Project Management Institute

Cross culture project management


The world in which projects are managed today has changed significantly over the past twenty years. Many projects today are global in nature with team members and stakeholders spread across the world representing different cultures. Project managers are given opportunities to live and travel in different countries. Even projects managed in the home country with local resources may still have team members from different cultures. With proper preparation and understanding, a project manager can turn these challenges into a competitive advantage for both their company and their career.


Project managers today are challenged by managing projects across different cultures. As Thomas Freidman's current business best seller The World is Flat (2005) describes, this definitely impacts project managers. I will look at how a project manager can leverage this flattening world instead of being constrained, or even being eliminated by it. Breaking the problem down further, I will look at how to manage resources that are not just in other locations, but also in or from other cultures?

I will be drawing upon my 20 plus years of industry experience managing multiple million dollar projects in Brazil, China, Germany, Singapore, and the USA. This paper is written from the perspective of a project manager in a USA corporation. Based upon this foundation and the research available on cross culture project management and related topics, guidance the will be provided on how to manage projects across different cultures.

Why do we need to be concerned about Culture in our Projects?

Why do we need to be concerned about culture in our projects? Friedman in The World is Flat gives ten forces that flattened the world, giving us the global business environment we find ourselves in today (2005, p. 48-172).

1.   11/9/89 – the fall of the Berlin wall and corresponding raising of windows in personal computers around the world

2.   8/9/95 – Netscape goes public with the personal computer platform transforming to an internet platform

3.   Workflow software – transitioning from just communicating with computer to truly collaborating

4.   Open-sourcing – leading to empowerment of individuals around the world

5.   Outsourcing – paying another company to perform a specific function you previously did for yourself

6.   Offshoring – moving an entire function, such as a factory, to another country

7.   Supply-chaining – connecting global markets and providing for greater specialization

8.   Insourcing – collaboration creating value horizontally

9.   In-forming – availability of information by the internet

10. The steroids – digital, mobile, personal, and virtual technological enhancements

Friedman goes on to state that the convergence of these flattening factors was “the creation of a global, web-enabled playing field that allows for multiple forms of collaboration – the sharing of knowledge and work – in real time, without regard to geography.” (2005, p. 176) This increase in globalization in our business environment will requires optimization of business processes and systems across other counties. Continued growth in Europe Middle East Africa (EMEA), Asia Pacific, and Latin American will drive more international interaction for companies in the USA. With the emergence of powerful economies in the European Union (EU), India, China, etc., a North American centric approach to conducting business may not still be effective.

What is Culture?

Given that culture is important, what exactly is it? In International Business: The Challenge of Global Competition culture is defined as the “sum total of beliefs, rules, techniques, institutions, and artifacts that characterize human populations.” (2002, p. 303) The same text goes on to state that most anthropologist agree that culture is learned, not innate, various aspects of culture are interrelated, culture is shared, and culture defines the boundaries of different groups.

A powerful metaphor is the Cultural Iceberg shown in Exhibit 1. Surface culture is the visible things above the water that everyone sees, such as folk culture. Below the water is deep culture which includes unspoken rules and even unconscious rules. Similar to the Titanic, when managing projects, it is what we do not realize is below the water that really gets us in trouble

Cultural Iceberg

Exhibit 1 – Cultural Iceberg

6 Rules of Thumb for Doing Business across Cultures

International Business: The Challenge of Global Competition provides 6 Rules of Thumb for doing business across cultures (Ball, et al. 2002, p. 301-302)

  1. Be Prepared
  2. Slow Down
  3. Establish Trust
  4. Understand the Importance of Language
  5. Respect the Culture
  6. Understand Components of Culture

The first rule brings to mind the quote from Louis Pasteur, “chance favors the prepared mind.” ( You can accomplish this is by doing your homework by researching books, articles, and the wealth of information available on the internet. Another thing you can do is get up to speed on conversational topics such as sports, entertainment, and current affairs. For example, in Brazil, being able to talk about their soccer team was an excellent conversation starter to develop a positive rapport. As project manager it is natural that you should develop a plan for your preparation, including risk assessment. As with any plan, be prepared to adjust accordingly based upon how events actually evolve.

The second rule is to slow down. Americans are clock-watchers because they believe time is money, while to others this may make them appear unfriendly, arrogant, and untrustworthy. In negotiations a person's impatience can be used against them. Other cultures, aware, of the time conscious and task oriented nature of Americans will simply wait until they receive a more favorable compromise. You should also check your assumptions about the intentions behind other people's words or actions. Avoid making quick judgments. Finally be willing to carefully explain your intentions when it seems that others are misunderstanding them.

The third rule is to establish trust, which is fundamental to any successful endeavor or project. In other cultures relationships can be more important than just facts. Seek to understand limitations on trust and how it is developed in each culture. Check your conclusions, either with the other person, or with a third party who is familiar with both cultures. Identify ways that you can adapt your behavior, communication style, etc., to make others more comfortable.

