Culturally intelligent project management

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Director, LIFELONG, Kuwait

 

Muhammad A. B. Ilyas,

CEO, LIFELONG, Kuwait

Abstract

People and communication are rated to be the two top factors leading to success or failure of projects, programs and portfolios. Many leaders report spending around 90% of their project, program and portfolio management effort on communicating with stakeholders. Given the fact that many projects today involve interaction with stakeholders from around the globe, sound cultural awareness has become a key enabler for effective communications.

Leaders who have the experience and skills to deal with teams characterized by diversity are in high demand. The demand is driven by the fact that more and more organizations are expanding across geographical confines to overcome shortages in local opportunities and also to leverage the intellectual capital available across the globe. This trend has made it mandatory for project, program and portfolio managers to learn about managing stakeholders across different cultures. Failing to do so may not only jeopardize project objectives but also make stakeholder management an unnecessarily stressful exercise.

This paper explains the differences between major cultures and their impact on the project, program and portfolio lifecycles. Using the Lewis model of culture to elaborate classes of culture and areas of cross-culture misunderstanding, it also explains the impact of culture on decision making, negotiations, managing people, leadership styles, and communication. Relying on the global exposure of the authors, the paper will also provide practical guidelines which can be leveraged in selecting the processes and tools which are likely to provide the best outcomes in a given cultural setting. Proven strategies which can facilitate the initiating, planning, executing, controlling and closing of projects, programs and portfolios in each major culture will be shared. The paper also includes tips on effective handling of meetings, events, and celebrations.

Cultural Intelligence

Cultural Intelligence is defined as a person's capability to adapt while interacting with others from different cultural regions. A person who exhibits cultural intelligence has behavioural, motivational, and metacognitive aspects. Cultural Intelligence is often measured through Cultural Quotient (CQ), a scale similar to that used to measure an individual's intelligence quotient. People with higher CQ's are regarded as better able to successfully blend into any environment, using more effective business practices, than those with a lower CQ.

Why the Need for Cultural Intelligence?

Burj Khalifa in Dubai, UAE is one of EMEA's most iconic landmarks. The construction of Burj Khalifa is considered to be a truly international collaboration among more than 30 organizations from around the globe. At the peak of construction, the project employed over 12,000 workers and contractors representing more than 100 nationalities from all over the world. While some nationalities shared a common heritage and culture, others came from completely different cultural settings. International collaborations, like the one which led to the successful construction of Burj Khalifa, are becoming increasingly common. This trend has made it mandatory for project managers to learn managing stakeholders across different cultures.

Cultural Stereotyping

Stereotyping is fixing a set of ideas about what a particular nationality type is like, based on perceptions formed through experience, hearsay, and media. Careless stereotyping can often lead to mistaken assumptions. Some examples are given in the following:

  • Assumption: French refusal to compromise indicates obstinacy.
    Reality: The French see no reason to compromise if their logic stands undefeated.
  • Assumption: Japanese negotiators cannot make decisions.
    Reality: The decision was already made before the meeting, by consensus. The Japanese see meetings as an occasion for presenting decisions, not changing them.
  • Assumption: Mexican senior negotiators are too “personal” in conducting negotiations.
    Reality: Their personal position reflects their level of authority within the power structure back home.

It must be noted that stereotyping is not something to be completely avoided. Stereotyping based on facts and thorough knowledge is a valuable tool and it must be:

  • Consciously held
  • Descriptive rather than evaluative
  • Managed properly

In the next section, some stereotypes based on research and thorough study of global cultures will be presented.

Lewis’ Cultural Classes Model

According to Richard D. Lewis, several hundred national and regional cultures of the world can be roughly classified into three groups:

  • Task-oriented, highly organized planners (Linear Active)
  • People-oriented, loquacious inter-relators (Multi Active)
  • Introverted, respect-oriented listeners (Reactive)

The classification helps in understanding behaviors when dealing with people from different cultures. It also helps in avoiding the offenses and understanding the reaction of stakeholders. A good understanding of the attributes of cultural classes can help with predicting an individual's behavior and knowing why certain people did what they did. These attributes should form the basis of any stereotypes we develop and maintain about other nationalities. A diagrammatic disposition of major nations into cultural classes is given in Exhibit 1.

Cultural types model

Exhibit 1 – Cultural types model

A key attribute which is critical in stakeholder management is how different cultures collect information. In data- oriented cultures, a lot of research is done to produce information that is then acted on. The more developed societies turn to printed sources and databases to collect facts which are then parsed through information systems to help in decision making. Dialogue oriented cultures, on the other hand, rely more on their own personal information network. Dialogue-oriented people tend to use their personal relations to solve the problem from the human angle. Exhibit 2 shows a ranking of dialogue-oriented and data-oriented cultures around the globe.

