Managing or working on international projects can be seen as glamorous and a great addition to your résumé, but how are they different to other projects?
Project managers are used to working with project teams with a number of cultural aspects, be it organisational culture, the family background of team members, or even the cultural differences that drive interstate rivalry. And given that one in four of the Australian population was born overseas, it can seem that even domestic projects are multinational.
This exposure to other cultures provides an advantage over project managers in more mono-cultured countries but, beyond recognising some people ‘talk funny’ or behave strangely, what can project managers do to minimise the issues and maximise the benefits of the multicultural nature of international projects?
Creating a tribe
Firstly, it is important to accept project teams will approach tasks and communication differently. As the human brain seems designed to spot differences, not similarities, these differences are naturally magnified and can polarise groups.
This ability of the brain is thought to be an evolutionary defence mechanism, helping the tribe quickly spot outsiders that might pose a threat to survival. However, it can also be leveraged to bring a team together through developing a project team as temporary tribe. This approach capitalises on the human tendency to join together in small groups that are stronger than the individual. Tribes can be characterised by shared rites and values and shared interests or vision, which are reinforced by frequent contact and interaction between tribe members.
An extreme example of this tribalism is when you hear of contractors ‘going native’ where a contractor spends so long working closely with a client that they develop a stronger cultural attachment with the client than their employer and switches ‘tribes’.
A great way to build a tribe is to hold a kick-off meeting. Some people may baulk at the thought of the cost of flying team members around the world for a get-together but how much does it cost compared to the overall budget? Especially given 80% of communication is non-verbal.
Another way project managers can build teams is to establish a common language or terminology early on. However, this does have its drawbacks.
While working at Ericsson in Stockholm, I found the use of English as the company language helped me quickly establish and run projects effectively. Documentation and project reports from Swedes contained high quality English, generally better than native speakers. Project meetings were held in a very professional and functional manner. However, once I’d learnt enough Swedish to be comfortable with Swedes speaking their own language, the meetings became more social, animated and produced outcomes rather than just actions.
It was clear a common language did not help produce ideas or solutions to problems. With English as second language, team members needed to switch back to their native tongue to discuss concepts and ideas. The common language constrained their ability to communicate effectively. Giving voice to different cultural perspectives on an issue also had the benefit of reducing the risk of groupthink, where everyone comes up with the same solutions.
Another problem occurs where a common language does not reflect the underlying cultural norms. In Sweden, I agreed to a two-hour meeting at what I thought was half past ten in the morning. Arriving an hour into the meeting it was explained to me that ‘halv tio’ (Swedish for ‘half ten’), meant half before the hour, not half past!
It is also a common assumption that superficially similar cultures are likely to get along well when it is often the underlying cultural dimensions that determine the match. Managing a project that covered the UK, the USA, Netherlands, and Singapore, it might be assumed the English-speaking UK and Americans would find it easier to communicate with each other. In fact, the Dutch got on better with the Americans, finding the British harder to understand with their high context style of communicating.
An English manager who said, “It might be a good idea to explore the possibility of establishing a group to look into alternatives” came across as being indecisive, and prompted an American to interject with “Bob and Wendy, you go away and see what else you can come up with by tomorrow”, something the Dutch considered clear communication.