Category Archives: Cross-cultural

How do you manage intercultural issues in your teams?

I recently had the good fortune to fly in from Doha to Dubai in a Dreamliner, and later again from Bangalore to Delhi – before they got grounded following a safety advisory. No doubt, it is a marvel of engineering excellence, and I am sure they will figure out battery problems sooner than later.

However, while reading this article “From the Start, Dreamliner jet program was doomed”, I could not help express surprise over some of the issues discussed. While some of the issues reflect a very high-end of engineering being tried out for the first time, and hence some teething troubles could be expected that could be solved by engineering, some other relate to the human aspects, surely not happening for the first time, which perhaps trumped several other issues:

It seemed like the Italians only worked three days a week. They were always on vacation. And the Japanese, they worked six days a week,” said Jack Al-Kahwati, a former Boeing structural weight engineer.

Even simple conversations between Boeing employees and those from the suppliers working in-house in Everett weren’t so simple. Because of government regulations controlling the export of defense-related technology, any talks with international suppliers had to take place in designated conference rooms. Each country had its own, separate space for conversations.

There were also deep fears, especially among veteran Boeing workers, that “we were giving up all of our trade secrets to the Japanese and that they would be our competition in 10 years,” Al-Kahwati said.

None of these are new issues to any student of inter-cultural issues, especially in project management, but what is surprising is that for a program of that strategic importance and such magnitude, these issues were ignored and they eventually came back to bite.

Distributed and virtual teams are a reality of today’s world. It is not just limited to well-heeled MNCs – we see countless everyday examples of such teams with NGOs, startups, voluntary efforts, college project and so on. There is more to working with people from different time zones and cultural contexts than we realize. Problem is, most of us haven’t been exposed to, or adequately trained to handle such diverse teams – not just as a manager but even as a team member. As a result, when there is a need to work with distributed teams, we tend to curl up in our cocoons and shun working with them. It could be due to excessive paranoia due to job insecurity, or it could be due to prejudiced mindset about folks who are ‘out of sight’, especially at a low-cost destination. Sometimes, it might simply be due to sheer laziness. I have once been in a situation where a VP based out of company headquarters wanted to only work with people within his ‘line of sight’ – he hated getting on emails, hardly ever responded to them, and his preferred style was chatting in hallways or at cubicles. Sounds familiar? However effective this strategy might be for his immediate team within a shouting distance, this would lead to his remote teams feeling disenchanted. You might be a great leader, but remember – managing remote teams is also part of your success!

Panel discussion on "Intercultural Issues in Project Management" at Grace Hopper Conference, India, 2012In Dec, I had the opportunity to participate in an interesting discussion at the Grace Hopper Conference, India on “Cultural Intelligence in Project Management”. We discussed some of the personal experiences of a very diverse and highly experienced panel. Some of these experiences ranged from Bangladesh to China, Japan to Israel, and US to Europe and so on.

One of the points I shared was about how to manage inter-cultural teams. This is a big topic and we can spend a day on it and still don’t get it right! In my experience, there is a process that I have developed and refined that works well. Here is how it goes:

