Project Management Dialogues with ATTITUDE!

by Kimberly M. Wiefling, M.S.

This Month's Featured Noggin' Floggin':
Lost in Translation - Crossing Cultural Gaps in Project Management

As a project manager, it was difficult enough getting a bunch of people who were in the same room, spoke the same language and grew up in the same country to get on the same page. Now practically every project seems to be spread over two or three continents and four or more time zones. Welcome to project management in the 21st century global village!

Ever since the first astronauts showed us pictures of our tiny planet suspended against the backdrop of a vast black universe, the world has been shrinking. While the physical size has remained the same, the practical distance between us has dwindled to almost nothing. Our lives are now intricately interwoven with people around the globe. I don't know if the world is flat, but it sure feels tiny!

Project teams today are composed of an amazing array of people from different cultures, people who may be sitting offices halfway around the world from one another, with diverse native languages and customs. But even sharing a common language is no guarantee of mutual understanding, as anyone who has spoken with people from Australia, India, England and Texas knows. Even many co-located teams find themselves composed of a multi-cultural cast of characters. In the Silicon Valley, for example, it's common for groups to be composed of a majority of people born outside of the US. Yes, we're a savory stew of cultures from around the world, and in my opinion that's part of the reason that innovation and entrepreneurship thrive here.

My work has taken me to Amsterdam, Japan, Armenia, and all over the US, and I've worked with people from dozens of countries and most every continent. No matter what the country of origin, the challenges of project management seem to be shared universally by all of our global neighbors. There's too much to do and not enough time. Project scope grows, and it all must be done with too few resources. Around the world, the top reasons that project teams fail to achieve their goals are all the usual suspects. And a "thank you" and a few words of encouragement go a long way no matter where you're from, and sincere appreciation of a job well done is a source of motivation.

But forget country of origin! Can there be any greater cultural gap than those between different functional areas, or between companies like IBM and Apple? Engineering and Marketing speak different languages in every country and the gaps between company cultures sometimes dwarf those between countries.

The rewards of multi-cultural experiences far outweigh the challenges. Whether you currently work in a multi-cultural team or not, one thing is for sure . . . we are all living and working in a global economy. Success in your next project may very well depend on your ability to work effectively in it Here are some tips on identifying, understanding, and crossing the cultural chasm that may stand between you and your project's success.

The Cultural Chasm

As a US citizen, I have to admit that we have a bad habit of expecting the rest of the world adapt to our culture. We are one of the few developed nations where most people still speak only one language. Even companies with a worldwide presence are more like US-based multi-national organizations than truly global entities. With most of the world bending over backwards to accommodate US-centric businesses, it's easy to overlook the need to reach across the cultural divide to our colleagues. In some cases it's merely an oversight. In others it's a bewildering omission that can severely damage productivity and even scuttle project success.

One of the most grievous examples of this kind of oversight involved a US project manager who was bitterly complaining about the irrational behavior of his company's one and only paying customer. This person felt that their customer—who happened to be from Japan—was unreasonable, demanding, unfriendly, and generally rather irritating. When the ranting tapered off, I asked a series of questions.

"So, how much Japanese language have you learned?"

PM – "None."

"Not even hello and thank you?"

PM – Staring blankly at me ". . . Why? They speak English!"

"How about reading books on the Japanese business culture like 'Behind the Japanese Bow'?"

PM – "Nope."

"Well, what about sending them a card to acknowledge one of their Japanese holidays?"

PM – "Ah, no, I don't know when their holidays are."

"When they visit you, have you ever taken them out to sing karaoke?"

PM – "Not really . . . "

"Believe me, you'd remember if you sang karaoke! OK, how about drinking? Have you gone drinking with them until all hours of the night until at least some people fall asleep at their table and the others draw all over their faces with indelible markers? No? Hmmmm . . . "

Indeed, this PM had not raised a single glass of sake nor sung a solitary karaoke verse of the Stone's "I Can't Get No Satisfaction" with their Japanese colleagues. And it was their colleagues who were being unreasonable? Considering that this client was currently the only source of revenue for this company, it seems to me that a bit more attention might have been paid to stretching out a welcoming hand.

Another US-based company had offices in 7 countries, 4 continents and a dozen time zones. A senior project manager was lamenting the lack of commitment and follow through from team members in another country. Leaning in to whisper their keen insight into human behavior, they confided that perhaps they had the wrong people working in their company and that more competent people would need to be hired in order to be successful. That wasn't quite the whole story. Most individuals in the India office found this PM brash and intimidating. People were so intimidated by his style that they resisted making commitments and avoided sharing anything but wholehearted agreement openly on their weekly project teleconferences. What's more, the US project manager was unable to discern when the people on the team located in India were raising serious concerns or making firm commitments. It just didn't sound like concern and commitment expressed by the US members of the team. Rather than learn about cultural differences in leadership, teamwork and communication, this PM was stuck in the mindset of "different is deficient" and playing the blame game.

