Border crossing--cultural intelligence for project professionals
Projects today are multicultural collaborations where heightened Cultural Intelligence (CI) can be the difference between success and failure. CI is a management theory coined in the last few years that states that understanding an individual’s cultural background and its impact on behavior is essential for effective business. Individuals with high cultural intelligence can engage successfully in multiple environmental settings.
Successful project managers are often border crossers with high CI levels who can be comfortable in multiple worlds and drive project success by leveraging the best of a cultural diverse project staff. This paper looks directly at CI in the context of project work.
Starting with the business case for CI on contemporary projects, this paper defines CI and its relationship to the more widely discussed concepts of Emotional Intelligence and Intelligence Quotient. After this introduction, the focus of the session shifts toward enhancing the CI of project leaders.
The core of the paper is on enhancing CI of project leaders. The first portion focuses on what the individual project leader does to prepare and sensitize one to cultural aspects on projects. The author then shares a step-by-step recipe he uses in his own multicultural project work. The message is reinforced with personal project examples spanning success and cultural missteps.
At the conclusion, the author advocates that project management practioners assess and develop their own CI and then translate these improved skills into project success. By following tips provided in this session the project leader will be better prepared for multicultural nuances of not just on global projects but at some level on most if not all projects.
Why Cultural Intelligence Matters in Projects
Business Case for Today
The ability to work with people of multiple cultures on projects is literally as old as the pyramids. The ancient Egyptians utilized a labor force of conquered peoples to help build their pyramids. Clearly, the methods of focusing multiethnic project teams on a common goal have evolved since the days of the pyramids. Today’s project professionals, whether leading projects, programs or portfolios of work, also need to mobilize teams of varying cultural backgrounds and focus them on a common goal. CI helps in dealing with cultural nuances effectively toward the success of the project.
The world of the project management continues to evolve highlighting the contemporary need for cultural intelligence. Some of the drivers for this are technology, collaboration and market forces.
Technology—Connectivity and the Information Age
In a May 2010 PM Network article on global business trends, “complete connectivity” is called out as a macro trend driving the evolution of project management. According to this article, “real time, all-the-time connectivity has enabled massive virtual projects to take shape and has changed the very nature of project management” (Gale, 2010, p. 35). Connectivity is driving down costs and altering the makeup of project teams.
Projects are Multicultural Collaborations
Projects today tend to be multicultural collaborations. As an example, I was recently on a conference call where I was facilitating a call from Chicago, with a software vendor on the east coast of the US, subject matter experts from Asia, and development partners in Europe. We all collaborated on the solution to a problem. There were multiple handoffs of work throughout the call. Each person in each location knew their role and represented it well. In addition to the obvious cultural dimensions between locations, we also had several subcultures represented on each team. Some of the US participants had been born in other parts of North America, Europe, or Asia and moved to the US. Similarly, the development group in Europe included participants from Europe and Africa. This potpourri of cultures working on a single endeavor, particularly in information technology has become commonplace.
Being able to do more work for less cost by moving the work to another location is a market force altering the makeup of who does project work and where it is performed. In a 2009 article on 10 Ways to cut IT Costs—“Move work offshore or nearshore” is listed first (Kapfhammer, 2009, p. 6).
Another market force is the global economy. Another global business trend in 2010 highlights the point that “while much of the developed world was trampled by recession, most emerging markets barely stumbled.” According to this article, “The emerging markets have officially emerged.” As they emerge, so will many of the best project opportunities (Gale, 2010, p. 32).
Importance for Projects, Programs and Portfolios
With this geographic and cultural dispersion of project work, the project manager’s role as a cross cultural communicator becomes apparent.
Note: For the purposes of this paper, the role of the project manager, program manager, and portfolio manager will be referred to generically as project manager or project leader. The term program, when used, will be defined as a series of related projects. Likewise the term portfolio may be used to refer to a number of discrete projects being managed by a single group.
