International Project Management: 3 Ways to Improve Your Relationships with Foreign Governments…And Maybe Domestic Ones Too.

International Project Management“Why not??” I yelled at the customs agent in the airport. “Sir, you don’t have the right paperwork to get in our country with all those cameras” he responded while distracted by the long line of arriving passengers behind me. “We do!” I replied, “We have a letter from a local organization asking us to run a digital arts program for children.” He looked at the line once more and flatly responded, “That’s not enough. You need a letter from the Ministry of Tourism, the Ministry of Women and Children, and the Ministry of Education.” How were we to know that we needed letters from three different Ministries? And how were we supposed to get those letters?

The challenges of working with government bureaucracy are not new. Everything is globalized and many projects are expanding across borders. Governments around the world can be your best friend or greatest frustration. Bureaucracy does not have to be a roadblock. Here are 3 ways to improve your chances of building successful relationships with governments around the world.

1. Investigate
As the project manager, it is your responsibility to research any potential for interactions with governmental organizations. This includes various agencies, ministries, or departments at the national, regional and local levels. Determine which you might need to collaborate with and figure out their current agendas. Be rigorous. It’s better to over-prepare and research more than you need to. Identify overlapping goals your project might have with the agencies.

My customs predicament in the opening paragraph occurred in an East African country, although it could have occurred anywhere. After our equipment was denied entry for the digital arts project, we did some hasty research into the national government, and identified a recent initiative that the Ministry of Education had prioritized. They were tasked to create programs that introduced new technologies to underserved youth. It was a perfect fit.

2. Create win-win scenarios
We figured if we could get the Ministry of Education excited about our digital arts program, they would convince the other two Ministries to cooperate. We met with a few officials, told them about our programs and how our equipment was stuck in customs. Their response was less than positive. We then explained how our programs would fit perfectly with their recent initiative and how there would be positive press surrounding the program. We also offered to incorporate a few Ministry of Education employees for professional development. It worked. They agreed to support our program. The seemingly insurmountable roadblocks disappeared.

Creating a win-win scenario isn’t always easy. It can require relentless exploration, adaptation, and creative thinking. The good thing about win-win scenarios is that once identified, they usually have a positive domino effect. In this case, the other two Ministries gave their approval following the lead of the Ministry of Education. We had a successful program and the government was able to meet their initiative goals and look good in the process.

3. Communicate
An old public speaking adage says, “Tell them what you’re going to tell them. Tell them. Then tell them what you told them.” In my experience most governments around the world can be satisfied when they are kept up to date, but are not happy when information they weren’t expecting surprises them. This can vary, of course, depending on what the goals of your project are. If one of your goals is to secure their cooperation, constant communication is key. Investigate what part of the government you might be interacting with. Include them in the planning as much as possible. Give them constant updates. Report back to them any chance you get.

These three ways to improve your relationship with governments are not fail-safe. There are many confounders that can complicate things in many ways. Depending on your location, governments can be unpredictable and you may want to actually avoid as much contact as possible. But when you are managing a project that necessitates government collaboration, investigation, win-win scenarios and communications will go a long way to helping you succeed.

For more on working with foreign governments:
Risks associated with conducting business abroad
How to complete a construction project internationally – Not specifically for project managers, but the concepts are similar