Managing International Projects – Part 1

This is the first in a series of nine blogs that provide insight and tips on managing international projects.  In this blog, we’ll discuss issues and solutions associated with general international project implications.

Tips for International Projects

  • Test everything – appearances can be deceiving
  • Seek the “middle ground” in resolving multi-cultural differences
  • Listen to the people who have “been there”
  • Research cultures relevant to your project
  • Ask the Supplemental International Testing Questions/Create your own testing questions

The Challenges

International projects increase the need for a systems approach to project management.  Members of international project teams must overcome the usual project management challenges, along with additional risks posed by such factors as:

Cultural diversity:  Representatives of two or more differing cultural systems must work together on a project team.  In addition, Customers or suppliers may be members of cultures different from those of team members.

Distance:  Team members must respond effectively to each other’s needs, or Customer/supplier needs, across continents or oceans.

Language:  Speakers of a variety of languages must find effective ways to understand each other.

Diverse laws, trade conditions and business operating requirements:   In planning and implementing their project, team members must consider such issues as multiple import or tax regulations, differing currency values, and a variety of multi-national operating procedures.

Logistics:  Team members must consider differing transportation systems, terrain or climate conditions.

Supplemental International Testing Questions

These supplemental international testing questions are fashioned around four Key Variables of International Projects.  The variables, based on the findings of Mary O’Hara-Devereaux and Robert Johansen in their book GlobalWork, David Victor, in his book International Business Communication, and other recent global-business scholarship, are discussed here in broad terms to provide a sense of prevailing cultural conditions.  Variations can be expected within specific cultural groups.

The Four Key Variables of International Projects are:

Context:  Context represents the filters by which members of a cultural system give meaning to events and information around them.  Members of high-context cultures, often representing Asian or Latin countries, may tend to view as important, the conditions surrounding events or communication experiences and the status or position of individuals involved in these events or activities.  In a high-context environment, the conditions surrounding such experiences may have more meaning than their actual content.  Members of low-context cultures, often representing North American or Northern European countries, may attach more meaning to the facts of an event or communication activity than to the surrounding people or conditions.  The value of an event or communication will be determined more by what occurred or was said than by who was involved.

Example:  A project team must request resources needed to achieve a desired Customer outcome.  In a high-context culture, considerable time would be spent determining whom the most appropriate person would be to convey and receive the request and how its submission should be coordinated with other events, in and outside of the organization.  Issues such as status, formal and informal power relationships, gender and longevity with the organization would be carefully assessed.  The actual wording of the request itself might be relatively vague.  In a low-context culture, planning for acquisition of resources would likely emphasize a well-reasoned, effectively worded case for a favorable decision.  The request itself might be delivered rather informally through office e-mail or through a presentation by a junior team member.

Power/Status:  Asian and Latin cultures tend to have more rigid power structures, often influenced by family connections, longevity, wealth or other factors beyond actual job performance.  Decision making and other organizational events may be hierarchical.  In North American and Northern European cultures, power may be assigned more on the basis of earned position, professional credentials or distinguished performance.  In these regions, organizations are likely to be flatter, with more decision-making at the daily operating levels.

Example:  A project team needs someone with electrical engineering expertise.  In a culture where deference is made to rigid, hierarchical power structures, final selection of such a new team member may take extra time as compromises are worked out among a variety of individuals and power centers.  In a culture valuing flatter, less hierarchical decision-making, the team may determine who it needs, request services directly from the appropriate individual and inform various supervisors after the fact.

Time:  Members of Asian and Latin cultures tend to view time as a long-term continuum extending from the distant past through the present and into the distant future.  The nature of relationships within this sweep of time are often more important that the precise unfolding of events according to a rigid schedule.  A number of activities may be scheduled simultaneously in such culture groups, with completion deadlines often weighted against such context considerations as power, long-term benefits to the individual or the perceived value of a relationship with a key project stakeholder.  Members of North American and Northern European culture groups may put more emphasis on completing a single task before beginning a new one.  Focus may be on successful meeting of a specific deadline or commitment for the sake of the deadline.

Example:  A project team has scheduled a meeting for 1 p.m. Tuesday.  Members from more schedule-focused cultures can be expected to arrive early or apologize profusely if they are a few minutes late.  Members from less time-focused cultures may arrive half an hour or more after the designated start time and make no effort to justify their tardiness.  They assume the others appreciate their need to conduct several hallway discussions with long-time colleagues on the way to the meeting room.

Information Paths:  O’Hara-Devereaux and Johansen describe information flow in cultures as “both the path and the speed of communication…How fast does a message travel from one part of the organization to another.”  In many high-context cultures with their heavy emphasis on relationships, information is likely to travel via complex, time-consuming routes, with connections made to many individuals with little or no evident involvement in the project.  By contrast, information in lower-context cultures may be delivered with emphasis on efficiency and involvement of the least number of people to get the job done effectively.

Example:  A change in a project plan activity has been agreed upon with the Customer.  In a more relationship-driven culture, information about the change would be widely communicated.  Depending on power considerations, the change might also have to be approved by several people along this information path.  In a lower-context, more event-oriented culture, information about the change is likely to be sent only to those directly involved in its successful completion.  Others might be informed on an FYI basis at best.

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