PMBOK® Guide Knowledge Area Connections
A Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK® Guide) breaks project management down to nine knowledge areas (PMI, 2004, p. 71). CI can apply to all nine areas, but in particular to Communications Management and Human Resources Management. The project manager needs to juggle the following multiple aspects of Communications Management and Human Resources Management including transparency, perceptions of failure, and losing people to cultural insensitivities.
Transparency in Risk Management, Cost Control
CI can help in finding the real status of progress. In some cultures, highlighting risks may go against a person’s inclination to not embarrass other project team members. A project manager must discern how to indentify risks through the use of his or her understanding of how team members process and share information.
Another aspect of risk is how much risk/uncertainty is acceptable in a culture. “In the United States, for example, millions of people walk away from their jobs every year in order to start new businesses and new careers, even though the odds of failure are high. In France, people are less likely to take those risks; they are more interested in security. A 2006 poll of young people in France indicated that 75% aspired to getting a government job with a near-guarantee of lifetime employment. Few had any stomach for employment risk” (McIntosh, 2008, p. 140). Asking the severity of a risk could differ across culture, so it is important for the project manager to set a standard for risks rating, communicate the standard to the team, and leverage his or her cultural intelligence in assessing overall project risk.
Translating Cultural Perceptions of Failure
Likewise, some cultures would not want to openly assign failure to an individual/team. Instead of directly stating the problem, an issue may be communicated in an indirect way and it is up to the receiver of the information to interpret what has happened. CI can help in finding the real status of progress.
Losing People Due to Cultural Insensitivities
Additionally, the lack of cultural understanding can lead to misunderstanding and an associated loss of productivity. In the introduction to “Kiss, Bow or Shake” a story is told of the “Thom McAn” company that traditionally sells shoes with the “Thom McAn” signature printed in the shoe. When it tried to sell shoes in Bangladesh, a riot ensued with over 50 injuries. At the source, was the perception that the “Thom McAn” signature looked like Arabic script for “Allah.” The outraged Muslims had decided that the shoe company was trying to get the Bangladeshis to desecrate the name of God. This was particularly distasteful to this culture “where the foot is considered unclean” (Morrison, 1994, p. ix).
While this story is more in the consumer space, similar misunderstandings on project teams can lead to losing people and inferior Human Resources Management by the project manager.
Concepts and Definitions
Border Crossing / Boundary Crossing
“Detailed knowledge in a single area once guaranteed success today the top rewards go to those who can operate equal aplomb in starkly different realms. I call these people boundary crossers” (Pink, 2005, p. 134).
A successful modern day project manager will have this ability to cross boundaries / borders and understand the cultural nuances of the multiple cultures comprised in the project team.
David Livermore, author of Leading with Cultural Intelligence, asked the following question: “What’s the difference between individuals and businesses that succeed in today’s globalized, multicultural world and those that fail?” (Livermore, 2010, p. 3). The answer is a person’s cultural intelligence.
To understand CI, it helps to understand other intelligence variants in use such as intelligence quotient (IQ) and emotional intelligence (EI).
Intelligence Quotient (IQ)
Probably, the most widely known Intelligence is intelligence quotient, or IQ. IQ is a score derived from one of several different standardized tests designed to assess intelligence. The term “IQ”, from the German Intelligenz-Quotient, was devised by the German psychologist William Stern in 1912 as a proposed method of scoring children’s intelligence tests (Intelligence Quotient, 2010, p. 1).
Emotional Intelligence (EI)
Less widely known, yet receiving considerable consideration in recent years is the concept of emotional intelligence (EI). “E) describes the ability, capacity, skill or, in the case of the trait EI model, a self-perceived grand ability to identify, assess, manage and control the emotions of one’s self, of others, and of groups” (Emotional Intelligence, 2010, p. 1).