The fourth rule is to understand the importance of language. First understand the limits in that only 7% of meaning is conveyed by words only, while 38% is by tone and infliction, and 55% by other non-verbal (ESI International, 2004, p. 2-29). Therefore, non-verbal communication is very important, and can mean different things in different cultures as shown in Exhibit 2. This common gesture which means OK in America is a rude insult in Brazil. Making it even more challenging is that Brazilians often use the phrase OK, so just be sure if gesturing use the thumbs up, not the traditional American version. And the same gesture has two more different meanings in Japan and Russia.

Spreadsheet functions for time value of money calculations

Exhibit 2 - Example of different meanings of the same gesture

While it is a great benefit to Americans that English is the common global language of business, always be careful to talk slower, as other may be interpreting it as a second (or third) language. Also remember it is usually easier to speak in a second language than it is to listen and fully comprehend. Also because someone speaks English, it does not mean all words have the same meanings as in America. George Bernard Shaw was quoted as once stating that “England and America are two countries separated by the same language.”

The fifth rule is to respect the culture. When traveling in another country, remember who the foreigner is. Examine your own cultural assumptions and values and be aware that you may be making judgments that may fit situations in your own culture, but not in others. Consider alternative interpretations that are based on the other culture's attitudes, perceptions and values. As the old saying goes, “when in Rome, do as the Romans do”.

Group versus Individual

The final rule is to understand the components of culture. This will be covered by going over various dimensions of culture. Fons Trompenaars defines dimensions of culture in Riding the Wave of Culture: Understanding Diversity in Global Business (1994). The first dimension is group versus individual (or collectivism versus individualism). You need to assess the culture's independent or interdependent nature. Interdependent cultures will tend toward consensus approaches, avoidance of public conflict, and may have discrete protocol for communicating a decision. Independent cultures have more open expression of disagreement and a looser protocol around decision making. Establishing the credibility typical of an independent culture (such as talking about experience and expertise) might be construed as arrogant in a group focused culture. Highly interdependent groups may not immediately ask questions in a group setting. You need to develop relationships before you can influence a highly interdependent group.

Relationships versus Rules

Next is the relationships and rules, or universalism and particularism dimension. First you need to look at the culture's focus on status. Job prestige—understanding the hierarchy—importance of the title, role etc. will impact you especially in group settings. A project team in a status focused culture may require more direction from the project manager than one in an egalitarian culture. Model the behavior in discussions, e.g. allowing speakers to finish or apologizing for talking over another person's statement. In status-focused cultures, avoid public challenges to opinions of superiors. Be very careful of how you offer criticism. Be especially careful in escalation communications by focusing on the task, not the individual, determining who should be copied (or not), and allowing for face saving paths of action.

Attitude toward Change

The next dimension is the attitude toward change. Change incurs risk, and some cultures are very risk adverse; therefore, you need to consider the cultural attitude on a risk/restraint continuum. Consider the group's need for conformity or adherence to tradition. You may need to consider both the legal and cultural requirements for change for your project. You can often get help from “local” Human Resources on this. When dealing with cultures with greater restraint focus, you should spend more time building relationships and conducting background research. You may need to show more interest in implementing proper processes and making sufficient preparations before embarking on a project. Honoring the past as part of the project plan is an important step to beginning change. In A Cross-Cultural Study of Escalation of Software Projects (Keil, Tan, Wei, Saarinen, Tuunainen, & Wassenaar. 2000). research carried out in Finland, the Netherlands, and Singapore has shown that risk adverse cultures are more likely ignore the concept of sunk costs, and still continue a project that should be cancelled.

High and Low Context

High and low context cultures is another dimension. In high-context cultures, what is said does not include all the meaning. The context around who is speaking, the background, and other factors are important to fully understand the message. With high-context language, the grammar can be very simple and efficient. Low context cultures will be more direct, and more likely to disagree in group settings. Implied conclusions may confuse low-context listeners who may miss or misunderstand what you are getting at. It is better to state your points concretely. Use data and facts to support your points. In high-context cultures, what is said does not include all the meaning. The context around who is speaking, the background, and other factors are important to fully understand the message. With high-context language, the grammar can be very simple and efficient. Low context cultures will be more direct, more likely to disagree in group settings, etc. People in high-context cultures often value relationships and may express themselves indirectly in order to preserve harmony. Do not assume that people agree with you simply because they don't come right out and say “No.” Use team facilitation techniques to promote understanding by restating what has just been said, asking for input from quieter participants, using appreciative inquiry, and building in continuous process checks such as polling and regularly summarizing decisions.

Attitude toward Work

The next dimension is the attitude toward work. While working in Europe I was told by a European coworker “Americans live to work, while we work to live.” The deal/task focus versus relationship focus will determines how quickly you start talking about business and dictates how directly you can ask for information or obtain cooperation. Know the importance of the plan versus having conversations with the right people. This should affect how you structure and plan meetings and communications. In relationship based cultures, assess people based on whom they know and how they are connected, not just on what they know or what they can do. Listen well and demonstrate an interest in learning about the local situation before taking action. In task-focused cultures, put more importance reaching goals and objectives on schedule. Also, emphasize factual evidence, logical reasoning, and the achievement of specific results.

