The Project Culture Cunundrum

Virutal Team AgreementsThe challenge of managing virtual projects is amplified by a complexity factor equal to the number of cultures represented on your team. When you start doing the computations based on the different cultures related to nationality, company, functional discipline, age and caste you can quickly realize why you and your peers heads are spinning when planning and executing projects. Now try to factor in the subcultures that exist within each of these areas. Let’s take national culture for example. If you haven’t heard the news, India is not ONE culture. The variety is amazingly diverse just like the difference between California, the deep south and the Bronx here in the US.

The good news is that you don’t need to know anything about the diverse cultures represented on your team to manage virtual projects effectively! But you better learn fast about the specific individuals that you will be working with or scope, schedule and cost are irreverent goals that will never materialize. Cultural adaptation is the skill set for advancing project managers for the next iteration I’ll call Globalization 2.0 .

Adapting to the variety of cultures represented on your team is not a overly complex task, but it will take time and a disciplined approach to process execution to become a master. Simple but not easy. Just like skiing. Standing on a couple of boards while riding down a hill is pretty simple, but as all beginners know, it’s bridging the “knowing – doing gap” that is so painful. So here are a few ideas for those just starting out, as well as for those looking to raise their game to double black diamond level.

First, we must appreciate the complexity of the “cultural fingerprint” that each individual has based on their history. Each team member is intertwined and inseparable from the social and institutional cultures from with they live. The challenge is creating a project team culture that allow for these cultures to coexist. Team agreements that govern the operations of the team are the backbone of such a project culture provided that they take into account the diversity that exists. Investing time to discuss how fundamental processes like decision making will occur on the team with an emphasis on the different cultural implications is essential for teams just getting started (or when things break down and you are forced to start over). This is why face-to-face startup sessions is a financial investment you must fight for with your sponsor.

Remember that change is especially difficult when the individual is embedded in a cultural context (members in varied sites across the world), so your role in creating process consistency must be combined with understanding and constant adjustment as time goes on.
Here are some of the other “Best Practices” from the Stanford Virtual Teams conference that resonate with my 10+ years of experience working with virtual project teams:

  • Site Visits – be strategic about timing and treat face to face team time as your most valuable commodity
  • Liaisons – hire someone with cultural awareness that can assist team members interpret actions, avert miscommunications and navigate the time zone challenges
  • Stability – investment in relatioships take time, so reap the ROI by utilizing the team for larger or multiple projects
  • Remove threats – when basic human needs are at stake, it’s difficult to build trust, so make commitments to ease team member tension
  • Expand Cultural Intelligence – raise the cultural IQ of the team by addressing stereotypes head on as a way to learn and understanding each other

So my challenge to you is GET UNCOMFORTABLE. Invest time to learn about the preferences of individual team members and take the issue head on by establishing team agreements that are built on cultural understanding and not stereotyped assumptions.

Jefferson (aka Jeff Richardson)
www.pathconnect.com/jefferson

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