Cultural Intelligence (CI) and Cultural Quotient (CQ)
Culture takes into account: music, cuisine, religion, beliefs, interpersonal relationships, business practices, and many behaviors. People working with different cultures must understand how those differences affect their communications and personal relationships (McIntosh, 2008, p. 138).
The concept of Cultural Intelligence Quotient, also called CQ is “The capability to function effectively across various cultural contexts (national, ethnic, organizational, generational, etc.)” (Soon, 2004, p. 3). For the purposes of this paper, CQ and CI will be used interchangeably.
Similar to IQ or EI, CI are measures that can be used to assess a project manager’s ability to deal with the people issues during the project lifecycle.
Enhancing Cultural Intelligence
Can you raise your IQ? Your CQ?
When parallels are drawn between IQ, EI, and CQ, the question comes to mind—Is it possible to raise a person’s CQ? I have typically thought that a person’s IQ is set and independent of some accident or aging, that it stays relatively the same through a person’s life. My children each took an IQ test at school in 2nd grade and as I understand it—their respective scores will remain relatively the same through their lives. The same does not appear to be the case for EI and CI. EI and CI are measures that can be nurtured and grown through experience, exposure.
Innate or Developed Skill
Is CQ an innate skill or can it be learned/developed? According to David Livermore, author of Leading with Cultural Intelligence, states “CQ Can Be Learned by most anyone. It offers leaders an overall repertoire and perspective that can be applied to a myriad of cultural situations” (Livermore, 2010, p. 16).
Motivation, Awareness, Sensitivity, Drives Action
Livermore goes on to break Cultural Intelligence Capability Growth into four groupings
- CQ Drive—What’s my motivation for this assignment?
- CQ Knowledge—What cultural understanding do I need?
- CQ Strategy—What’s my plan?
- CQ Action—How should I adapt? (Livermore, 2010, p. 12)
Developing CQ is multilayered. For instance, a person’s CQ Knowledge (awareness) of cultures can help, though this should be paired with personal CQ drive/motivation.
Honing CI /CQ Skills—Improving CQ Drive and CQ Knowledge
Substantial academic research has been done on cultural differences over the past 20 years. One Study by Dutch social scientist G. Hofstede looked at a large number of people from 50 different countries working at IBM locations around the world. This study defined four dimensions of cultural difference: power distance, individuality versus collectivism, masculinity versus femininity, and avoidance of uncertainty (or risk) (McIntosh, 2008, p. 138).
Another approach to cultural differences promoted by anthropologist Edward T. Hall is in terms of high and low context. In his view, low-context cultures depend on explicit verbal and nonverbal communications. For example, in Switzerland, German, Scandinavia, and North America, people get right to the point and state very clearly what they want. There is little ceremony or indirect communication. High-context cultures, which include Japan, Korea, China, Arab and Latin American countries, are very different. There, a great deal of formality, getting acquainted, and relationship-building are mandatory first steps to stating one’s intentions and doing business. These preliminaries take substantial time, but time is less important to people in high context countries, according to Hall (McIntosh, 2008, p. 141).
Frameworks such as the aforementioned can help one identify cultural traits so that one can respond appropriately to the cultures on a project. Regardless of how one slices cultures, there are differences which a project professional will need to deal with in the course of managing project work.
As the literature on CI particularly as it relates to managing projects is sparse, what follows are concepts, tools, and techniques, which the author has used in over 25 years of multicultural project work.
Be a Learner
Curiosity and the desire to learn can help one to develop CI skills. In addition, it helps to utilize as many of your senses as possible to relate to another culture. The more of your senses, one can utilize, the deeper the experience will be.
Beyond learning a culture, it helps to really appreciate diversity. Along these lines, I have observed that people who are exposed to a diverse array of cultures can be quite comfortable in really appreciating diversity. When other cultures are appreciated, it is easier to bridge to understanding the culture and hence manage projects more effectively.
