Rescuing a Project with Cultural Issues. Or Are You?
Author: Jamie B. Gelbtuch

A German writer once said, Culture is a little like dropping an Alka-Seltzer into a glass – you don’t see it, but somehow it does something.”

Whether we are working on a project overseas, participating on an international project team, selling a product to a foreign market, or studying as an international project management student, it doesn’t matter. We are constantly in contact with various types of cultures.

It is important to be clear from the beginning that culture encompasses far more than national culture, which is often the first thing that comes to mind when we cite intercultural challenges.

Certainly, culture is a national attribute.  For example, how we greet each other (handshakes in the US, or kisses in Argentina) or what we value as central to our identity (multiculturalism in Canada, or hierarchy in Japan) can and does distinguish countries.

Beyond the national culture in which we live and work, however, culture, also impacts us on the corporate, generational, regional, and individual levels as well.

Is it cultural?

“Cultural issues” are a commonly cited reason why projects run into trouble.  From language barriers to differing notions of time to misaligned views on risk management, it’s the “go-to” culprit. But is it always the underlying reason?

As someone who has built a career on helping people and organizations effectively manage cultural differences, you might be surprised to hear me be among the first say that not everything is cultural, at least in the traditional sense.  “Culture” is a very popular word these days and in many ways, too much has become “cultural”.  When we step back, we begin to realize that in fact, not everything is.  An effective project manager starts with the question “Could it be cultural?” and then is willing to rule it out.

It’s important to treat information tentatively and then observe the behaviors of those on our project teams. Next time culture is suspected to be the issue at hand, ask yourself: “Am I trying to match expected behaviors to cultures?

For example, when working with Germans, we may think about Germany’s tendency to be an exact time orientation culture.

As a result, we may expect our German counterparts to always arrive on time to meetings, or complete tasks on time.  Surely in a country of 81 million people, there are those that tend to be late, or perhaps there are other factors influencing an ability to deliver on time, such as a local issue, a personal issue, or factors external to the project.  The successful project manager will observe, and observe again, and keep track of what he or she notices.  In many cases it will be in line with general cultural tendencies, but sometimes it will fall outside the expected norm.  Project managers must be both open-minded enough to sift through the possible reasons behind an issue, and confident enough to acknowledge it and address it accordingly.

If it’s not cultural, what is it?

Cultures are groups.  In fact, we don’t actually engage with cultures.  We interact with individuals from a culture on our project teams.  There are cultural patterns, but there are also many exceptions as cultures are complex, not exact or perfect.  If it’s not cultural in the traditional sense, then what is it?

Ask yourself if any of these other types of cultural factors are playing a role:

Is it related to the corporate culture of the organization or the PMO?

These can often be askew to national cultures.  We may talk about the value of equality and egalitarianism in a country, and find ourselves in a work environment that is incredibly hierarchical.

Is it a generational factor? 

For the first time we have four different generations on our project teams in today’s workplace.  There can be marked differences in values and behaviors when it comes to issues such as communication, work/life balance, and rewards and recognition.

Is it done differently in this particular region of the country?

Even within a country, mentalities often vary from city to city, town to town, or coast to coast.  There can be stark variations in attitudes, politics, networks, and time factors among others.

Is it an individual factor? 

Project team members may simply be doing things in a particular way that is unique to them as individuals, not because they are from a particular organization, department, country, region, or generation.  Personal cultures develop as a result of personality, country of origin, and experience.

I’ve figured out what it is. Now what?

When things are in fact cultural in the traditional sense, working well across cultural boundaries does help make someone a more dynamic project management professional.  Here are some tips to get started on the process:

How do I know when to adapt?

One of the best answers is to look for uncomfortable moments.  If there are no uncomfortable moments, you are likely doing something wrong, or not realizing an underlying difference.  These are our mental cues that there’s a chance to stretch beyond our comfort zone. Adapting is not comfortable. Doing something outside our own cultural norm – the way we have done it for 20, 30, 40, 50, 60 years – should feel uncomfortable.  It’s a growth opportunity to expand our repertoire of behaviors.

If I work in a multicultural team, how can I remember all the different rules?

Forget the do’s and don’ts.   Focus on acquiring tools and not rules so that you develop a greater understanding of the underlying dynamics that impact intercultural interactions.  These are what ultimately help us figure out how to best get to the root of the issue and solve it in a productive and appropriate manner.

I already know a lot about the cultures with which I am working, so I should be fine, right?

Knowledge is an important first step.  However, simply possessing cultural knowledge does not make a project management professional culturally competent.  It is necessary to have the knowledge, the contact, and the processing and implementation in order to begin to develop competencies.

When it comes to any type of culture, generalizing helps us create a lens to begin understanding.   It is up to us, however, as project management professionals, to refine the view and see the challenges we face as the unique combination of factors that they really are.