Project Management and Culture

divideA German colleague once commented (during a lager-filled post-project celebration) about how different German and US project management looked to her. She said, “We often wonder in Germany how you Americans successfully got to the moon.” As the Germans nodded, the Americans (being so articulate in our own language) retorted, “Whaaaat?”

Basically, she saw American managers spending significantly less time planning before the execution stage than her German counterparts. Her perception was that Americans have a higher tolerance for unresolved issues and that we tend to gloss over risk planning because we believe we’ll be able to handle whatever happens because we’ve padded the plan. I think the term “cowboy” was used.

Well! What a thing to think – who do they think they are?

Fortunately, we had gotten to know each others as individuals and as teammates, so the celebrations continued amicably. It did bring to mind that project management is a people process and people bring their culture with them. With more of our projects going global, cultural issues keep popping up. Of course, one of the problems with culture is that we are often unaware of it – we take our culture as “normal.” When confronted with a different culture, it’s easy to see the behaviors of that culture as “abnormal” or “weird” or “stupid.”

Also, culture differences are not confined to geographic separation; companies can embody significantly different “normal” behaviors; generations have long looked across a cultural divide.

To me, this leads to two main issues:

  1. How can we reduce the potential conflict from cultural differences;
  2. Are some cultures better suited for certain projects than others?

As far as reducing cultural conflict goes, I’m a big fan of “breaking bread” — putting our team together in social situations. It can be as simple as going out for a meal and allowing connections to build person to person. It may require more structure and planned activities to bring to the surface points of commonality. I often hear that this approach is too expensive for our global and virtual teams. And, I will admit that I have been on teams that got it together without a social component. But, and I think it’s a big but, my best teams – the most effective teams (note: not necessarily most efficient) – did have person to person connections between members. This does not mean that everybody became friends with everyone. On those good teams we were more than a collection of individual contributors that had meetings (and meetings and meetings). In a sense, the web of connections created a framework where we could begin to evolve our own unique team culture.

Certainly, social connection is not a panacea; even among friends conflicts arise and some value differences may require more formal communication and/or arbitration techniques, but it does go a long way.

Let’s look at issue 2 another time.

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