Ecotonos: Building Virtual Teamwork

Ecotonos Cover Sticker

You know that Ecotonos: A Simulation for Collaborating Across Cultures is an incredibly powerful tool for improving virtual team effectiveness, developing abilities to make decisions and solve problems in multicultural teams. Now that COVID-19 has forced so many of us to work and learn online, the learning tool is invaluable and we recently shared a post about how to play Ecotonos online.

Yesterday I learned that one student was unable to participate in the virtual MBA class. The professor, therefore, assigned the student homework: make a video summarizing the experience that you missed. The student interviewed his colleagues and used photos from previous live-and-in-person playing of Ecotonos at his university to put together the video below. It is in Spanish as this all took place at Sergio Arboleda University in Bogotá, Colombia. I believe he did a powerful job. What do you think?

The professor, Fernando Parrado, co-author of Cultural Detective Colombia, has adapted Ecotonos for his international negotiation classes. Rather than using random cards as game instructions advise, he combines Ecotonos rule cards into sets and assigns them to specific countries of interest to his students. He found Ecotonos worked even better online, with students playing from their homes, than it does in the face-to-face classroom!

If you are looking for an enjoyable method for improving decision making, problem solving, and collaboration online, a method that provides immediate results, give Ecotonos a go. It is affordable and can be played several times with the same group if you wish, as there is no “trick.”

“THE best simulation for cross-cultural teaming”


You may have heard of Ecotonos: A Simulation for Collaborating Across Culturesyou know it’s very well regarded and people highly recommend it. But do you know how it works and why it might be useful to you?

Ecotonos is for people engaged in intercultural affairs—both those who have not had significant experience collaborating in a multicultural context and also for those who wish to analyze and further develop their abilities. Ecotonos can be used with both domestic and international multicultural groups to help participants develop skills and strategies for participating effectively in multicultural environments—for sharing information, making decisions, managing projects, building community, working in and leading teams, resolving conflict, and creating solutions.

Designed to be used with between eight and fifty participants, Ecotonos requires at least ninety minutes to conduct: forty-five minutes for the simulation itself, and another 45 for the debriefing. While this is longer than some simulations, it is an investment well worth making. Rather than just experiencing cultural differences, Ecotonos helps participants learn to observe how they make decisions and solve problems, and helps them develop skills and strategies for working more effectively across differences. The simulation can also be used several times—each time feeling like a different game—so that participants can hone their abilities.

Simulation participants create their own cultures using a set of rule cards provided. Rules are relatively ambiguous, so participants are free to create cultures with which they are comfortable. Following the agreed-upon rules for their culture, participants create a myth symbolizing their culture, often a creation myth. Time is then allowed for participants to become familiar with their new culture (acculturation), before they begin work on the same assigned task (build a bridge, design a neighborhood…) or case study within their own cultural group. Shortly thereafter, the groups mix (according to a prearranged plan) and participants continue their work—while maintaining their own cultural rules and behaviors. Of course, as in all simulations, the debriefing is the most important part of the activity, as that is where we make sense of what we have experienced—where the learning occurs. Ecotonos‘ debriefing is unique in that learners chart, graph or draw the process they used, an extremely powerful method that reveals how cultural traits and values were utilized or ignored, how information was shared and decisions were made.

Ecotonos is an extremely rich simulation because participants engage in a dynamic experience 
that vividly illustrates the strengths and limits of collaboration across cultures. It can be played multiple times with the same group for developmental learning since there is no “trick” to the game; this enables participants to practice and improve their collaborative abilities; a different task or case study can be used each time Ecotonos is conducted, along with different rule cards, which makes each play a unique experience.

In 2015, in a study published in The International Journal of Human Resource Management (Vol. 26, No. 15, pages 1995-2014) by Joost JLE Bücker and Hubert Korzilius, the researchers found that “Ecotonos increases the ability to reflect on cross-cultural interactions, and stimulates interest in intercultural behavior and practicing cross-cultural relevant behavior.”

proposed interior arrangement

Ecotonos comes with an instruction manual (facilitator guide), cultural name buttons, 30 sets of rule cards, three case studies and three team tasks—all in a small, hard plastic case for easy transport. The detailed and extensive facilitator guide includes set-up, process, and debrief instructions to complete the simulation in two hours; explanation of the intercultural theory inherent in the simulation; full instructions for using the various handouts on intercultural collaboration; and sections on adapting Ecotonos to a variety of cultures and situations.

