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Cowboys and the Global Project

Projects requiring coordination among cultures are on the rise and are here to stay. A project manager could be implementing a project in their own country and easily have stakeholders from India, China, Mexico, or Israel, for example. Each stakeholder will bring different points of view based on their upbringing and experiences—based on their culture. Savvy project managers who are able to navigate different cultures will not only deploy global projects more successfully in the future, but will also increase their professional capital.Let’s consider the example of Jane. Jane is a very capable technical project manager from the United States. She has a science degree from a major university, and because all her projects finish on time and on budget, her management has chosen her to lead the upgrade of key manufacturing equipment in their US, South Korean, and Vietnamese locations. By assigning a project manager with as strong a record as Jane’s, management feels they are definitely lowering risk and increasing the project’s chance of success. One especially useful trait Jane brings to her projects is constantly seeking ways to make deployments as efficient as possible.

Project Ground Rules

The kickoff meeting goes very well. All stakeholders from the US, South Korean, and Vietnamese locations are very friendly and committed. Jane feels energized to do the best job possible going into their first working session, a scope-definition workshop. In her quest for efficiency, Jane decides to publish some ground rules for all upcoming meetings. She believes this will help her take control of the project from the very outset.

Jane notices that her Asian colleagues—Mr. Lee from South Korea and Mr. Ninh from Vietnam—bring to the meetings no fewer than half a dozen colleagues. Familiar with the project management literature suggesting decision making is easier in small groups, she wants to shrink the crowds. Along with many of us, she has read how moderating the discussion within a large group can get unwieldy and delay agreement. Therefore, Jane issues the rule that, henceforth, only the project managers should attend the status meetings.

Her edict is met with silence and discomfort on the Asian teams. After a few more minutes, Mr. Lee informs Jane that he is very sorry, but he has not been authorized by his management to commit on his own to any final decisions and could not work like that. Mr. Ninh makes it very clear that since the project requires tasks from finance, engineering, IT, and other departments, he cannot agree to anything on their behalf. Jane tries to make her colleagues see reason, indicating that it is more efficient to deal with just one person—even if that person consults with others to reach a resolution—than casts of thousands. She is confused as to why such a reasonable rule would upset her colleagues.

Cowboys and Other Cultures

Jane is a product of her culture. The Dutch social scientist Geert Hofstede conducted research in the 1970s showing that, on a scale of 1 to 100, the United States scored 91 in the cultural component of “Individualism” (Hofstede et al., Cultures and Organizations: Software of the Mind [New York: McGraw-Hill, 2010]).  No other country scored higher. This high individualistic streak accounts for so many features of American life: the lone cowboy; explicit, direct communication; individual accomplishment. Other highly individualistic cultures include Australia, Great Britain, and the Netherlands. When projects contain stakeholders from these cultures, there is emphasis on expectations, best practices, and how to get things done.

On the other hand, South Korean and Vietnamese cultures are highly collectivistic, and Jane’s colleagues are unwilling to make any moves that would upset the balance and camaraderie of their group. In a global setting, then, savvy project managers learn to be vigilant, and recognize when they are encountering resistance because they have engaged in behavior the other culture is averse to.

Many parts of the world that contain emerging markets, such as China, India, Latin America, and Africa, also have collectivistic cultures in which the interests of the group take precedence over the interests of the individual. Interfacing with these cultures will be the new normal; we should all adapt and make our cross-cultural project deployments more effective.

What measures can Jane take when working on projects with collectivistic societies? What adaptations can she incorporate, so she becomes known to her management as the person to go to for global initiatives?

Here are a few things Jane can do:

  • Allocate more time for decisions in her project plans—recognize that some group decision making will inevitably need to take place.
  • Take time to build trust and relationships during each exchange, so the project team can become a cohesive group.
  • Ask her Vietnamese and South Korean colleagues what is typical in their project environments; maybe some of their procedures can be adapted to the larger project.
  • If dates/deliverables are missed, do not mention individuals. Help everyone “save face” in front of their group.

These and other cross-cultural recommendations are discussed during RMC Learning Solutions two-day International Project Fundamentals class.

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