  1. Be aware of the intercultural differences – don’t paint everyone with the same broad brush. This is especially important for ‘foreigners’ in your team lest they start considering them as ‘aliens’ in the team! To me, recognition of such differences means respect and that itself is such a motivation for everyone to feel welcomed in a diverse group. In a Chinese company I once worked for, it was common for everyone to be in office till 9pm everyday, 6 days a week, even if there was no work that demanded people to stay back. Meetings would be setup at 5pm and go on until 9pm and beyond. While this was ok for many of the Chinese folks as they were ‘foreigners’ to Bangalore and had nothing better to do in evenings than work at office, this was not so ok for many Indian engineers who had a family. While no one minds occasionally staying staying for work exigencies but everyday was a drain. In that high-performing culture, leaving early for home would be seen as a sign of lesser commitment and effort. While things did eventually get better (at least in my team because I summarily rejected such outrageous ways of ‘measuring’ performance of an individual), it took some time and great efforts to make people realise their intercultural differences that we have grown so subconsciously used to.
  2. Creating common norms – Instead of forcing one set of people to change to another set of people’s preferred way of working, it is much better to arrive at a common way of working, even if that is not the most efficient way of working. Ideally, let the team evolve such norms so that there is a higher buy-in for those common standards of mutual behavior. This will demonstrate tremendous respect for individuals and encourage them to participate in team proceedings that will go a long way in building their individual buy-in and a team camarederie that will set the team on a high-performance trajectory. More than once in my career, I have been involved with diverse teams where simple things like how fast an email should be responded to has been subject of intense debate. We all have different ways to answer them. Some would take the old analogy of a telephone call – just like someone who is physically present is more important than the one calling on phone at their leisure, why should someone sending an email become a priority for me? On the other hand, there are folks who would want to respond to emails within a hour if not minutes! So, what is the best way? Clearly not making everyone answer the mails in one hour, I hope! Let the team discuss this issue and let them come out with common norms such as 24hrs or 48hrs based on what is important for the business. As manager, step in only when you think teams are setting the bar too low, and then also, step in not to dictate your preferred ‘norm’ but to clarify the objectives and provide supporting data and steer the conversation towards why it is important to meet those objectives – teams are smart, they will figure out the rest. For example, if time tracking is a project requirement (either for tracking project effort or for billing the client, or for any other reason), and given people’s propensity to either avoid it completely or do very meticulous time tracking, then it might be a good idea to also identify a common tool, such as a time and attendance software, that makes sure everyone is on the same page. 
  3. Exploit intercultural strengths based on individual strengths – the idea is not to make a rabbit fly or to make a bird swim, but find out who is naturally adept at certain strengths and match their tasks to their strengths. As managers, we don’t want to be parents to the team members, and there is no point ‘forcing’ them to change them to do thing that they don’t relate to (unless of course, that is jeopardizing project objectives). Instead of doing a command and control style management of allocating tasks, managers should walk a few extra steps and undertand what motivates their team members, and if possible, assign them that work. In most cases, that might be a strength they already posses, and in some cases, it might a skill they aspire to possess and might not be the best candidate for it. However, if they can demonstrate that they have taken steps to match their desire to improve their capability in that subject, then as managers, we owe it to them to give them a fair chance. Assigning a mentor as they take up a new task might also be helpful. I once had a great team member who was majorly motivated by helping everyone on the team. Almost each evening as people were winding up their work, he would go to them and chat up with them on their problems and offer voluntary help to stay late and fix it. He would do it in such unintimidating and affable manner that other team members loved it (and I can’t recollect anyone misusing that gesture of benevolence, in case you are wondering). As his manager, the only thing I was supposed to do was just to stay out of the way and cheer him up! He was clearly driven by his own deep passion for the product that we were working on.
  4. Broadbase core strengths – finally, once the team has come to the point where people don’t feel intimated or vulnerable due to their shortcomings but rather feel appreciated for their strengths, it will be much easier to cross-pollinate those strengths among the team members. Since everyone is a mentor and everyone is a ‘mentee’ to someone else at this point, chances are that this won’t create adversarial relations among the team members, but actually stimulate a culture of mutual respect and learning. For example, someone might be an expert with a technology and another team member is great at planning. Once there is a feeling of mutual respect, it will be much easier to make them seek each other’s expertize in furthering their own knowledge.

This four-step process has served me well in multiple scenarios. There is nothing rocket science about it, rather it is based on simple laws of respect to everyone, and that’s why it works. And to me, intercultural is just that – a matter of respecting people for what they are rather than ignoring or ridiculing them for what they are not. After all, we are all perfectly imperfect and similarly different!

How do you manage intercultural issues in your teams?

Bridging the Cultural Divide in Global Projects

This is a guest post by Michelle Symonds. Michelle has many years’ experience in IT and IT Project Management in the oil industry and investment banking working on complex global projects involving the management of overseas project teams. She is now a freelance consultant specialising in article writing for businesses such as www.parallelprojecttraining.com and is also editor of the Project Management News website www.projectaccelerator.co.uk.

With most major corporations doing business on a global scale, projects are naturally part of that global business and, as such, project management is increasingly about leading projects and teams from different countries and cultures. This introduces potential risks related to language, time-zone and cultural differences, above and beyond the usual project risks.

