Putting the PMBOK® Guide in a Cultural Context

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A Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK® Guide) is developed by hundreds of volunteers to represent generally accepted good practices in project management. But is this enough?

There are already extensions to the PMBOK®Guide for the construction industry and government that expand the basic framework to meet the needs of these sectors. Is there a need for extensions to meet the needs of different cultures?

The value of diversity and the challenges of managing culturally diverse teams was the focus of Tom Sullivan's feature article "Common Ground" in the October issue of PM Network®. My column in the November edition of PM Network, "Culture Shock," highlights some contractual issues that impacted a major mine development. As projects and teams become more global, managing appropriately within and across cultural boundaries is a key project management skill.

Although there's no right or wrong in culture, different societies resolve challenges in different ways and use very different structures to communicate information within businesses and projects.

As PMI moves toward the start of the next PMBOK® Guide update project, I would like to take the opportunity to discuss issues and challenges of managing projects in a cultural context. Do we need cultural extensions to the PMBOK® Guide or is there more value in retaining it as a core definition of good practices that apply worldwide?

I've had my say in PM Network, now it's your turn to weigh in. Over to you!
Posted by Lynda Bourne on: November 04, 2009 03:54 PM | Permalink


Devesh Dayal
I think the idea of introducing culture is interesting. The benefit of the PMI standards is that it offers a standard framework that promotes the creation of a common understanding of basic project management concepts across diverse industries and cultures. At the same time it allows some flexibility in terms of how these concepts or principles are applied to various industries or cultures. The PMBOK Guide actually helps in cutting across cultural boundaries and creating one language that is understood around the world. Hence, the deliberate introduction of culture would be counter productive.

Dr. Steve Leybourne
I think you have a very good point here.

I suspect that many of us who research into aspects of PM have thought for some time that the PMBOK is very reliant on tools and methods, and doesn't give sufficient coverage to the"'softer" skills of PM.

Far be it from me to denigrate or marginalize Gantt Charts, WBS, earned value analysis, and the many other tools that PMs use, but for many of us, it is people who resolve complexity and ambiguity on projects and programs of work, and it is people who deliver tasks and activities for the project or program manager.

This means that the ability to communicate effectively is the most important skill that a PM has, and the way that communication, and indeed most of the "softer" skills of PM, are used/delivered will vary according to the cultural context and the particular working and learning styles of different members of the project team.

PMBOK 4 does not adequately reflect this, but maybe PMBOK 5 should ...

Rene Vergara
This is a very interesting topic for me, as I am involved in project management in South America.

Implementing the PMBOK is difficult in this environment, as there is a deeply rooted under-appreciation for planning, in all areas. "Why plan, when you can do?"

For example, it is rare to see people creating a retirement fund, schools planning ahead to stay current with technological development, governments anticipating an energy crisis, etc.

The idea of creating a cultural extension of the PMBOK would be to create a guide to manage a project in this environment, without changing it?

Personally, I think a guide on how to instill the value of planning in this environment would be far more helpful, as it would reduce effort on future projects, rather than just dealing with the environment in every single project.

Robert Higgins
I believe we should have only one PMBOK® Guide. The PMBOK should be clear, discreet and hard like a “Diamond of Knowledge." Good managers use the PMBOK to set a baseline. Great managers discover and leverage the strengths of multinational teams by combining different approaches.

I have experience working in China, Japan and the United States. My opinion is that we don’t need to fracture the PMBOK. The greatest challenge is to refine the PMBOK kernel of knowledge by clarifying and simplifying. Like a diamond the PMBOK needs to be discreet, clear and hard. A robust clarified PMBOK can be translated easier. Clear ideas spread naturally by communication; Culture is a shared system of beliefs or values. The global success of the PMBOK is a testament to the fact that it provides a valuable framework for diverse multinational projects to deliver value.

The PMBOK as a kernel of knowledge provides the community or the “Culture of Project Managersâ€쳌 a baseline. This culture can branch and diverge naturally; by the publishing of books, papers, blogs, short messages, pair work, seminars and discussions. This type of distributive knowledge is rapidly increasing.

Cultural Anthropology already has volumes of bodies of work that can be applied directly to global project management. For example research by Hofstede, Kluckhohn, Strodtbeck, and Trompenaars. But, to gain competency in the other dimensions of culture we really have to experience it by learning the language, and living in the culture. Cultural awareness and fluency are the best ways to influence people.

Good project managers use the baseline Culture of Project Management to create common ground in a multi-national teams. Great project managers leverage the strengths of multi-national teams by combining different approaches. Mastering these soft skills is elementary PMBOK “discover, classify and rankâ€쳌.

Project managers need to be genuinely interested in discovering about the cultures of the people in our projects. We need to classify their strengths such as “Conflict Management Techniquesâ€쳌. For example "nemawashi" which can be thought of as “dealing under the tableâ€쳌 western or as a type of smoothing “finding the root of the problem and using some Delphi technique to circulate around the stakeholders to build consensusâ€쳌 eastern. Ranking the skill. For example in the case of dealing with a senior stakeholder "nemawashi" may be preferable. But for dealing with subordinates using a direct decision approach may be harsh but tolerable. It is subjective.

Having one robust and clear PMBOK is the greatest strength for the global project management culture. Cultural Anthropology is a vast peer reviewed scientific discipline. Project managers can access the relevant distributive knowledge. Robert Higgins recommends that the Project Management Institute partners with the relevant fields of Cultural Anthropology to facilitate our connections to this already established research.

