Tag Archives: Cultural Divide

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.