Develop Language Skills
It is true that much of the language of the business world will be done in a single language such as English, Mandarin, or Spanish. Nonetheless, developing secondary language skills can be helpful in learning the nuances of the language and the culture. Personally, I find taking a language class to be more helpful than simply listening to tapes. Many community colleges in the U.S., as an example, have evening college classes where students are exposed to language as well as cultural nuances. In addition, immersion schools exist where one can accelerate the learning experience. A few years ago, I went to a Spanish immersion school in Mexico. From this, I learned as much about the culture as I did about the language.
Various tools exist that can help one develop CI.
• Online Tools/Assessments
Online Assessment Tools are readily available—An online search for “Cultural Intelligence Assessment” or “CQ Assessment” will reveal a number on online tests. These can be a fun way to learn more about your own CQ.
Many books fiction or non-fiction can help in developing one’s CQ. In the fictional real, spy novels will show the CQ of the key players as being off the charts. Likewise non-fiction books on history, geography, travel books, etc. can open one’s eyes to the broader world.
Traditional media such as movies and TV can be great sources to learn about other cultures. Additionally new media via U-Tube, pod casts, etc. can provide rich easily accessible information on cultures.
Travel in any form domestic or international, for business or pleasure can help to sensitize a person to other cultures. As a travel tip, I find that taking public transportation—subways, buses or rickshaws can help one to really take in a culture.
Look for Role Models
• Global Organizations like the Project Management Institute (PMI)®
PMI as a global organization is full of role models for CI. The PMI global congresses pull in multicultural audiences. PMI as a further example allows project managers a chance to connect with other project managers around the world. This network of project professionals can also be a valuable resource to project managers exposed to new cultures on their projects.
• Ambassadors, Diplomats, State Departments
Ambassadors, diplomats, state departments are full of people with high CI. Reading biographies, observing behaviors, etc. of people in these lines of work can reveal CI tips. This is true of both contemporary people and historical figures. Benjamin Franklin was the U.S. ambassador to France during the American Revolution. During this time, his CI helped him to be an effective border crosser.
• Contemporary Business
Co-workers with multicultural backgrounds or executives at international companies can provide good role models for CI. Find a mentor if possible and learn from this individual.
I have found that observing the traits of fictional characters in movies as an example to be an interesting twist on CI. Try it the next time you watch a James Bond movie as an example and observe how hero’s CI is leveraged.
Follow a Recipe—Improving CQ Strategy and CQ Action
Developing CQ Drive and CQ Knowledge through the aforementioned recommendations will improve a person’s CQ. To further improve CQ, one should have a strategy and action plans. What follows are portions of a recipe I follow in multicultural project leadership situations.
This recipe has changed for me over the years and continues to evolve. In the same way that a master chef publishes a cook book and continues to tweak a recipe for his or her own use, this recipe will continue to evolve. The recommendation is to use it as a “recipe” (framework) and add “local ingredients” that work in your own multicultural projects.
Preparing adequately for the cultural nuances is a good first step. Finding out the backgrounds of stakeholders is an important aspect of stakeholder analysis. It helps to add notes on cultural observations, background to your own stakeholder analysis. If you are new to a culture, get a book such as Kiss, Bow or Shake Hands (Morrison, 1994) and learn about generalities of the cultures with which you will interact.
Use Your Senses—Listen, Watch, Smell, Touch, Taste
Paying attention to your surroundings and using your senses is helpful. First and foremost, listen and learn. If a project budget allows it, it is best to bring everyone together for a kickoff meeting and observe people. Where possible, go out to eat and taste the foods of a culture. While in a casual setting such as a project lunch, as questions, learn and adapt.
