Project Management Institute

The right mix



Twenty years ago I had my first experience managing a software development project for a bank called Banco Hispano Americano with headquarters in Madrid, Spain. That project was implemented in 11 different offices within Spain, Portugal and South America, and it involved 20 project team members. I spent two years leading the project, and it wasn't pleasant. These people were very different—they had distinctly different values, attitudes and cultures.

While I had technical skills, it was difficult dealing with the people side of management. I felt frustrated in getting things done through others. I was unable to manage these people, so they managed me.

Although off to a bad start, I was always persistent and patient when trying to understand the feelings of my team, listening to them, asking for their opinions and being a team member as much as I was its leader. Some months later, I realized the situation had changed. My co-workers respected me because I was truthful, and I respected them. The real benefit of project leadership was getting the team members more involved and accountable. Team members felt free to interact among themselves and with the customer because they felt supported by the project leader.

Especially when working on an international project, you must consider the different team members' cultures and values. Aside from geographical boundaries, people create their own personal borders, and every project manager needs a good people skill set to cross them. Most importantly, the manager must ground project practices in the three Ps: passion, persistence and patience.

The project manager must be passionate when approaching the project and the people. He or she must reinforce best practices, often more than once, and explain why those methods make the most sense. To ensure project activities are getting done the right way, the project manager must be persistent. Spending the necessary time to talk with people and solve problems takes patience.

Managers must spend some time with every project team member, dealing with misunderstandings, miscommunication and different perceptions. Listen to your team members, even when it's not easy. If you focus on people as human beings, language, culture and unique behaviors don't matter. When people feel valued, they are more proactive and their performance improves.

Aside from geographical boundaries, people create their own personal borders, and every project manager needs a good people skill set to cross them.

Communication is the underlying problem in many international efforts. Language differences create difficulty, but the main issue is how different people filter your directives. Words represent just 10 percent of the total communication, according to Managing Cultural Differences by Philip R. Harris and Robert T. Moran. Communication is an active process without a beginning or end.

Different cultures have different values, so international team members may misunderstand your approach to executing activities and tasks. Good managers must clarify reasons for their priorities. For example, some multinational companies emphasize mission in an initial meeting to gain agreement about the project's mission, objective, and personal roles and responsibilities, use teleconferences and video conferences to communicate and share information, or hold regular face-to-face meetings. The project manager needs to travel to each country where his or her team members are located to find out both the status of the activities and their feelings, inputs and ideas—their feedback.

Human beings adapt to the environment in which they work along the project life cycle, but a lack of cultural sensitivity distracts them from the tasks at hand. All managers must understand that, in a world of globalization, they must inspire their project managers to advance an understanding of other cultures and behaviors. PM


Alfonso Bucero, PMP, is managing director of the International Institute for Learning's Madrid, Spain office. He manages projects and trains project managers throughout Europe and has helped implement project offices at Hewlett-Packard, CAIXA GALICIA and CEPSA.

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