The Cultural Arena in Projects
Anees Haidary

The effect of culture in projects involving multi-cultural teams has been apparent for many years. Managing projects nowadays demands sensitivity to the values and priorities of different national cultures and occupational groupings.

Understanding and effectively interacting with different cultural groups is like walking through an arena of culturally diverse people.

Being culturally savvy means much more than just understanding the culture of other groups or countries. It means understanding who you are and your own cultural dynamics. For example, consider what it means to say you are an Indian. The social environment in which you were born and brought up, and where you lived most part of your life has a lasting impression on you. This is what is called as inheriting values and traditions from your family and social environment. Same stands true for any other culture.

If you were to compare someone from India with someone from Finland, you will find them culturally different. People inherit characteristics from their social environment.

Even though cultures and traditions have an impact on an individual’s behavior, when we talk about organization culture, this tends to be unique and remains the same for all employees. The values, vision and mission of an organization do not change with location. However, the local culture still plays a part.

Response to Cultural Differences

How do people respond to cultural differences?

  • Ignore them and hope they will go away; believing that to focus on the differences will just make the problem worse.
  • Fail to manage cultural differences and risk experiencing culture shock.
  • Recognize the importance of dealing with cultural differences and the possible consequences of taking no action.
  • Manage cultural differences -- learn to appreciate various cultures, and understand the positive impact of being culturally savvy.

How to Effectively Manage Cultural Differences

Here are a few things one can practice in the project environment to overcome cross-cultural differences:

1. Create a shared understanding of team goals and objectives.
When the entire team works towards the shared goals and objectives, the project is bound to succeed. The goals and objectives need to be frequently reviewed, shared, and discussed among team members to keep all in the same wavelength.

2. Do not assume things - Communicate, Communicate, and Communicate

To begin with, you would need to define a communication strategy for your project and team which should include:
  • What, when, and how much are we going to communicate?
  • Who will play what roles in the team’s communications?
  • Where and how will we communicate?
  • What technologies and media will we use?
  • It is advisable to use visuals in communications as much as possible.
Have a communication plan for the project. Project managers can lead by example and establish practices in the team to ensure communication flows. The entire team can participate in discussions, brainstorming sessions, and knowledge sharing forums, and help build the product as well as relationships through effective communication.

3. Build Trust

  •     Listen actively and empathetically
  •     Do not stereotype
  •     Develop an understanding of the environment.
  •     Have honest and open communication

The first and rather most important principle of any relationship building starts with establishing trust. This is true across cultures and puts the sender and receiver in a very comfortable position. This is a great way to fill cultural gaps.

4. Have a project manager who is receptive to cultural differences in the team.

A project manager who understands and respects the cultural dynamics of his/her team can get better results out of the team.

5. Give people shorter assignments

With shorter assignments, you will be able to gauge the capability, commitment, and the ability to deliver of the virtual team members without putting your project at risk.

In view of globalization where physical boundaries no longer exist, virtual teams and globally dispersed teams are here to stay. Project managers have to adapt themselves to this changing scenario and manage virtual teams by overcoming cultural differences.

There is a need for us to understand our culture and that of others in a better way, and this will help us to walk in this cultural arena with a higher degree of confidence and better project outcomes.

(Anees Haidary, PMP, head, quality and lead, Project Management Academy, Sasken Communication Technologies, is an experienced business leader who engages with leaders to identify critical business problems affecting their services and enable them to define a strategy, roadmap, and governance mechanism to address business critical problems.)