Lost in translation



How This Paper Relates To The Presentation

While this paper outlines the main topics which may be raised during the Lost in Translation presentation at 2006 PMI Global Congress, it will not necessarily cover all the issues discussed during the presentation itself. The presentation is intended to be highly interactive, with a great deal of input from the participants on the day, and therefore may differ somewhat from the discussion below.


The presentation will look at the issues raised when working in multi cultural teams. It will explore the factors which can cause misunderstandings, false expectations and disappointments – if not downright conflict – within a project team.

During the session, participants will be asked to consider some of the causes and to identify some common indicators and symptoms of misunderstandings in a global team, both in written and verbal communications. Theoretical models for predicting differences in communication will be put forward for further discussion, after which possible solutions to such problems will be considered, and a template Communications Plan provided.

Objectives Of The Presentation

Participants will be able to:

  1. Understand the common problems of communication within a global project team.
  2. Describe the cultural influences that may exist when communicating with people from other organisations and other countries.
  3. Avoid some of the issues, which cause misunderstandings and conflict in multicultural teams and prevent existing issues from escalating by addressing them in the communication plan.

The Theoretical Models

As identified by Richard D Lewis (1999) communication problems arise from differences in:

  • Communication patterns
  • Values and core beliefs
  • Orientation of cultures whether task/data orientated, people/dialogue orientated or respect/listening orientated
  • Choice of communication methods
  • Cultural conditioning and the influence of language on thought
  • Interpretations of body language
  • Listening habits
  • Audience expectations, and attitudes to time, meetings and leadership
  • Leadership styles
  • Language of management

In a later work, Exploring Culture (Hofstede, Pedersen & Hofstede, 2002) the authors identify issues to do with different cultural views about identity, hierarchy, gender, truth and virtue.

All these influences will be raised during the group discussions.

Case Study

Throughout this session participants will be referring to a case study. This is fictional, but has been developed to include several examples of misunderstandings and communication problems. Participants will be encouraged to use their own experience of different cultures and project teams to help identify examples and, within small groups, to present possible solutions and improvements.


We are a telecommunications company, with an excellent track-record in mobile telephony and a healthy turnover.

We have undertaken a project (Project Worldview) for a major client in the pharmaceuticals industry. They are a global enterprise and are looking to us to provide a state-of-the art communications system for their own project teams spread around the world. For us, this is new technology – webcams and internet-based systems rather than ‘traditional’ mobile telephones.

We are five months into the project, which is scheduled to take 18 months overall; we are at the beginning of the Implementation phase, with a specification for the new products, but many people in the team think the requirements are still unclear. The contract is fixed price, and everyone is very nervous about the risks. Currently we are on schedule, but the holiday season is approaching.

Our corporate headquarters are in Geneva, Switzerland, and the team members are as shown in the attached profiles below.

Stakeholders Location Issues Key messages
Juan Gonzalez-Martinez Madrid Spain ▪     Company finance Overall report on project finance and variances
Chuck Wade California USA ▪     Product development
▪     Market requirements
▪     Project accounts
Control on product content and costs
Mira Patel Mumbai India ▪     Technical support
▪     Training for help-desk staff
▪     Documentation
Requirements to support product once released
Karla Osterman (Swedish national) Geneva Switzerland ▪     Overall project management
▪     Triple constraints
▪     Risk management
On time, to budget, tospecification
John Davis London UK ▪     Procurement from sub-contractors
▪     Delivery schedules and costs
Control of sub-contracts and as little change as possible
Inga Schmidt Frankfurt Germany ▪     Design and engineering Precision required to deliver the best result
Ahmed Jarallah Kuwait ▪     Customer satisfaction
▪     Delivery on time
▪     Contractual conditions
Relationship with the customer number 1 priority

Written Communication

Participants will be asked to discuss, in small groups, the emails sent between team members prior to a meeting to be held in Geneva, site of the company's Headquarters for its European, Middle East and Africa (EMEA) operations. (The relevant emails are attached on the next page and will be available at the presentation).

Working together, note down as many examples as you can of language within the emails which may possibly cause confusion, misunderstanding and poor communication:



Following discussion of the learnings from the email discussions, participants will then be told what happened in the first face-to-face team meeting for the Worldwide Project.

