CASE BY CASE // CROSS-CULTURAL LEADERSHIP
IMAGE COURTESY OF SOS CHILDREN'S VILLAGES INTERNATIONAL
by B.G. Yovovich
The project plan was quite remarkable from the get-go: Take 10 Norwegian volunteers who'd never met one another, send them to Africa and put them to work building a school for orphans and poor children in the slums of Tsumeb, a small mining town in Namibia.
It was also prime fodder for a reality show. And indeed, viewers could tune in to watch the story unfold on Project X, which aired last year in Norway.
Traveling nearly 6,000 miles (9,656 kilometers) from the rugged fjords of northern Europe to the dry sub-tropics of southern Africa, team members weren't prepared for what they experienced. Not only were they forced to adjust to a vastly different language, climate and cuisine, but only one of the 10 had previous construction experience.
One of the reasons we chose Namibia is because it has great infrastructure, and it is not as dangerous as some of the other countries. But it turned out it was not as Western as I had expected.
—Merete Munch Lange, PMP, If P&C Insurance, Oslo, Norway
And only one person had project management experience: Merete Munch Lange, PMP, project manager at Vidvinkel Media, a production company in Oslo, Norway.
The team also faced a brutal deadline: The project, a partnership between not-for-profit SOS Children's Villages International and Norwegian television station TV 2, had to be completed in just 30 days.
The marketing blitz for Project X played up the drama with an intriguing tagline: “Can they achieve the mission?”
Spoiler alert: The answer is yes.
But the team first had to battle culture shock and communication issues—all while the TV crew followed them around, sticking cameras in their faces and asking how they felt.
Although the team was enthusiastic about the project, discontent began to emerge almost as soon as they arrived onsite in May 2008.
The sweltering heat and lack of culinary variety led to numerous complaints: “I can't sleep.” “The food is bad.” Team members were also unhappy with security restrictions. “They wanted to walk on their own into the ghetto that was close to the village, but it was too dangerous to do that without bodyguards,” says Ms. Lange, now business liaison at If P&C Insurance, Oslo, Norway.
She and her team ended up applying Western expectations in the African country—even on an unconscious level.
“One of the reasons we chose Namibia is because it has great infrastructure, and it is not as dangerous as some of the other countries,” she says. “But it turned out it was not as Western as I had expected.”
One of the most significant miscalculations was in applying a Eurocentric sense of time, planning and urgency. Those didn't play well in Africa.
“I brought my Danish mindset that ‘On Friday we will do this and on Saturday we will do that,'” she says. “Then I came to understand African time, and that was the biggest surprise.”
Figuring it'd be a good way to secure local buy-in, Ms. Lange arranged for a local carpenter to construct desks and tables. A few days before the furniture was needed, she was alarmed to discover the work hadn't even begun.
“I got pretty stressed and tried to be my best at being diplomatic,” Ms. Lange recalls. “I asked, ‘When do you think you will be ready with this furniture?’ The carpenter said, ‘Time is unpredictable. I will call you.'”
Looking back, she would have started the process earlier or had her own team tackle the task.
Being part of a reality TV show added another layer of complications to an already complex project.
Team members had joined the project for altruistic reasons, and “they got tired of being interviewed all the time,” explains Merete Munch Lange, PMP, If P&C Insurance, Oslo, Norway. “In reality TV shows, the participants are constantly being asked, ‘What do you think now? What do you feel now?’ They got to the point where they kind of boycotted that.”
Ms. Lange stepped in with a new twist on stakeholder management.
“We had a meeting in which the producer and the director talked with the team and really explained how important it was for them to share their feelings and experiences,” she says.
That cooperation would help increase viewership and ratings—which in turn would raise more money for the charity.
The pitch worked. The team opened up to the camera crews and shifted into high gear.
The local head of SOS Children's Villages was a man, but it was really the females who were doing the jobs. Talking directly to them instead of going through him helped a lot.
—Merete Munch Lange, PMP
When managing cultural differences, Ms. Lange recommends incorporating a sense of humility—and perspective. What works in one country might be disastrous in another.
“You cannot come to Africa with a mindset that ‘I know best,’” she says.
There will most likely be plenty of situations when project leaders must make the case for what they think is the right decision.
“When we got down there and found out what we had to deal with, negotiation skills definitely were the most valuable of all the project management training that I have taken,” Ms. Lange says.
The trick is reflecting upon “where people were coming from, how to meet them there and how to create a win-win situation that would satisfy both parties,” she says.
And sometimes the best advice is “learning to count to 10—really,” says Ms. Lange, laughing. “It helped me to avoid rushing into things and to make sure to take time to think, ‘Who is this person? How should I attack this matter?’”
Negotiation was embedded in almost every aspect of the project, including a means to improve morale. “I had to negotiate to get the kitchen staff in the hotel where we stayed to put more spices in the food to make the crew happier,” she says.
Ms. Lange's skills earned her a nickname among the townsfolk. They called her “The Diplomat.”
Winning Over Locals
Inspired by the fact that a group of foreigners would sacrifice their time and donate their efforts, Tsumeb locals volunteered to pitch in on the project. Ms. Lange nurtured that buy-in by initiating sub-projects aimed at improving community life.
“We got them started on growing vegetables,” she says. “We helped them build ovens so they could make money by baking bread, and we bought sewing machines for the women.”
Those sub-projects took time. On future projects in far-flung locales, Ms. Lange says she would front-load the schedule with a greater number of community projects to secure the local population's support sooner.
When thrust into a new environment, Ms. Lange also advises figuring out not only who's in charge but who's actually performing tasks.
“I spent a lot of time especially getting the local women involved,” she says. “The local head of SOS Children's Villages was a man, but it was really the females who were doing the jobs. Talking directly to them instead of going through him helped a lot.”
Networking had other benefits: “One of the workers was a quiet woman, but once you got to talk to her, she was a wealth of information and other connections,” Ms. Lange says.
This proved handy when the team ran out of the tiles needed to complete a key project milestone. “Because it was Sunday, all of the stores were closed,” Ms. Lange recalls. The well-connected woman worked her magic, and her nephew's friend left a family barbecue to open his store and sell the team some tiles.
What Doesn't Kill You…
About 20 days in, it wasn't looking good. At that point, the entire team worked in shifts through the night to make sure the project would be completed on time.
“The team realized what it was doing, that we had a deadline and that, if we did not do this, we would have a lot of children who would be very disappointed,” Ms. Lange says.
The impact was striking. “We could not have completed the project without that increased commitment,” she says.
Despite all the difficulties—or perhaps because of them—Ms. Lange is enthusiastic about leading other cross-cultural projects.
“It's a miracle that we built a kindergarten in 30 days,” she says. “Just talking about it, I get emotional. What I can say is that I am not afraid of any project now. Bring them on. Even though it might be very difficult, I thrive on it.” PM
PM NETWORK OCTOBER 2010 WWW.PMI.ORG