Relative ranking of dialogue and data oriented cultures

Exhibit 2 – Relative ranking of dialogue and data oriented cultures

Attributes of Linear Active Cultures

As mentioned earlier, Linear Active cultures are task oriented and highly organized. Nations which belong to this class include among others, United States, Switzerland, Germany and United Kingdom. Key attributes of Linear Active cultures are given in Exhibit 3.

Attributes of linear active cultures

Exhibit 3 – Attributes of linear active cultures

Attributes of Multi Active Cultures

Multi Active cultures are people-oriented and loquacious inter-relators. Nations characterized by this cultural class include Hispanic Americans, nations of the Middle East, Arabs, Africa, Russia, Italy and Spain. Key attributes of Multi Active cultures are given in Exhibit 4.

Attributes of multi active cultures

Exhibit 4 – Attributes of multi active cultures

Attributes of Reactive Cultures

Vietnam, China, Japan, Korea and Singapore are considered examples of Reactive cultures. Members of this class are introverted and respect-oriented listeners. Key attributes of Reactive cultures are given in Exhibit 5.

Attributes of reactive cultures

Exhibit 5 – Attributes of reactive cultures

PPPM in Linear Active Cultures

Project, Program and Portfolio Management (PPPM) practices in Linear Active cultures rely more on solid data, processes, and clear steps defined through a system. Management is more process-oriented, and stakeholders from this cultural class plan ahead methodically and mostly tend to focus on one major issue at any given time.

Initiating Considerations

Decisions related to initiation of projects, programs and portfolios are taken based on solid data after giving due consideration to risks and quality of data. Stakeholders are identified in a systematic way and the register lists all stakeholders along with positions held, contact details, roles, and responsibilities.

What must be in the Charter?

Though content and format of project charter varies depending on the PPPM processes being followed, it should at the least include the following details:

  • Initial scope
  • Justifications in the form of numerical data with references to related feasibility studies or reliable data resources
  • Milestones with supporting data
  • Responsibility and authority matrix of project team and other concerned stakeholders
  • Initial risks with reference to data from reliable sources
  • Assumptions which should be clearly articulated
  • Initial cost estimation with supporting data

Securing Necessary Approvals

Approvals are generally easier to secure if recommendations are based on high quality data. Most decisions flow from top to bottom and hence official hierarchy must be respected.

Planning Considerations

Plans are typically detailed and are prepared by following procedures documented in well-defined methodologies. It is highly recommended that only standard forms are used and if the organizations’ methodology is based on PMI's global standards, they must be applied to the maximum possible extent.

Scope Management

Scope must be clearly documented and subsequently agreed upon by relevant stakeholders.

Risk Analysis

Risk management tools and techniques must be applied methodically. In high risk situations, quantitative risk analysis is often considered to be essential. Contingency reserves must be calculated and justified based on solid data. Risk categorization must match the project, program and portfolio objectives.

HR Planning

Organization structure and reporting system must be drafted for every PPPM effort through deliberations with relevant stakeholders. It is highly recommended that complete role descriptions and expectations are prepared with clear specification of escalation procedures. Authority levels must be defined and the plan should also include recognition and discipline system for each undertaking. Ground rules and conflict resolution process should also be carried out as part of human resource planning.

Procurement Planning

Criteria for choosing the vendors must be specified and should incorporate the following:

  • Vendors’ history and experience
  • Vendors’ culture and region—usually vendors from same region are preferred
  • Sound references
  • Vendor KPIs
  • Reporting system to be followed

Procurement methodology is mostly very clear and it requires specification of conflicts of interest, if any. Risk management covering procurement scope is considered mandatory.

Communication Planning

Communication plan should respect the authority levels and formal positions. Communication plan should consider the risk of misunderstandings due to any differences in language. The technical terms must be defined and data is considered an essential component of any communication. The fact that formal decisions are mostly taken during meetings should be considered while planning meeting times and agendas.

Execution and Control Considerations

Dashboards are considered one of the most popular tools to manage the projects, and data quality remains a prime consideration. The processes must be adhered to and all project measurements should be quantified where ever possible.