One of the best aspects of Ecotonos is that it’s so affordable. You can have hundreds of executives or students play this simulation for years, sharing it between departments, for the one-time investment of US$249. Want to know more? Please contact Cultural Detective via email or telephone +1-913-901-0243, or order it via our website. Together with your help we can build the intercultural competence that is so sorely lacking in our world today!

Study Supports Ecotonos’ Effectiveness


“This study shows that the use of the Ecotonos: A Simulation for Collaborating Across Cultures supports the development of cultural intelligence (CQ) and an increase in the development of confidence in cross-cultural encounters.

This legitimates the use of Ecotonos in international business education.

Ecotonos may also be effective in preparing students for overseas internships or study abroad programs… and in multinational corporations and universities as a means to improve the CQ of their management and students.”
—Bücker and Korzilius

Since its publication in 1995, Ecotonos: A Simulation for Collaborating Across Cultures has become a classic in the field of intercultural communication competence; it is a go-to resource for corporations, universities and NGOs that require the ability to effectively team across cultures. Two decades of anecdotal evidence strongly support Ecotonos’ usefulness, but it is only recently that management researchers in The Netherlands provided empirical evidence on the simulation’s effectiveness.


Three of the five generations of Ecotonos; compact Fifth Edition on the right.

Developing cultural intelligence: assessing the effect of the Ecotonos cultural simulation game for international business students,” a study published in The International Journal of Human Resource Management (Vol. 26, No. 15, 1995-2014) by Joost JLE Bücker and Hubert Korzilius, found that Ecotonos supports the development of cultural intelligence (CQ), specifically metacognitive, motivational, and behavioral CQ.

Bücker and Korzilius write, “CQ is defined by Earley and Ang (2003) as a person’s capability to adapt effectively to new cultural contexts. It refers to individual capacities which enable one to interact effectively with others from different cultural backgrounds and in different cultural contexts (Brislin, Worthley, & MacNab, 2006). It is the ability to adapt and adjust to one’s environment, and the effective functioning in situations characterized by cultural diversity.”

The research was designed to test the benefits of using Ecotonos as a training method to develop CQ among business students that participate in an international study program, while the researchers also saw applications for corporations and universities. Simulations and role plays “should provide the most suitable opportunity to train someone’s CQ… ECOTONOS (Saphiere, 1995) was created as an attempt to add additional learning goals to those of existing games such as BAFA BAFA and ALBATROSS, by creating simulations that had more complex options.”

The study of 66 students in Toulouse and Nijmegen consisted of an experiment group that engaged in one round of playing Ecotonos, a control group that did not participate in Ecotonos, and the completion of four questionnaires 3-5 weeks apart by members of both groups:

  1. CQS (Ang et al, 2007)
  2. Cross-cultural Communication Effectiveness (adapted from Hammer, Gudykunst & Wiseman, 1978)
  3. Social Desirability Scales (Kleumper, 2008)
  4. New Self-Efficacy Scale (Chen, Gulley and Eden, 2001)

Bücker and Korzilius note the importance of their study:

“Although it has been claimed that simulation games may give positive outcomes, such as more familiarity with people different from ourselves in terms of gender or ethnicity, such games may also reinforce prejudices. Burgstahler and Doe (2006) claim that ‘In all types of simulations there is a risk of long-lasting unintended negative results’ (p. 9).

An evaluation of an intercultural communications simulation called BAFA BAFA (Shirts, 1973) found evidence of a positive change in enthusiasm for learning, an intended result, and an increased ethnocentrism, an unintended result (Bruschke, Gartner, & Seiter, 1993). The simulated experience triggered negative and reactionary attitudes toward other cultures, and did not allow for more positive changes that might come from extended interaction across cultures (Bruschke et al., 1993).

The two simulation games of Bafa Bafa and Ecotonos are different. Whereas in the Bafa Bafa game participants are invited to simulate explicit stated cultural behavior, in the Ecotonos game participants have more freedom to create their own culture. This different way of prescribing behavior in the two games may have implications for the degree of prejudice after the simulation.”

The researchers found that “Ecotonos increases the ability to reflect on cross-cultural interactions, and stimulates interest in intercultural behavior and practicing cross-cultural relevant behavior.”