The project management of geographically diverse projects requires a different approach to leading and communicating with teams if it is to address the cultural divides that often exist so that effective multi-cultural teams may be developed to deliver successful projects. It is important to recognise that cultural barriers are not simply between “East” and “West” but that they can potentially exist between any two different countries from any part of the globe. A cultural divide can exist between closely located countries and even between countries with the same language so recognising this at the outset of a global project, and introducing strategies to deal with it, is essential for a successful project outcome.

But, whilst location, language and time-zone differences will have an effect on a project, these aspects are relatively straightforward to manage for an experienced global project manager. Less easy to manage effectively are the cultural differences, which, by their very nature, are not often explicitly stated or well-understood. Indeed, because of reticence to mention a problem in some cultures, a project manager may not even be aware that a problem exists until it is too late to rectify. Cultural differences may necessitate adapting standard project processes and procedures to take account of certain factors. No culture can claim to know the “right” way to run a project, and every culture has been successful in its own right, but maybe by addressing cultural issues we can all learn something from other cultures that will add value to global projects.

So just what are the most typical culture-dependant areas that might require a “non-standard” project approach?

 

  • Communication – Understanding and Interpreting 

Face-to-face communication will always minimise misunderstandings, but it will not eliminate them altogether when cultural differences are significant. Wherever possible, all stakeholders should meet in person prior to the start of the project. Indeed when dealing with some countries, such as China, face-to-face meetings are an essential part of building an all-important trusting working relationship. Understanding other cultures helps a project manager anticipate and respond appropriately to issues during the project and ensures that the project manager’s behavior does not offend or insult the other parties involved.  

Face-to-face meetings help both sides of the cultural divide to gain an understanding of each other’s expectations and aid the interpretation of unspoken signals. In many Asian cultures modesty, patience and politeness are expected behaviors that are not necessarily expected in Western countries (although they would be nice).

Once a project is underway, much of the communication is likely to be by email, which in a western culture is used by the sender of the email to clarify all issues beyond any doubt for the recipient of the email. However, in many Asian cultures detailed clarification of every point can be seen as an insult to the intelligence of the recipient so the onus is on the recipient to infer what is meant by the sender. This factor alone can unintentionally cause problems so, for example, an English PM should emphasise that detailed clarification is simply a part of how projects are done in the U.K. when dealing with Indian or Chinese stakeholders or project teams to avoid causing personal offence.

  • Cultural Viewpoints – Seeing Things from the Other Side: 

Understanding the viewpoint of others involved in a project is a two-way process (or more) to ensure all stakeholders and teams understand the expectations and attitudes of each other. This is not just the case with eastern and western cultures, there can, for example be issues between Indian and Chinese teams involved on the same project where the hierarchical culture of India and the Chinese culture based on personal relationships can cause conflicts in determining the best approach to deal with risks and problems encountered throughout a project.

The success of a project will require an understanding of the underlying values of a different culture and how they affect the working practices of those involved in the project so a professional project manager should take the time to research these different cultures. There are a number of organisations, such as the China-Britain Business Council and the UK-India Business Council that offer useful advice in this area.

But be aware that China and India, in particular, are vast and diverse nations with different underlying sub-cultures and languages so there are no quick and simple tips to understanding all aspects of their cultures. Different attitudes to areas such as project quality, cost and time can exist within different individuals in the same culture. So be cautious about making general assumptions and try to get to know and understand each stakeholder and local project manager as an individual and develop good working relationships that go beyond standard project procedures.

  • Reporting – Obtaining Accurate Progress Information 

Western cultures tend to value openness and frankness when it comes to project progress and reporting. They believe that project issues can be prevented from becoming serious problems if they are raised as soon as they are detected and that serious problems can be better solved by discussing possible solutions with the group. But how issues and problems are handled is a culturally sensitive issue. Admitting to a problem can be seen, in some Eastern cultures, as an admission of failure so a project team leader would not openly report schedule overruns or the inability to complete a task in the same way as his Western counterpart. Instead the information might be gradually brought to the global project manager’s attention bit-by-bit.