Team Management

Team members are assigned roles based on their technical background and experience with little emphasis on their behavioural profiles or soft skills. The team members expect to work fixed hours and follow the formal procedures defined in the human resource plan. Team management practices are characterized by being process oriented and rewards are given based on quantified measures. It is expected that all team members are treated fairly and ethically with almost no consideration given to personal feelings or emotions. A person finishing tasks on time, within budget and quality parameters, is considered ideal. Delegation is done based on competence and is once again less emotional and more process oriented. Logical arguments are used in all confrontations.

Work Performance Reporting

All performance reporting must rely heavily on data as quantitative measures are considered very important. Reporting should be focused on main objectives and risks. Data gathering methods must be reliable and references should be provided where ever possible. Facts must be reported directly and promptly.

Closing Considerations

All PPPM related data should be carefully archived and lessons learned should be reviewed to ensure quality. References must be provided and high level of detail should be used while drafting any lessons. Formal acceptance should be obtained as early as possible and procedures of administrative closure should be followed.

PPP Management in Multi Active Cultures

Project, Program and Portfolio Management (PPPM) practices in Multi Active cultures rely more on high level details. Management is more people oriented and stakeholders from this cultural class only plan grand outlines but can handle several issues simultaneously.

Initiating Considerations

Major decisions related to initiation of projects, programs and portfolios are taken through dialogue between key stakeholders and can hence take considerable time and effort.

What must be in the Charter?

Very high level details and risks should be included. Milestones should be provided but must remain flexible at this stage. Project justifications may reference data but must be people oriented.

Securing Necessary Approvals

Formal positions and authorities must be respected and informal approvals should be sought before formal approvals can be obtained.

Planning Considerations

The plans are likely to change quite often so they must be flexible and allow updates. The plans should only contain outlines and should not provide specifics. The plans are less process focused and while methodologies should be referenced, it is likely that most of the procedures will be people oriented and change with the specific effort being planned.

Scope Management

Scope definitions are flexible and stakeholders may revise their earlier commitments and expectations as the work progresses, making scope management planning essential but tedious. The work breakdown structure should contain fewer levels and a work package dictionary is not expected to have comprehensive details. The scope baseline is only considered to be a guideline and may differ significantly from the end product or service.

Risk Analysis

Risk analysis should focus on qualitative measures, as quantitative analysis is not generally carried out. The risk register should only include high level risks. Risks related to specific individuals’ performance should not be included. Risks which may impact the well-being of people must be documented. Some of the most common risks include scope, creep, and unplanned vacations and public holidays.

HR Planning

Relationships between stakeholders should be given due consideration. Behavioural evaluation and trust is more important than technical competencies or experience. Role descriptions should not be detailed enough to allow revision of tasks based on circumstances. Recognitions and rewards are inclined towards emotional value of achievements rather than being driven by factual performance. In the Middle East, gender, age, and other social aspects should also be considered when assigning roles to individuals.

Procurement Planning

Relationship and trust play a major role in procurement management. Usually pre-tender meetings are considered important to build rapport and get details not found in officially floated RFPs. Most contracts have changes, so billable and unbillable changes should be clearly defined. Procurement takes longer due to hectic negotiations, so provisions must be kept in the schedule accordingly.

Communication Planning

Most of the communication is informal. Since Multi Active cultures are characterized by being talkative, meetings may not finish on time. The meetings get interrupted by discussions not on the agenda which requires active facilitation to deal with individuals who may tend to dominate the proceedings. The formal authority, hierarchy, and age must be respected at all times. Though communication may be allowed to span different departments, functional heads must be informed (copied) at all times even if their active involvement is not needed. This is done to show respect and acknowledge power. Formal communication is often used to document the decisions taken during informal communication. Reports should only cover major highlights without specifying details. Many stakeholders tend to get first-hand information, so communication channels get complicated. Special efforts should be made to get clarification and avoid misunderstandings.

Execution and Control Considerations

Individuals in Multi Active cultures have the ability to do multiple tasks simultaneously so fast tracking projects is easily possible. It is imperative to build trust before serious business transactions can be undertaken. If the stakeholders trust a project manager, all dealings are likely to be seamless and the opposite is true in case there is a lack of trust irrespective of the professional acumen of the individual involved. Issues should be discussed without details. Team members should be motivated or confronted emotionally. Punctuality is not taken seriously in Multi Active cultures and timelines are often unpredictable. Delays in completion of tasks and working overtime are considered normal. Stakeholders in Multi Active cultures let one project outcome influence other projects. Changes are very common and facts are most often juggled. Most delegation takes place to relations.

Team Management

Team management practices involve dealing with members through supervisors. Most people readily make excuses for poor performance and need to be confronted emotionally. Inter-team communication is characterized by animated body language and should be considered a norm. Most social and professional pursuits are interwoven.