A concern that came out of the study is that researchers found “there is more understanding and comfort in student interactions, but there is not more progress in the joint project result. For undergraduate business students, feeling comfortable in intercultural situations and becoming interested in other students’ cultural backgrounds is already a great win; it stimulates intercultural learning by opening up students’ mindsets in the international class. For more mature graduate students, extra strategic learning should be expected during the simulation game, in terms of effectiveness of their cross-cultural behavior and effectuating certain predefined targets in their communication. This might be developed by stimulating the competitive side of the role of the participants in the simulation game.”

I would posit that playing Ecotonos multiple times will enable students to practice and improve their collaborative abilities; this is, after all, how the game is designed to be used. A different task or case study can be used each time the game is played, and different rule cards as well, making the play unique each time.

A second way for participants to improve their collaboration skills is for facilitators to urge them to choose one behavior they would like to demonstrate during the simulation. Participants should focus on that. During game play, when collaboration all too frequently breaks down, facilitators can interrupt play to remind players to practice the skill they have previously chosen. Both of these interventions are described in the Ecotonos Manual, 5th Edition, 2016.

I would like to thank both researchers for this work, and express my hope that they will continue with further studies on this topic.

If you haven’t yet conducted Ecotonos with your students, trainees or learners, what are you waiting for? Purchase your copy today. If you have an older copy, you may want to update; the fifth edition has explanations of a whole lot of how-to and underlying theory that you may be missing from earlier versions.

Film Review: Emperor

MV5BMjI4OTcwMTY3N15BMl5BanBnXkFtZTcwMTI1MzcxOQ@@._V1_SX214_AL_Our family watched a movie the other night that we all thoroughly enjoyed, and it as such an excellent cross-cultural film!

Emperor tells the supposedly true story of the USA’s decisions about whether or not to try (and hang) Emperor Hirohito after Japan’s surrender at the end of World War II. Since I have always referenced the post-war reconstruction of Japan as “best practice” in ending a war, restoring a nation, and building an alliance (a lay person’s opinion, as politics and the military are in no way my specialties), I found this film particularly enlightening. It is a joint US-Japan production.

Emperor was released in the USA in 2012 and in Japan in 2013, but somehow just made it to my attention here in Mexico. Thank goodness it did! It stars Matthew Fox as Brigadier General Bonner Fellers, a Japan expert, and Tommy Lee Jones as General Douglas MacArthur (Supreme Commander for the Allied Powers), along with a host of Japanese actors.

The film captures the emotional torment
of a person attempting to bridge two cultures:
how could he be truthful, gain and maintain credibility with
both Japanese and US Americans, remain true to himself,
and yet do the right thing?

Though there are quite a few Hollywood clichés, I absolutely loved the insight into Japanese culture that Fellers demonstrates in the movie—it’s a great example of practical application of culture-specific knowledge. The film captures very well the emotional torment of a person attempting to bridge two cultures, particularly in such a sensitive situation: how could he be truthful, gain and maintain credibility with both Japanese and US Americans, remain true to himself, and yet do the right thing? The movie shows some  of the post-war devastation of Japan, the dignity of its people, and the wisdom that, fortunately, prevailed.

I believe there is much to learn here, and I hope our US military will use this film as required viewing as part of its officer training. I so often talk about the need for expats to “manage up” rather than just “manage down,” and Emperor is a terrific case study of how one general did just that.

The movie also includes a bit of love story, as Fellers tries to rekindle his relationship with Aya, a foreign exchange student he originally met at Earlham College in Indiana. Emperor is based on Shiro Okamoto’s book, His Majesty’s Salvation.

It is interesting that the movie never points out that Fellers was a Quaker, something about his background that I imagine was key to his decision making and his style, or that he was the official liaison with the Imperial Household. It is also encouraging that even with so little knowledge of the culture, he was able to do so much good. That is assuming, of course, that the movie is in any way accurate.


My one complaint about the movie is that the closing credits note that Fellers was “demoted” from being a general. This, to me, is a classic misuse of a true statement. The filmmakers should either have added an explanation or omitted this statement entirely. Sharing it in its brevity misleads and implies negativity.

The fact is that after World War II the military reduced the ranks, cutting the titles of 212 generals, because it was no longer wartime and the military no longer had a need for so many generals. Fellers reverted to colonel, but retired with the brigadier general title.