Crossing the Cultural Divide

If your project team is globally challenged, here are seven tips that can help you build relationships that transcend cultural differences and significantly increase your chances of success:

  1. LEARN THE LANGUAGE. Not the whole language, mind you. Just learn the basic polite phrases. Come on, there's no excuse for not being able to at least say please, thank you, yes, no, excuse me, I'm sorry, and all of the "goods" (good morning, afternoon, evening, night). Naturally, if you're traveling to another country you'll want to learn some practical phrases like "One beer," "Where is the toilet?", and "I'd like to order something that's not still alive, please." One warning: a little knowledge is a dangerous thing. During my first trip to Japan I went out alone for a meal one evening and accidentally ordered dinner for six. Although I was quite insistent, in Japanese, that I definitely wanted this menu item, my gracious hosts rescued me from my faux paux and helped me with a more suitable selection.

    For a mere $50 you can get an SDIO memory chip with 8 hours of listening time that will teach you all of these basic niceties as well as how to order a beer, ask someone to dinner and pay the bill. Pimsleur language programs have worked well for me, giving me a Japanese accent that colleagues claim sounds like a native. Of course the Japanese are very polite, so they may just be shining me on. Nevertheless, it's worth a look at their website where you can listen to a full half hour of any language. If you're going to Japan, learn to say "I'm sorry" first, and listen to the sections on apologies twice!

  2. BE FASCINATED! Show a sincere and keen interest in the other person's language, culture, country, work and life. There are two things that are understood around the world: sincere interest and sincere appreciation. Even if you don't initially feel extremely interested, a few minutes of politely acting as if you are often leads to the discovery of numerous truly fascinating topics. Try listening longer than you normally would before interrupting. You might be surprised at how much you learn when your lips are sealed!

  3. DO YOUR HOMEWORK. With the internet, there's simply no excuse for not knowing at least the basics about the countries of our co-workers. Educate yourself about the location, geography and natural wonders. Use Google Image Search to view pictures of their cities and countryside, national monuments and natural wonders.

    While in Fiji on vacation I traveled by boat for a full day from the mainland until we arrived at a remote island where the Peace Corps had recently finished building a school. The curious teenagers of the village wanted to know where we were from. Not only did they know where the US was, they knew where California and even San Francisco were. I'm embarrassed to admit that I'm not that familiar with world geography. Many of us may not know where Mumbai is, for example, or even that it used to be called Bombay. But with the internet at our disposal there's simply no excuse for not looking it up once you find yourself working with someone from this city in India.

  4. KNOW THEIR HISTORY. When I traveled to Armenia for business it was extremely helpful to know that there was a certain level of tension between Armenia and neighboring countries. For example, Armenia and Turkey have not had diplomatic ties since the mass killings of Armenians by Ottoman Turks in 1915 - 1917. Out of respect for their history, while there I chose to avoid discussing my brother's recent marriage to a lovely Turkish woman.

    Take the time to understand key current and past events that have influenced the cultures of your colleagues. A great resource that even the busiest person has time for is the 4-page CultureGram, which is available for 190 countries. The background, geography, people, customs and courtesies are summarized in a nutshell. Imagine the confusion avoided by taking the time to learn that in Bulgaria agreement is signified by shaking the head from side to side and "no" is indicated by nodding!

  5. CELEBRATE WITH THEM. One year I decided to invite friends for dinner and a party. With only a week's notice, and because I assumed that most people would already have plans for this special holiday, I invited quite a few people. Thirty people arrived at my home to celebrate with me! I wondered how on earth so many people found themselves without plans for the day. Eventually it dawned on me that there weren't many Christians in this merry group. When I am working with colleagues from other countries I make sure that I know when it's Rosh HaShanah, or Diwali, or Golden Week, depending on their culture. Research the holidays, festivals, culture and customs of your global colleagues, and then surprise them with an appropriate greeting.

  6. HOST THEM IN STYLE. Visitors to your country should feel like welcomed guests. Extend them the highest level of hospitality that you possibly can. Don't assume that they can easily find the hotel from the airport. Invite them to dinner, not just their first night, but every night that they are in town. Naturally they may choose to spend some time by themselves, but don't let them sit in a lonely hotel room with nothing to do but watch TV! Don't relegate them to bicycling around a strange city because they come from a country where having a driver's license is uncommon! Arrange for a tour at your expense to a site of interest to them. Take them shopping. Although they may want time alone, make sure that you offer plenty of alternatives so that they know they are your honored guests as well as your colleagues.

  7. BE APPRECIATIVE. Express your sincere and enthusiastic appreciation of every act of kindness or courtesy. Expect nothing and assume nothing. Acknowledge every thoughtful act with your most gracious thanks. Whether it is a thoroughly prepared presentation or a trinket from their home country, take the time to really notice what they have done and tell them how much it means to you.

A Citizen of the World

Every project manager worth their salt knows that it's the people that make or break a project. Leading edge technology and products alone won't make your company successful. ISO certification and world-class projects might just mean that you're very efficient at doing the wrong things. Ultimately it's the people who create the miracle of project success. In order to lead in this shrinking world of ours, project managers can increase their teams' chances for success by being aware of the cultural chasms and setting the example of how to cross them.

The next time you are on an airplane, have a look down at the land below. Unlike maps or globes, you'll notice that the earth doesn't have lines between the countries. Those divisions are no more or less real than those on the functional org charts that divide us into marketing, sales, engineering, customer care, etc. Getting too wrapped up in these arbitrary divisions is like going into a restaurant and eating the menu! We must work across these boundaries in order to deliver results in this 21st century global village.

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