Work Performance Reporting

All performance reporting must provide status information at a high level with the option of drilling down as needed. Qualitative measures are more effective than quantitative measures. Reporting should be focused on main objectives and risks. The most common medium to report performance is meetings or direct interaction.

Closing Considerations

Only general highlights of PPPM related performance should be archived. Lessons learned should be focus on how the effort will impact the people and how to best leverage them on future efforts. Formal acceptance is often delayed and administrative closure may be done after informal approval.

PPPM in Reactive Cultures

Project, Program and Portfolio Management (PPPM) practices in Reactive cultures are characterized by heavy reliance on communal harmony and respect of hierarchy. Management is more people oriented and stakeholders from this cultural class tend to collect information that will let them envision the bigger picture before reaching a decision.

Initiating Considerations

Major decisions related to initiation of projects, programs and portfolios are taken from the bottom-up. The role of top level decision makers is to endorse the recommendations, make any needed corrections, and publicly pronounce them.

What must be in the Charter?

All details relevant to the impact of the effort and risks should be included. Similar projects and their outcomes should be highlighted. Roles and responsibilities of stakeholders must be included with due consideration given to their hierarchy and stature in the community.

Securing Necessary Approvals

While formal positions and authorities must be respected at all times, the decision making process starts from the lower ranks of stakeholders. It must be ensured that decisions are allowed to take their natural route towards the senior ranks irrespective of the time consumed in the process. Project leaders must earn trust to be able to positively influence the pace of decision making.

Planning Considerations

All plans must include details relevant to impacts on communal harmony of the stakeholders. Plans are typically detailed and are prepared by consulting a larger group of stakeholders to ensure their inputs are incorporated. It is highly recommended that diagrams are used wherever possible.

Scope Management

Scope must be clearly documented and subsequently agreed upon by all relevant stakeholders. Some changes should be expected so provisions should be made to allow flexibility.

Risk Analysis

Risk management tools and techniques must be applied methodically. While most analyses are qualitative, some stakeholders may require quantitative measures to be presented and discussed. Contingency reserves must be calculated and justified based on solid data. Risk categorization must match the objectives agreed with the stakeholders.

HR Planning

Relationships between stakeholders and hierarchy should be given due consideration. Trust is valued more than technical competencies or experience. Recognitions and rewards must be planned to span entire teams and should never be awarded to high performing individuals. Age and other social aspects should also be considered when assigning roles to individuals.

Procurement Planning

Relationship and trust play a major role in procurement management. Procurement takes longer due to the flow of decisions so provisions must be kept in the schedule accordingly.

Communication Planning

Most of the communication is formal but characterized by careful selection of words and gestures. Punctuality is valued, but meetings are mostly meant to convey decisions and not to deliberate on them. The formal authority, hierarchy, and age must be respected at all times. Reports should cover major highlights, explained through diagrams. Many stakeholders tend to get first-hand information and also rely on reliable data.

Execution and Control Considerations

Dashboards are considered a useful tool to manage the effort, but all directions must be channeled through supervisors drawn from the same nationality as other team members. The processes agreed upon with stakeholders must be adhered to and all project measurements should be quantified when requested.

Team Management

Team management practices involve dealing with members through supervisors. Most social and professional pursuits are connected.

Work Performance Reporting

All performance reporting must provide status information at a high level with the option of drilling down as needed. Reporting should link the effort outcomes to the bigger picture. The most common medium to report performance is meetings.

Closing Considerations

All PPPM related data should be carefully archived and lessons learned should be reviewed with the stakeholders before finalizing the same. Formal acceptance must be obtained before starting administrative closure.

Conclusion

This paper explains impact of culture on decision making, negotiations, managing people, leadership styles, and communication with different stakeholders. The paper also provides practical guidelines which can be leveraged in selecting the processes and tools that are likely to provide the best outcomes in a given cultural setting. It is strongly recommended that project, program and portfolio managers try to use more of cultural intelligence when working with a diverse set of stakeholders who come from different cultures and nationalities.

References

Lewis, R.D., (2006). When cultures collide: Leading across cultures. (3rd ed.). Boston, MA: Nicholas Brealey International.

Porter, E.H., Ph.D., (2010). The development of relationship awareness. Retrieved from http://www.personalstrengths.us/index.php/en/ra-theory/full-statement-of-theory

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.

© 2014, Mohamed Khalifa Hassan, Muhammad A. B. Ilyas
Originally published as a part of the 2014 PMI Global Congress Proceedings – Dubai, UAE

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