Join us in Warm Sun AND Accomplish a New Year’s Resolution


  • Are you tired of the cold, the ice, and the snow? Is it all getting to be too much, and you’d like a break? Are you longing for some warmth, sunshine, the beach, and vibrant Latin music?
  • Have you promised yourself that in 2014 you will spend more time on yourself, invest in your professional development, network with like-minded professionals, or expand your training/facilitation/coaching repertoire?
  • Do you realize that global and multicultural competence are requisites in today’s world, and you want to improve these vital skills and learn to help develop them in others?

You can accomplish all these things by joining us in Mazatlán Mexico in February, or in Atlanta Georgia in March for our Cultural Detective Facilitator Certification Workshop! Early bird registration rates are available, so now is a good time to secure your seat in one of these workshops.

The Cultural Detective Facilitator Certification Workshop receives high accolades from the most experienced interculturalists as well as from those with significant life experience but who are new to the intercultural field. Clients rave about the Cultural Detective Method and use it worldwide. Facilitators love having Cultural Detective in their toolkit. It helps them truly make a difference and secure repeat business from clients—ongoing coaching, training and consulting revenue—as clients commit to the continuing practice that developing true intercultural competence requires.

Many people do not realize that Cultural Detective is flexible enough to integrate nicely with existing training programs—adding depth and practical skills that learners can use immediately and build upon in the future. Participants easily remember the Cultural Detective Method, and can put it into practice when encountering a challenging situation—solving misunderstandings before they become problems!

“It is difficult to exaggerate how fundamentally important Cultural Detective has become for us. The difference between courses we conduct with and without CD is astounding.”
– Chief Academic Officer

“We have achieved, for the first time in my five years working on the Learning and Development team, a 100% satisfaction rating from our learners. Thank you, Cultural Detective!
– Chief Learning and Development Officer

“Our customer satisfaction rates have increased 30% thanks to Cultural Detective.”
– Customer Support Manager

Click here for details on dates, locations and pricing, and click here for a detailed agenda of the workshop. Sound tempting? Get out of the cold AND spend time developing your effectiveness and employability! We’d be delighted to have you join us! Of course, if you are living somewhere warm, we’d gladly welcome you, too!

Success? It’s All in How We Gauge It…

711079_3691916951303_1580871364_nThis is a story, or perhaps, more correctly, a cautionary tale, about a very successful expatriate and the highly respected, much-envied western company for which he worked. It is a story that made me think again about how we define success in our lives, and, in particular, how we define success in the global marketplace and success on an expatriate assignment.

The Company: The company is one of the very first to enter the Japanese market after World War II. It holds key patents on several important technologies, and invests decades establishing partnerships with Japan’s leading firms. It prides itself on hiring and promoting Japan’s best and brightest.

By the 1990s, it is the envy of other foreign-capitalized companies in Japan: it has a dominant market presence in its niche industries; long-established, trustworthy partnerships with major local players; and a stellar reputation for consistency, reliability and innovation. The president of the company is Japanese, and its management team is a strong and diverse mix of local and international executives who respect one another and leverage their expertise.

The Japan operation is a huge profit center, as well as the home of research and development breakthroughs leveraged by the company globally. They have strong cross-cultural programs in place for their staff worldwide, as well as for transferees and their receiving organizations.

The Expat: Our expat is intelligent, ambitious, and very capable. He has worked for the company for over 30 years, and is known as an excellent turn-around manager who had saved several manufacturing plants and regional operations, turning their losses into profits. Originally educated as an engineer, he is logical and methodical, and very good with numbers, graphs, and trends. Our expat is married with grown children and grandchildren, speaks a bit of French in addition to his native English, is well-travelled, but has never before lived overseas. This will be his last assignment prior to retirement.

The Situation: The global company, and most particularly home office, is experiencing economic hardship. A few expensive ventures have failed, and it is time to tighten belts, cut back, and save money across the board. Though the Japan operation is one of the most profitable worldwide, it is part of the overall organization and must join in company-wide budget cuts.

The expat is sent to Japan as the new CEO, and is told to cut millions from the annual budget. It is the first time in over a decade that the CEO of the Japan operation is a foreigner. The expat and his wife relocate to Tokyo, and quickly integrate into the local expat social scene. They love their new life in this amazing metropolis.

The Backlash: Local and existing expatriate management “cry foul.” They say it is a short-sighted decision to slash budgets in Japan when the operation is functioning smoothly and keeping others afloat. They say they are being punished for errors they did not cause, in which they were not involved. They warn that budget cuts will have long-lasting negative effects in the Japanese marketplace.