Adapt, Celebrate Diversity
Adapting a project to take into account the diversity of cultures present can also help. As a general practice on multi-location project teams, I will add all the local holidays to the project calendar as a reminder to all on the team. During project meetings, I may ask about the meaning of an upcoming holiday at a team meeting. I find these to be good ice breakers. In addition, most people are proud of their cultural heritage and more than willing to talk about local customs that go along with a holiday. After such an ice breaker, the team is ready to get to work. This can work in both High Context and Low Context cultures, though I find it particularly helpful when a team contains a mixture of both High Context and Low Context thinking. As a project leader, I need to strike the balance between being efficient and open. When properly done, this can pull a team together.
Admit Mistakes and Learn From Them
Even when your intentions are good, you will make mistakes—be willing to admit them. As an example, I worked with a person from India for over a year and unknowingly pronounced his name incorrectly. Out of politeness and his cultural inclination to not correct his manager, he never corrected my pronunciation. It was not until I travelled to India and heard one of his co-workers pronouncing his name correctly that I realized my error. I readily admitted it and tried to correct it going forward. I am not sure that I ever got it completely correct, but it did improve. This willingness to correct my actions helped our relationship going forward.
Also be sensitive to different body languages in different cultures. According to the book Interpersonal Communication Skills in the Workplace, the following tips apply: “(1) Observe how people from other cultures support their verbal statements with nonverbal cues. Take note of how respect, openness, and other necessary workplace values are expressed. (2) When in doubt, ask! If questions are asked with real interest, most co-workers will be happy and honored to share that part of their culture with you” (McIntosh, 2008, p. 138).
People with high CI will adjust to their environment. This starts with adjusting one’s attitude to the culture. As an example, my country of origin is the U.S. Most U.S. restaurants are smoke free. When I go to a country where people smoke in restaurants, I need to adjust my attitude and accept this. If my attitude reflects a condescending judgment of this practice, people will pick up on my nonverbal clues.
Be willing to share aspects of your culture. Telling stories of things you have done and listening to the stories of others helps. Turning cultural mistakes you have made into sharable stories can help to bridge to others on a project team and improve overall communication.
Project professionals know the value of keeping good records. This applies to notes on cultures.
I find that keeping good notes helps as well as the practice of keeping a journal. I have kept a travel journal for years and periodically will refer to observations I have chronicled. Reading what you wrote helps to refresh your thoughts on a culture when you have not had recent exposure.
Take Pictures, Videos, etc.
I carry a small video camera when travelling for work or fun and have recorded generic film of the streets of a country. In addition, camera phones are an easy way to record what you see. Sharing these clips with the team is a good way to break down cultural barriers.
As mentioned above, stories are powerful ways of communicating. In a world where people are inundated with email, personal stories are memorable. As you observe cultures—be willing to talk about your experience and equally as important, listen intently to the stories of others.
Exposures to differing cultures can be a life enriching experience. According to your own comfort level, other cultures can be incorporated into your own.
Along those lines, people can evolve. I come from a high context culture, was trained as an engineer, and thrive in a project management environment where schedules are important. In my project work, I have come in contact with many excellent team members from low context cultures. As a result, I have learned lessons about time, about stopping to talk to people rather than rushing off to a meeting. My cultural bent toward time has evolved to accommodate the people on the team.
Be willing to mentor and be mentored by someone from another culture.
Be a Friend
Beyond the context of your project work, friendships across cultures can develop. Social networking angles such as http://www.facebook.com/ and http://www.linkedin.com can be used to stay connected to friends from other cultures, countries even after the project work ends.
Personal Lessons Learned in CI
Global Experiences / Examples
Living and working in a global world presents plenty of examples of how CI can be leveraged in a project setting. What follows are a few examples of my own CI experiences that may help to illuminate some of the points above.
The first personal example has to do with eating breakfast in Germany. Germans are fond of eating open face sandwiches for breakfast. I was raised in the U.S. where we commonly eat closed sandwiches for lunch. In the U.S. it is common to layer meat and cheese on the same sandwich. At my first German breakfast, I was ready for the open face sandwiches. I took a slice of bread, buttered it as is tradition. I was then presented with a plate of slices meats and cheeses. To my host’s displeasure, I made the mistake of putting meat and cheese on the same slice of bread. I could tell from body language that something was wrong. It was only later that I learned that it is tradition to put meat OR cheese on the bread. The proper approach would be to ask for a second slice of bread.