As the global village of project managers’ increase, PMI should take the High Path and supports Cultural Anthropology to facilitate the creation of and access to Cultural Anthropological Project Management Research. PMI can provide education and coaching on how to conduct “research projectsâ€쳌. In addition, every member has a responsibility to contribute to the body of knowledge. For example; we can participate in surveys or facilitate shadowing by researchers to contribute to this body.

Thomas Diethelm
The main differences and the possible adaptation of the project management and communication style should be included. There is (as mentioned) not good or bad. It's important to know the facts. In several international projects my teams had to share the differences by country/culture. This brought some helpful insight for future teamwork.

Dave Violette
Interesting premise. Having worked with the update teams for several editions of the PMBOK(R) Guide, I must say I have trouble envisioning how such an extension would manifest itself. The PMBOK(R) Guide already stresses that the project team needs to factor cultural aspects into their overall project plan - albeit I would guess not to the extent that you feel is needed.

Cultural diversity is just that, diverse. I'm not sure how one would capture and gain consensus around what changes or added points of emphasis one would want to see based on culture. With the very wide variations in cultural norms across the spectrum of project environments, how would one capture or segment those norms? I do not believe one could effectively segment out various cultural norms (other than at the highest, most generalized levels) by geographic region. I'd venture to say that most attempts to capture accepted practices along a cultural spectrum would either have to fall into very broad generalizations, which by the very nature of being broad generalizations would lose some of their clarity. Or, if you attempted to break these down into more discrete cultural norms, would fail to gain sufficient consensus to pass muster as generally accepted.

So rather than a PMBOK(R) Guide - Cultural Extension, I believe a better approach would be to expand the discussion on how cultural diversity impacts upon those processes already outlined in the PMBOK(R) Guide.

Dave V.

Interesting idea, Lynda. How should we define culture or society? How widespread do you think your concern might be? Could or should this issue be addressed outside of the "PMI standards" format?

Gabino Carballo
Hi Lynda,

Good point and worth exploring. I raised a similar one at a meeting at the PMI Chapter in Barcelona: why are certain cultures more "resistant" to project management than others?

The PMBOK sets out a fantastic framework, but its actual application in the Mediterranean shores may challenge more than one skilled project manager.

The truth is that PMs may succeed in implementing their strategies in relatively homogeneous environments, such as multinational companies. Yet, attempting to apply systematic project management methodologies in less structured environments and cultures can cause more than one headache.

For example this tip comes from a reputable local PM: "For stakeholder management do not bother with taking forms to people and expecting them to answer questions. Keep them at home or in the office and fill them yourself, after you have taken people out to lunch. If possible, make it a long lunch, with lots of wine. There, they will tell you everything, who is whom, who is seeing whom and who you ought to watch out for. Just remember not to drink as much as they do!"

Glass of Rioja, anyone?

Max Walker
While I am relatively new the PMBOK (newly certified PMP this year), I'm not keen on trying to "fork" the PMBOK to different cultural identities. I agree with earlier comments that it should stand as a single, baseline kernel of knowledge that talented PMs can then apply to their cultural context. For example, the need to identify Stakeholders and their impact on the project is universal; the means to do that vary not only by geographic culture, but also by organizational culture. In my organization, a signed "Charter" is unheard of, but we PMs know how to identify the Charter and confirm it with confidence within our organizational culture. We may find it helpful to use an approach that is used by another standard that I use in my work: Service Strategies' (Twitter: @SvcStrategies, or http://www.servicestrategies.com) Support Capabilities and Performance (SCP) standard for technical support organizations. In the SCP standard, the basic "best practice" principle and standard is explained, then examples of best practices are provided. These examples come from the auditors' experiences and insights across multiple organizations in multiple verticals. It is a much-valued part of the SCP standard among SCP community members and certified organizations. This approach separates the requirement (the "What") from the varied approaches to implement that principle. If we want to include more cultural insight in the PMBOK Guide, separating these varied approaches from the core kernel of knowledge within the PMBOK Guide may be an effective way to do it without forking the PMBOK Guide. Further, by keeping it all in the single standard, we may help to expand the cultural understanding and effectiveness of many more PMs than we could by forking the PMBOK Guide.

Gabino Carballo
After reading some of the various comments here, it may well be the case that the [PMBOK® Guide] simply needs to address the fact that issues such as cost, time, quality and stakeholder management vary considerably in importance between cultures.

There are situations where planning is deemed with suspicion simply because the past has shown that it is an effort that will inevitably undermined by political instability, economic failure, war, or any other equally challenging event. If the [PMBOK® Guide] manages to explain the RELATIVE value attached to the knowledge it contains in relation to certain cultures, it could be a great step forward in facilitating its assimilation into a variety of cultural contexts.

There needs to be a clear distinction made on wants versus need as you pointed out with architectural changes. A strong change management process is a requirement for PMs to implement.

Unfortunately, end-users start to hate hearing change request and extra costs, something that invariably happens, the more complex the project.

Are large projects more likely to fail? Yes. Statistically researched, large projects failed often (as did projects in general).

One way to circumvent a project failure is to break it down into parts. Project discovery and high level requirements gathering are a good starting point. Development and implementation can come later (in the 2nd phase).

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