Attitude toward Time

A final dimension is the attitude toward time, being rigid versus fluid time, also known as monochronic versus polychronic. Different cultures will have different perspectives on promptness, and the weight they apply in relation to past, present, and future. Americans tend to be more direct and driven in relation to time. As a project manager a key thing is how much the other culture is driven to meet deadlines. A final aspect in regards to time is the short-term versus long-term focus. Attitudes toward time determine the speed of developing business relationships. You will need to weigh whether to emphasize the “big picture” versus getting things done quickly. Determine the amount of time planning for long-term strategic goals and figure out how quickly decisions are made.

Complexity of Global Project Management

The Global Project Management Handbook (Clelland, 1994, Chapt. 11) brings up the following points in showing how a global project manager has to deal with much more complex issues than in the past.

  1. technology – using it more effectively while adjusting to all of its ramifications
  2. culture – creating organizational culture, work relationships, attitudes and values for everyone in the new organization
  3. organization – building new types of organizational structures and work relationships
  4. work processes – finding better ways through technology, creativity, and innovation to get work done
  5. perception – changing how we view the environment in which we work and live and developing a proactive mentality for responding to threats and opportunities that this environment will present

Remote/Virtual Team Techniques

When managing global project teams, having remote / virtual teams is a reality, so here are some techniques to assist with this. Make the pre-meeting plan very explicit with agendas and background documentation. A controversial recommendation to consider is do not have part of the team in a conference room—if one person is on the phone then everyone should be remote. While this makes for a level playing field, it may also decrease the efficiency of the group. Use the names of team members in interactions. Encourage team members to identify themselves when they are making a contribution. Regularly summarize decisions, ask for input from quieter participants and build in continuous process checks.

While managing a project team with members in different time zones can be a challenge, it also can be leveraged as an asset. While managing projects in Singapore and China, 11 hours ahead of Houston, we were able to do testing during our day and have the team members in USA solve any problems at night, so we could retest the corrections the next day. This provides the opportunity to collaborate around the clock. The internet provides excellent tools for collaboration among project members in different locations.

Reference Material for Additional Information

In addition to collaboration tools, there are several valuable internet resources available to assist project mangers. Here are some examples.
Allows you to assess yourself and create a profile that you can then compare against other countries. Also provides a wealth of information under global advise.

Information on managing cross culture differences, cultural intelligence, multicultural collaboration, and other relevant topics
International Journal of Cross Cultural Management

There are also several books recommended for additional information for project managers of cross culture projects.

  • Friedman, T. (2005). The World is Flat: A Brief History of the Twenty-first century
  • Culture Shock! – a series of books available for over thirty countries
  • Trompenaars, F. (1997). Riding the Waves of Culture: Understanding Diversity in Global Business
  • Storti, C. (2001). The Art of Crossing Cultures


By better understanding, different cultures and being prepared to leverage their strengths and work with their differences a project manager can provide greater value to their organization and gain valuable experience to advance their career. Mahatma Ghandi said “Let my house not be walled on four sides, let all the windows be open, let all the cultures blow in, but let no culture blow me off my feet.” Furthermore in Treat Diversity as Your Asset for Uncommon Gains, Susan Ladika points out “the project managers who succeed are those who are sensitized to culture and are willing to open up dialogue.“m (2003 p. 28) Therefore, a project manager should be prepared to work with project members from all cultures and reach the common goal of successfully completing the current project.

Ball, D., McCulloch, W., Frantz, P., Geringer, J., Minor, M.. (2002). International Business: The Challenge of Global Competition (8th Edition). New York: McGraw- Hill.

Clelland, D., Garies, R. (1994). Global Project Management Handbook. New York: McGraw-Hill.

ESI International (2004). Project Leadership, Management, and Communications. Arlington, VA: ESI International.

Friedman, T. (2005). The World is Flat: A Brief History of the Twenty-first century (1st Edition). New York: Farrar, Strauss, Giroux.

Keil, M., Tan, B., Wei, K., Saarinen, T., Tuunainen, V., & Wassenaar, A. (2000, June). A Cross-Cultural Study on Escalation of Software Projects. MIS Quarterly 24(2), 299-235

Ladika, S. (2003, November). Treat diversity as your asset for uncommon gains. PM Network 17(11), 24-28

Trompenaars, F. (1997). Riding the Waves of Culture: Understanding Diversity in Global Business (2nd Edition). Burr Ridge, Illinois: Irwin Professional Publishing.

This material has been reproduced with the permission of the copyright owner. Unauthorized reproduction of this material is strictly prohibited. For permission to reproduce this material, please contact PMI or any listed author.

© 2006, Jake Stewart
Originally published as a part of 2006 PMI Global Congress Proceedings – Seattle Washington



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