March 15, 2023

Challenges of managing multicultural projects

Intercultural Management

How to create an effective project culture? Robert de Quelen shares with us the experience of a large French bank which inspired a chapter in his book on project management in a multicultural environment.

Challenges of managing multicultural projects

The project, revealing leadership

According to the Harvard Business Review, which dedicated a special issue to this subject, projects are becoming the preferred mode of operation for business transformation. Projects channel energies, mobilize and organize resources to transform intentions into concrete, measurable objectives, objectives into actions, and actions into results. The specific project governance mode is perfectly suited to the need to cross internal and external organizational boundaries.

Finally, working in project mode acts as a leadership indicatorfor many people who do not feel comfortable in traditional hierarchies, especially when these are based on status and relationships rather than on the ability to deliver. results.

Creating value through cultural diversity

When these projects take place in an intercultural environment, which is increasingly the case, the women and men responsible for them find themselves confronted with additional levels of complexity for which they are not always prepared.

Project managers readily exchange bitter anecdotes about Chinese or Indians who hesitate to make an important decision without referring it to their superiors. Others recall, with a sigh, the British whose language is so ambiguous that it is not clear what they are really committed to, the "rigid" Germans and the Americans who do not take the time to establish relationships of trust. . But beyond these stereotypes, the exciting challenge is to develop a detailed understanding of the infinite diversity of cultures- national or professional - and to create value for the projectwithout destroying it. Errors of judgment and clumsiness could indeed prove fatal.

The first skill to develop, in terms of intercultural projects, is therefore the ability to decipher and model one's environment in all its dimensions: cultural, but also political, economic, societal and professional, to correctly assess and prioritize risks.

Learn to manage intercultural risks

A few years ago, I had the opportunity to work on this subject with a group of project directors in a large French bank.

At first, they were taken aback by the number of dimensions to take into account to manage intercultural risks. Decision-making, hierarchical and transversal communication, management of resources and subcontractors constituted all vulnerabilities aggravating the unpredictability and complexity of the management of their projects.

During a workshop, however, they realized that they could rely on traditional project management methods to identify, rationalize, prioritize these risks and anticipate the necessary mitigation measures. They had also become aware of the way in which their own way of communicating, insufficiently explicit, created ambiguity and therefore uncertainty for their colleagues and correspondents from other cultures.

Some of their decisions, particularly technical or budgetary, could appear arbitrary because they had not been sufficiently explained. Thus, the absolute priority that they had to give to the requests of the European Central Bank was so obvious to them that they forgot to inform their African or Asian correspondents. In this case, regulatory logic systematically prevailed over all other considerations, including financial ones. Once understood and integrated by the entire team, this principle became a factor of predictability rather than a constraint.

Define a common repository

Throughout the discussions, these project directors understood the importance of establishing a common regulatory, technical and even behavioral framework. This framework, enriched or made more flexible with the help of suggestions from their international colleagues, quickly became an aid, and one of the founding ingredients of a project culture sharedbetween all stakeholders. In the event of disagreement, this common framework made it possible to find compromises without having to resort to the respective hierarchies, and therefore to save time while saving each other's face.

One of these project directors then realized that it was possible to reduce tensions by separating discussionsdedicated to operational subjects from those concerning the reference framework (process, decision-making criteria and methods, arbitrations). Communication between all stakeholders became much factual and above all more fluid, freed from unsaid words and apprehensions, power relations and respective fears. If the disagreements originated from divergent points of view or interests, they were most of the time resolved by applying the processes provided for this purpose. But if they came from an ambiguous or poorly defined rule, likely to create other difficulties in the future, a governance meeting was organized, regardless of operational issues. These “good practices” had little by little contributed to establishing a climate of trustcapable of transcending cultural differences and dispelling misunderstandings.

Of course, the French remained French, the Indians Indians, the Cameroonians Cameroonians and the Czechs Czechs. Regularly, behaviors inspired by their respective cultures inserted small bugs into the project software. But the differences could now be considered in relation to the common center of gravity: the mission, and not by comparing the respective merits of the French, Indian, Cameroonian or Czech approach.

In an era marked by great sensitivity to post-colonial issues, the discovery that it was possible to create a common, inclusive project culture, transcending everyone's cultureswithout denying their singularities, represented a major asset.

It is experiences like this that inspired “Alice in the Land of Projects”, a book on project management in an intercultural environment that I had the pleasure of co-editing with David Colliquet, a French engineer based in Germany.

Written in the form of a story, the book traces the experience of a French project director in charge of launching a satellite with the help of teams based in various European countries. Each of the chapters is followed by a technical sheet describing a transposable “good practice”. The whole describes a real intercultural leadership development journey, implementing triple cultural, managerial and behavioral agility.

Mastering the “fourth dimension” of projects (with time, budget and specifications) represents a real career accelerator. Rather than wanting to simplify complexity, we set ourselves the goal of making it readable, thereby hoping to do useful work.

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