Working together, note down as many examples as you can of where communication problems have occurred during the meeting, the cause, and what attendees at the meeting could have done to improve the situation – either before the meeting or during it:

Communication Plan

A Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK® Guide), recommends that each project team develops a Communications Management Plan, which is “contained in, or is a subsidiary plan of, the project management plan.” It goes on to say that the communications management plan, among other things, “provides:

  • Stakeholder communication requirements
  • Information to be communicated, including format, content, and level of detail” (PMI, 2004, p227)

An example of a high-level communications management plan for the case study project is provided on the next page.

Participants are encouraged to adapt this template to suit their own project team requirements, and after due consideration and discussion of their own requirements, and those of the team.


It is a valuable use of the Project Manager's time to plan, monitor and control communications within the team, and this is especially true when different cultures are involved. Different cultures may be represented by team members from different countries, or, sometimes, they can come from team members with different preferred communication methods, values and beliefs, or attitudes.

The Project Manager should address the specific communication needs of each individual stakeholder, as soon as possible in the project lifecycle.

In particular, it may be useful to consider the following:

  • Be open minded
  • Don't make assumptions
  • Communicate about communications – ask people what they'd prefer
  • Find out what others' expectations are
  • Prepare appropriately for each communication
  • Establish with the team the ‘rules’ for meetings, especially around timing, agenda, chairing and leadership, participation, post-meeting actions
  • Clearly identify the outcome you want or need
  • Check whether there are any issues regarding use of language, mannerisms or terms that may cause misunderstanding
  • Clarify how the team will know when misunderstandings are happening, and how the members will then deal with them
  • Keep evaluating all of the above – as long as we're communicating there will always be misunderstandings – the secret is to keep getting better


In the interests of improving communication, we would love to hear your feedback on the presentation. Please send your comments or questions to:

Colette Foan [email protected]

Jane Parslow [email protected]

Communication Plan
Stakeholders Location Issues Key messages Frequency Method of communication Description
Juan Gonzalez-Martinez Madrid Spain
  • Company finance
Overall report on project finance and variances Monthly Excel spreadsheet Email Conference calls Spoken word and personal contact more important than written reports
Chuck Wade California USA
  • Product development
  • Market requirements
  • Project accounts
Control on product content and costs Monthly Word report Email Conference calls ‘Projectplace’ or ‘Blue Step’ Keep things short and to the point Once scope is fixed, no changes unless full process followed
Mira Patel Mumbai India
  • Technical support
  • Training for help-desk staff
  • Documentation
Requirements to support product once released Weekly 'Projectplace' or ‘Blue Step’ Written updates of technical content to enable training and documentation to be developed
Karla Osterman Geneva Switzerland
  • Overall project management
  • Triple constraints
  • Risk management
On time, to budget, to specification Weekly 'Projectplace' or ‘Blue Step’ Technical facts, delivery dates and quality are important
John Davis London UK
  • Procurement from sub-contractors
  • Delivery schedules and costs
Control of subcontracts and as little change as possible Fortnightly Email and conference calls Contractual issues relating to time and cost most important
Inga Schmidt Frankfurt Germany
  • Design and engineering
Precision required to deliver the best result Weekly 'Projectplace' or ‘Blue Step’ Clear and precise written documentation in detail
Ahmed Jarallah Kuwait
  • Customer satisfaction
  • Delivery on time
  • Contractual conditions
Relationship with the customer number 1 priority Monthly Email and telephone Everything must be done to keep the customer happy, even if it costs us money


Ed Axtell, Roger E. (1993), Do ‘s and Taboos Around the World, USA:Wiley

Hofstede, G. J., Pederson, P. B & Hofstede, G. Exploring Cultures, (2002), Yarmouth, Maine, USA: Intercultural Press

Lewis R. D. (1999) When Cultures Collide, London: Nicholas Brealey Publishing

Lewis, R. D. (1999), Cross Cultural Communication A Visual Approach, Hampshire, UK: Transcreen Publications

Mole J. (2003) Mind Your Manners, London, UK: Nicholas Brealey Publishing

Morrison T, Conaway W. A, Borden G. A, Kiss, Bow or Shakehands, Avon, Massachusetts, USA; Adams Media Corporation

Project Management Institute (2004) A Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge Third Edition (PMBOK® Guide), Newton Square, PA: Project Management Institute

Storti, C, (1994), Cross-Cultural Dialogues, Yarmouth, Maine, USA: Intercultural Press


© Colette Foan and Jane Parslow
Originally published as a part of 2006 PMI Global Congress Proceedings – Madrid, Spain



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