The new CEO explains that change always has its naysayers; people need to “get onboard or get off the ship.” “Tough times call for tough decisions.” “It’s a new day, a new world, a new economy.”

The cross-cultural consultant and existing management explain that the culture is different here, that the new CEO doesn’t yet understand Japan. Drastic changes have long-lasting effects that can’t be undone, can’t be apologized for. They urge him to send this message strongly to the home office, to push the decision back up. They say it’s his duty to make the home office aware of the repercussions of their top-down decision. They tell him that following instructions will mean the death of the Japan operation.

But the CEO has been down this road before. No one likes belt-tightening. No one likes budget cuts. He knows how to turn an operation around. He’s done it before. He doesn’t need people to “like” him. He knows they will respect him once they see the results he achieves. This is an once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, an incredible capstone to his career.

The Outcome: The expat succeeds, in stellar fashion. He fires people. He closes divisions of the company. He retires long-standing partnerships with important local players. He does exactly what he has been charged to do. And he furthers his career: after his two-year assignment he receives a huge bonus. He departs Japan to begin his retirement, riding the accolades of his success.

Home office is proud of their decision to send him; only an expat could have made these kinds of difficult decisions, taken these drastic measures. A local executive wouldn’t have been able to cut such long-standing local partnerships, couldn’t have bit the bullet to fire staff who had worked their whole careers building the company. It was a perfect decision. Money saved. Bottom line improved.

The Longer Term Outcome: Fast forward to four years after the expat’s departure. The highly successful, highly profitable business in Japan, with the enviable stellar reputation, closes down. Plants close. R&D facilities close. Offices throughout the country close.

Leading companies in the industry are no longer interested in partnering; once burned twice shy. After decades of trust building, smart business and shared success, how can they rely on a company that unilaterally decides to throw it all away to improve bottom-line at some far away home office? Why should they do business with a company that so clearly prioritizes home office needs over international success?

The company’s best and brightest have been hired by the competition. They are sour about their previous employer’s lack of loyalty and its short-sightedness. The company is no longer able to attract talented new hires. Who wants to work for a company that focuses on home office success, punishing those who succeed worldwide?

And today? The Japan operation, such an envied and respected company for over sixty years, is no longer. It was “over-milked,” bled dry. Not financially, but culturally, emotionally, trust-depleted.

So, how would you gauge success in this situation? Knowing what you know now, was the CEO successful? At the time everyone thought so. He achieved the immediate goal. What do you think would have happened had he done things differently? Is there a way the expat could have been successful in his goal and maintained trust? Does this mean that every leader needs special tools when completing an overseas assignment? What can we learn from this?

Please ponder those questions while you read the key takeaways from my point of view.

The Lessons:

  1. As expats, we must learn to distinguish between what we know and what we have to learn. We must ask for help. We must be willing to listen. We need to pause and make sure we understand the cultural context in which we are working.
  2. We must ensure that while we use our strengths, we also use “fresh eyes” to see what’s new and different this time. Not every problem can be approached in the same way it was successfully resolved the last time around, in a different country, with different people.
  3. We must be able to discern when to jump at an opportunity, and when to push a decision back up the chain of command. No person is an island. Even a CEO is part of the interconnected web of relationships, responsibilities, and decisions that make up an organization.
  4. As home office executives, we must be able to weigh our priorities, consciously and purposefully. We must think long-term, even when the short-term is jumping up and down in front of us. It is our job to anticipate the multiple impacts of a decision, and shape the process to benefit the organization.
  5. We must be able to hear the truth, from all perspectives, and separate the facts from the complaining. We need to set aside what we want to hear, what we are used to hearing, and be open not only to what is said, but the context and manner in which it is expressed. A cultural informant may help in “translating” the meaning of the message.
  6. As local management, we must learn to discern when we are accurately predicting the future and when we are just resisting change. These are usually questions to explore through dialogue and open-minded discovery. This can be a challenging process, depending on the cultural norms of local management.
  7. As a global team, we must have the tools to enable us to share, hear, and weigh information in order to make the best decisions, for both the short- and long-term. And it is important to remember that the choice and presentation of information is, to some extent culturally influenced. Without a process to truly understand shared information, team members essentially operate in the dark.
  8. A multinational company, it is wise to employ tools like Cultural Detective to help prepare and guide executives on international assignments. Culturally Effective companies recognize the need, and have found Cultural Detective and a trained facilitator can help prevent stories like this from becoming commonplace Cultural Defectives.

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