National and Cultural Differences in Project Management

Ever since I was a young boy, I dreamt of both traveling and living overseas. Of course, the fantasy is usually much better than the reality, which is not to say that I have not loved living abroad, but when the realities of work and day-to-day life start to emerge, confusion and frustration can take over. That said, my experience living and working abroad are two of my life accomplishments I value the most. In addition to learning how people work and manage their projects in other countries, even when using a standardized framework, such as from the Project Management Institute (PMI), I understood the differences in cultural values of the people around me.

National and Cultural Differences in Project Management

When I worked, as well as lived, in Germany, plus across the European Union, China, Mexico, Western Africa, and the Middle East, I noticed how important it was to apply PMI guidelines and standards to project work, as well as team management, based on cultural values and not the other way around. Living and working in the US, it is almost second nature to apply PMI frameworks, whether you are running an Agile/Scrum project or a traditional Waterfall one, since the guidelines are based on the American work experience and cultural attributes. Still, it is not the same, for obvious reasons, to do so in other countries worldwide.

Mind you, PMI guidelines and the PMBOK provide a great basis to start from, but national and cultural differences need to be addressed. For example, in recent decades, much has been written about the importance of “Trust” as a key contributor to economic development and sustainability. For example, in some counties, trust in their police is higher than in their politicians, whereas, in other countries, it is the complete opposite. In extreme cases, and where economic development is more challenging, trust does not exist for either entity or in society as a whole. In such cases, project managers need to, for example, focus on transparency, fairness, and clear and concise communication to mitigate local and cultural customs, such as:

  • Familial ties: in many countries, one family will run the entire business. This tends to occur in “low trust” countries where they feel they can only trust close relatives. In such cases, growth as a company is challenging, as is confidence in outside consultants and accepting their recommendations. In other words, if your recommendation is to replace a key stakeholder and/or team member who happens to be a relative of the owner, they may not be open to your suggestion because of these family ties.
  • Nationalistic and regional attitudes: when I lived and worked in Barcelona, there was an underlying sense of aloofness, and even mistrust, between people who considered themselves Spanish first and foremost and those who identified as Catalonian, especially those who are pro-independence. This “feud” dates back several centuries. Therefore, it is not likely to end soon, which means we need to be cognizant and aware of these feelings when dealing with staff.
  • International teams: I had the opportunity to work for a German firm in China with team members from both countries. Although they saw me as a neutral party since I am neither German nor Chinese, lack of confidence, resentment, and frustration among members of both nationalities was rampant; especially when a situation was tied to “saving face” versus being project-focused. In these cases, I worked as a liaison between both parties, which helped alleviate tensions.

In every case regarding the above-described cultural and national differences, effective and efficient communication was always the best approach to address these differences. However, such communication was not just about having meetings frequently or ensuring consistent written documentation, or simply “clearing the air.” Rather it was about placing myself in the other person’s shoes. They have the same prismatic view based on culture, professional and personal position, and experience as a project manager.

In addition, it is crucial to contour the project plan to address key issues regarding trust and confidence and cultural expectations. For example, I am always impressed how Germanic countries, such as Austria, Germany, and Switzerland, have no ticket controls in their transit systems. You basically jump on and off the subway trains, busses, trolleys, and trams. Should you get caught by a transit inspector during a spot check, you will be fined 40€ to 60€. However, there are often two control gates in other European countries, such as in Paris, plus frequent spot checks by transit inspectors, such as in Barcelona, at the exits trying to catch violators who jump the gates and/or turn-styles. As you can imagine, the amount or lack of trust, as the case may be, transcends into other parts of daily life, including work and our attitudes towards colleagues, supervisors, subordinates, and other internal and external stakeholders.

National and Cultural Differences in Project Management

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