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Cross-border projects

This is the first in a 3-part series about managing cross-cultural and international teams.

The world of business is continually shrinking: we work in an environment with real-time audio visual communication with colleagues on the other side of the world and online translation tools. Even small companies can operate internationally with outsourcing agreements and partners overseas, which means that project managers in organisations of any size face the challenges of managing international projects.

And that means far more than just calculating that when it’s 9 am in Paris, Texas it’s 4 pm in Paris, France. International projects come with two main challenges: the people you are working with won’t necessarily work in the same way as you, and the people you are working for won’t necessarily want the same things.

Having an open mind about these challenges is the first step in being able to address them in a pragmatic way that helps everyone involved. National culture plays a big part in how we act, and we can’t change that – we can just learn how to make it work for everyone concerned. That can be hard for senior managers to accept. After all, they have got where they are in the organisation by working hard and performing well. They expect certain responses to their behaviour, and when that doesn’t materialise, it is easy to put the blame squarely at the door of the person who hasn’t reacted as expected. Being able to see that working with an international team requires an appreciation of local reactions is key to making cross-border projects a success.

Spending some time with your team members overseas is the best way to understand how they work, but desk research before you go (or if budget constraints mean you can’t go) will be beneficial.

You will find out a great deal about how team members will most likely react in the project environment. Here are some examples of cultural differences that manifest themselves in a team environment:

  • Leadership: an egalitarian, collaboarative style will work better with Scandinavians than with Russians, who will distrust a leader who is too friendly with subordinates.
  • Time: in some countries, time is a flexible concept. French business meetings rarely start on time. Plan your conference calls to allow for the Mexicans to join even later. When a deadline is a drop-dead date make sure everyone actually understands the significance of missing it. For some cultures, milestones are just a guide.
  • Your role: while you might be the most important person on the project in your country, your counterparts in China for example could see you as a spare part. Employees working in cultures with strong hierarchical structures may not take direction from you because in the grand hierarchy you just don’t register. Bring in your Sponsor or a board member if you need to get things moving and ask them to speak to local management to make your role clear.
  • Saving face: some cultures find it easy (or at least acceptable) to hold up a hand and say ‘I made a mistake’. But others don’t. That makes managing issues much more complicated.

In summary, be bothered enough about cultural differences to find out what they actually are. Many people love talking about how their countries work and a short discussion in the early days of the project with a local expert can avoid headaches later. This knowledge provides you with a framework to manage the differences that will occur and also the reassurance that you can develop a realistic way to work together.

Next Monday I’ll be writing about the practical challenges facing project managers when managing international projects.

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