On my first business trip to India in 1996, I was in a meeting in Chennai with a team of local developers and my boss from the U.S. In one meeting on this trip, my boss was asking for agreement/understanding on a topic. In this culture, the person acknowledging understanding will shake their head side to side. In the U.S., we tend to shake our heads up and down to nod agreement. When asked the question by my boss, I shook my head up and down. One of the developers saw me shaking my head up and down and emulated this. At the same time a number of the Indian developers shook their heads right back and forth. My boss, looking at the team got confused and frustrated and asked again—“Do you understand? I see you shaking your head this way and you the other way.” I could tell from previous experiences that all understood so I jumped in to say that I thought we all understood.
I was presenting at a conference in Latin America. In addition to presenting, I attended a number of sessions. One of the sessions I attended was in Spanish, but was also translated via a simultaneous translator into English and Portuguese at that time. I had recently done some language in Spanish and decided to listen in Spanish, but as a backup have the English translation available via headphones. During this session I noticed that the slides did not always match what the presenter was saying. I noticed a delay in the timing of the translation into English as evidenced by the group fluent in Spanish tracking well while English and Portuguese speakers seemed out of synch. With my headphones and remedial Spanish speaking skills, I had a unique perspective that crossed borders. As a result, I revamped my own slides when I presented so the approach would be friendlier for a multilingual audience. I added words to my slides for clarity, cut out slang expressions, added time to allow messages to sink in. This experience has sensitized me when I speak to multilingual audiences.
Regional Cultural Example
Small Town USA to New York City
The usage of CI is not limited different countries. A number of years ago I was doing consulting work that took me from a project at a small town in middle America to a project in the center of Manhattan in New York. On the project in New York, I originally approached team meetings with the same steady measured approach to team meetings that had worked on a previous project. I sensed that this was not playing well and that there was uneasiness for one team member in particular. I found out that this lifetime New Yorker, attuned to the quick pace of life in the big city, expected things to run quickly. As a result of this, I changed the makeup of our meetings to be fast paced. This resulted in a better team dynamic and allowed us to focus on the key project issues rather than the cultural issues that could separate us.
Conclusion—Developing CI is a Journey Not a Destination
On today’s global projects, the ability to perform Human Resources Management and Communications Management (PMI, 2004, p. 71) requires a global view and CI skills. Increasing your knowledge of the cultures represented on your and developing CI can pay off in successful 21st century projects. The approaches advocated in this paper can provide a framework to improve your CI. Project management practitioners should assess and develop their own CI and then translate these improved skills into project success.
Additionally, project managers will find that bringing cultures together brings out the best most innovative solutions. This bringing together of ideas is collective. A May 2010 Wall Street Journal article points out that in the modern world, it is more often the collective enterprises of many working together. It states “the sophistication of the modern world lies not in individual intelligence or imagination. It is a collective enterprise. Nobody—literally nobody—knows how to make the pencil on my desk (as the economist Leonard Read once pointed out), let alone the computer on which I am writing. The knowledge of how to design, mine, fell, extract, synthesize, combine, manufacture and market these things is fragmented among thousands, sometimes millions of heads. Once human progress started, it was no longer limited by the size of human brains. Intelligence became collective and cumulative” (Ridley, 2010, p. 5).
In conclusion, CI skills will help the project management practitioner pull together the most innovative solutions—on time, on budget and with high quality. And last, but certainly not least, multicultural projects are fun. Developing CI and leveraging it on projects should make for a more enjoyable experience for all involved.
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© 2010, Bruce Woerner
Originally published as a part of 2010 PMI Global Congress Proceedings – Washington DC