You’ve been hired as a project manager for an international project. The last few weeks have been spent coordinating with the client. After multiple Skype meetings, hundreds of emails, and fifteen versions of a budget, everything seems ready. Then you step off the plane in a new country and realize everything feels different.
Project management in your own country is difficult enough. Add in a new language and a cultural divide and things can get complicated. Below is a non-exhaustive list of seven skills I have learned to be essential when managing a cross-cultural project.
1. Simplify your language
“That action item has been 86’d because it lacked conceptual integrity and created scope creep. It’s time for a Come to Jesus meeting so we can loop everyone in.” Does this sentence make sense to you? Would it make sense to your non-PM friends? In every professional field, unique vernacular is created in order to explain complex ideas. Project management is no exception. We use words or phrases that we don’t even realize are culturally specific. These words or phrases will become obvious when working in international environments. You will recognize them by the resulting blank stares or glassy eyes.
The level of simplicity needed will depend on where you are working, but rest assured that it’s possible to translate complex concepts. Consider the following: “We are not going to act on that item because it is not consistent with our main project goals. We need to have an important meeting to discuss this further so we are all together as a team.”
2. Identify a cultural translator
In every situation, there are cultural translators – different than a language translator. They can be one person or multiple people. It’s not a formal title. They are the people that will help you understand your new environment. Sometimes they have lived in your home country and are familiar with your culture. Other times, they simply speak your language. Whatever the case, they can be immeasurably helpful in navigating the new culture. Make friends with them.
3. Be patient
You’ve had a long day full of miscommunications and misunderstandings. It feels as if everyone is actually trying to make the project fall behind schedule. You’ve had to explain yourself repeatedly. No one is responding to your emails or calls.
Sound familiar? Those struggles are common regardless of where you are managing a project. Now add the potential for linguistic and cultural misunderstandings and things can get crazy. The only path to success is to be patient with yourself and with others. Breathe. Keep trying.
4. Choose your battles
There will be a different rhythm to life when you are working in a new country. Sometimes it will be easy, while other times it will feel as if everything is opposite of what it “should be.” Learn to identify which battles are necessary to fight for the sake of the project, and which ones are just differences in culture.
Time management can be a big challenge. I was recently managing a research project in Indonesia. We had five days to train 30 researchers on everything they needed to know about how to conduct a study. The trainings started at 8 AM and finished at 5 PM. The first day, no one showed up until 10 AM. Later that same day a few team members excused themselves mid-session. I was about to speak-up until I learned from my cultural translator that they needed to leave for prayers as most of the team members were practicing Muslims. He let me know that it was ok to fight the battle of requesting an on-time start to the day, but it would be disrespectful to request that people not leave for prayers during the training.
Every country has a different version of what professional socializing looks like. Attempt to engage your colleagues in a culturally appropriate manner, and be observant of how team members relate to each other. Are there any greetings or words I can learn in the local language? What level of personal life do they discuss at work? There are many places in the world where it is common to be asked if you are married, if you have children, and what religion you practice even before starting to work together. Learn how to engage a team member in a way that is comfortable to them. It will go a long way in creating a productive working environment.
6. Be curious and creative
Approach each situation with curiosity and creativity – it will enhance the skills mentioned so far. Simplifying concepts requires both an inward and outward-focused curiosity. Is what I’m saying understandable? Am I making sense to everyone? Sometimes it’s hard to identify a good cultural translator. Be creative. I’ve found that taxi drivers or hotel concierges can be incredibly helpful. Choosing your battles wisely requires you to wonder about what is cultural and what is not throughout each day. Be imaginative in your patience. It can take some creative brainpower to understand cultural differences. And be curious about how your international colleagues interact with each other.
It’s like oil for your engine. The universal language of laughter makes everything run smoother.
For more on international project management: