business in which “stars” grab the credit, Archimedes Banya recognizes multiple contributions in much the same way Adobe Systems includes a credit role in its software products. When I visited Archimedes Banya recently, the first thing I noticed was a wall near the entrance listing the names of the multicultural collaborators who turned the concept into reality. Also apparent was the amazing art ranging from mosaics depicting bathing traditions to murals and inlaid ceiling tiles. Including art in public bathing facilities is a tradition dating back to the Roman Empire.
Artist Vadim Puyandaev of Kazakhstan collaborated with Brodsky to evoke the right atmosphere. “I
wanted very simple, clear images of emotion,” says Brodsky. And the images also reflect action. “In a Russian banya, people move. It’s an active place. It’s not just sitting and sweating.” The complex is geared to socializing and offers facilities ranging from a rooftop sun deck with a San Francisco Bay view to private reception rooms replete with bars and kitchens.
The Banya offers a spa experience reflecting the cultural melting pot. I checked out two Russian saunas, the Finish dry sauna, the steam room, warm soaking pools, cold plunge and relaxation room. After loosening up in the various saunas, I experienced a Russian venika platza treatment that involved a tall Moldovan fellow clad in a towel and sweat-soaked Banya hat brushing and lashing bunches of Latvian birch leaves on me to increase circulation.
Following this, I laid on a table as an attendant scrubbed me with an exfoliating soap and then rinsed me with buckets of warm water. Then my muscles were relaxed enough for a massage from a masseuse from the United States. Afterwards, I headed to the café upstairs for pelmini or Russian dumplings, stuffed cabbage, hearty Russian beef soup, fresh-sqeezed juices spiked with kombucha, which is fermented tea and housemade kvass, a non-alcoholic beer made from fermented rye bread.
An ambitious spa project that began as one person’s vision ultimately reflects the combined vision and execution of multiple people from many cultures. Collaboration involves marrying talents that are worth far more collectively than individually. Brodsky describes himself as a “starter.” But to make the project a reality, he collaborated with Imhof, a “finisher.” Because of the Swiss tradition of quality workmanship, Imhof shared Brodsky’s values of using the best materials and constructing a banya for the long term. The concept of “starters” and “finishers” has broad ramifications. A starter may have an incredible idea, but creating a company that produces substantial value may require collaborating with a finisher.
As we collaborate, we can create awesome value by engaging and involving people with multiple talents and backrounds and, yes, from multiple cultures. The Dynamic Dimension of Cross-Cultural Collaboration delivers results otherwise unattainable.