Similarly, the way in which changes to the schedule are requested may not always be in the most obvious way. Even on projects where there are defined and documented procedures for updates these procedures may simply not fit with the working mentality of all those involved in the project. For a PM to assume the procedures will be followed by multi-cultural teams simply because they have been defined is a naïve view. Some teams may approve procedures only because it is culturally unacceptable for them to openly disagree with the global PM.

  • The People – The individuals behind the Names 

It is a vital skill for a global project manager to understand what motivates the diverse teams and individuals working on a project and to take the time to provide constructive feedback on completed tasks in order to clearly define ongoing expectations. But, clearly, on a large, complex project being run in various locations around the world it would be impossible for a global PM to know all team members well, let alone understand their personalities and motivations.

This is where building common understanding and trust between the global and local project managers will be of benefit. Working with the local project manager, who can better understand individual motivating factors and who can present feedback in a culturally-sensitive way, can aid the development of multi-cultural project teams which can work efficiently and co-operatively together.

Rivalries and different agendas may exist between culturally different project teams (just as they may between co-located teams) so the network of relationships must be managed sensitively to minimise their impact on the overall success of the global project. It is essential for a successful project outcome that the global PM facilitates co-operation and support between all teams and attempts to minimise conflict.

Whilst it might be possible, in an ideal world, that we all follow some “international” standard of project management, in practise, adapting standard procedures depending on the different cultures involved in a project is likely to lead to more successful project outcomes. Managing global projects presents a particular set of challenges that require specific experience and PM training to overcome the inherent difficulties of cultural divides but the advantages of doing so can lead to a project that achieves cost-effective technical excellence.

Toyota’s Wisdom for Tomorrow’s Managers…published

In one of my previous posts, I had talked about an article I wrote for business review magazine. It got published in the Dec 2008 issue. The article discusses following ten ‘wisdoms’ from Toyota for its managers:

  1. Open the Window. It’s a big world out there !
  2. Make the most sincere efforts in your assigned position
  3. Taking on challenges is the way to gain experience
  4. Be an Innovative and Creative Thinker

  5. More uncertain the future, more important to have courage

  6. If a problem is left unsolved and the superior is uninformed, neither Kaizen nor cost reduction can be applied

  7. Unless we establish a unique pattern of control and organization, no amount of financial resources will be sufficient

  8. Eliminate muda, mura, muri completely 

  9. Ask ‘Why’ five times about every matter

  10. Trust is key

You can read the article here. 

What is your cross-cultural quotient ?

This mail is doing its customary rounds on the net, and not for a wrong reason! Though there are obvious pitfalls of stereotyping people, it also serves as a handy learning guide, even a field manual, when the similarities are generic in nature, and far outweigh the minute differences that might make an individual unique and different from others, but not dramatically different from other fellow tribesmen. The fact is we are all different, and success at workplace is also impacted by our ability to recognize, appreciate, respect and work through such cross-cultural differences. In today’s increasingly globalized world, this serves as a good starting point to recognize that there are people different from us, and a team’s success is impacted by mutual understanding of such differences.

These icons were designed by Liu Young who was born in China and educated in Germany. She is an accomplished designer…check out her work at http://www.yangliudesign.com/. I found her usage of metaphors captured in nice little icons very interesting, and even if it is a gross generalization of human beings, it is a nice piece of creative work!

Legend: Blue –> Westerner, Red –> Asian

Opinion

 

 

 

 Way of Life

 

 

 

Punctuality

Contacts

 

 

 

Anger

 

 

 

Queue when Waiting

 

 

 

Me (I)

 

 

 

Sundays on the Road

 

 

 

Party

eastwest09.jpg

 

 

 

In the Restaurant

eastwest10.jpg

 

 

 

Perception of each other

 

 

 

Things that are new

 

 

 

The child

 

 

 

What is trendy

 

 

 

The Boss

 

 

 

Moods and Weather

 

 

 

Shower timing

 

 

 

Elderly in day to day life

 

 

 

Transportation

 

 

 

Three meals a day

 

 

 

Handling of Problems 

 

 

 

Travelling  

 

 

 

Stomach Ache