Voices on Project Management

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Voices on Project Management offers insights, tips, advice and personal stories from project managers in different regions and industries. The goal is to get you thinking, and spark a discussion. So, if you read something that you agree with - or even disagree with - leave a comment.

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Categories: Human Aspects of PM, Teams

Recently, I re-watched Borat during a long holiday weekend. Though it's a comedy, I think there are important lessons to be learned from its essence, which is an exploration of behavior: how a foreigner's actions — the norm in his or her culture — may seem offensive to another country's native population. In the film, Borat, a fictional journalist from Kazakhstan, travels to the U.S. and makes interviewees uncomfortable with his behavior. You may have had a similar experience when you started working in a multicultural project environment.

The film showed several examples of issues project managers may have experienced in such an environment. From those, I have noticed the following two cause the most discomfort among project team members:

Proxemics

U.S. anthropologist Edward T. Hall invented this term to refer to our personal space. Depending on an individual's culture, the amount of acceptable space around a person varies according to subtle rules. 

In the film, Borat gives a great demonstration of invasion of personal space. He starts greeting New Yorkers on the street with a handshake and a kiss on each cheek. Most of the people react adversely. Some even threaten him. 

Team members in a multicultural project environment may experience similar aversion, particularly during the forming stage. I remember during a kickoff meeting in Argentina with team members from Argentina, Uruguay and the U.S., the Argentine host introduced himself with a handshake and a kiss on the cheek. He started with the Uruguayans, who have a similar greeting. When the host got to the first U.S. team member, he stepped back, extended his arm as far as he could and said, "A handshake is OK for me." In situations like this, warn your team members beforehand that there might be cultural differences, and urge them to be upfront with their preferences while respecting others' norms.

Stereotyping

In my experience, stereotyping is the main source of conflicts in a multicultural project environment. In the film, Borat stops at a rodeo dressed as a cowboy to interview a rodeo owner. Because Borat has a large mustache, the owner assumes he's from the Middle East. The owner recommends Borat shave his mustache so he can look "more Italian," which may help him fit in better.

If not managed well, stereotyping may become a barrier and impact the project work. I recently witnessed this during a project that included implementations in Latin America. One of my European colleagues was very vocal about the stereotyped unpunctuality of Latin Americans, recommending strict controls be placed to avoid any schedule slip. I had a private discussion with him to find the source of his concern. It turned out that he had not had previous experience working with a Latin American team, and he was operating on a stereotype. I asked him to give the team members a chance to prove themselves before he set any controls. In the end, his perceptions were unfounded — the team members worked as expected and met schedule requirements without the need for controls.

As projects become more global, project managers need to understand cultural complexities that lie below surface behaviors. I would advise using a holistic approach to find out more about people's cultural values and beliefs. 

Have you learned cultural lessons to apply on your project team from unconventional sources? 

Posted by Conrado Morlan on: September 19, 2013 05:02 PM | Permalink | Comments (0)

Real Results From a Dinner Joke

Who said managing projects would be a bed of roses? You have probably experienced the same hardships I have on a few projects, especially if you manage multicultural distributed teams.

Well, the global project I was leading was no exception. We had hit some bumps in the road, but finally found ourselves in an in-person project status meeting in a major city in the United States where the organization was headquartered. 

Brought together were distributed team members from the United States, Latin America and Germany. In the meeting, we all agreed we were in the same boat, but there were still many disagreements and moments of finger pointing. By the end of the day, with no positive outcome in sight, we were tired, frustrated and hungry. The last thing we wanted to do was to see each other that evening, but we still decided to have dinner together for lack of other plans. 

A large circular table held our party of 10. While we read the menus, the server asked us what we would like to drink, and that's when the magic started. 

The server said: "I hear different accents. Are you pilots?" To which I responded no, and then jokingly added: "We are Facebook friends from different parts of the world and decided to pick a place to have dinner and meet in person." My colleagues heard the joke and followed along. 

Then, the server asked us where we came from and about our interests. She became our group moderator. Every time she came to the table, she asked questions, which we answered according to our different cultures and life experiences.

We realized we shared many things in common -- and little by little, we became acquaintances on a personal level. This dinner that almost everyone was trying to avoid helped us connect. 

The next day at the office, even though we were facing the same project hardships, our attitudes had changed. We worked together to define an action plan to bring the project back on track. We also agreed to stay on site for the next two weeks to implement the plan. 

And during our free time, we kept bonding by participating in shared interests. For example, those who were runners ran together in the morning, while others who were auto-racing fans visited a go-kart track near our hotel. At night, the wine lovers taught us about vintages over dinner.

How do you foster bonds with distributed multicultural teams? What team-building exercise has yielded good results? 

Share your thoughts below along with your Twitter handle, and Voices on Project Management will publish the best response as a blog post.

Posted by Conrado Morlan on: June 21, 2013 09:58 AM | Permalink | Comments (1)

Culture Shocked Into Action

During my project management career, I have experienced many culture shocks. But the one that changed my life happened when I joined a global corporation in Mexico in the mid-1980s.

I was a recent graduate and had just finished my internship with this organization when I got a job offer. During immersion training, all the new hires visited the boardroom, lined with awards and honors that the Mexican branch had won in the past. Most impressive was the mahogany table, where many major deals went down. It was cared for like a museum piece.

After several months, I adjusted to the corporate world with the help of a great manager and mentor. Soon enough, prep work started for the quarterly review meeting, when executives visited our office from the company's U.S. headquarters. To my surprise, my manager included me in the prep team, which meant I would be a presenter.

When the big day came, I arrived at the boardroom a few minutes beforehand to ensure everything was in order for my first presentation to senior executives.

There, I found one of the visiting top executives -- with both feet up on the mahogany table. When the meeting began, we commenced introductions. The visiting executives threw their business cards across the table as a casino croupier would, while my Mexican colleagues and I handed our business cards to them. 

The meeting progressed, and when the time came for one of the visiting executives to present, he tossed a copy of a handout not only to me, but also to the general manager of the Mexican branch.

I was in total shock. I wondered, how could this be happening? They were high-level executives, and their lack of good manners -- by my standards -- took me by surprise. I also felt frustrated. This was not interaction I had hoped for with headquarter executives.

It took me some time to digest the experience. But by the next quarterly review, I was ready to take action. I tossed my business card at each of the U.S. executives during the introductions. Before my presentation, I slid handouts across the table at them but handed them to my Mexican colleagues. My actions raised a few eyebrows among the latter.

By the end of the meeting, the executive I saw with his feet up on the table months prior asked me to stay in the room. I expected to be reprimanded, or even fired. But he said: "Thanks, Conrado. Your actions during the meeting made me realize that business behaviors need to be adjusted according to location. What may be okay in my country may not be okay in yours. You taught me a great lesson. Employees like you make this a great company."

That was the "wow" moment that had an impact on the rest of my professional life. I'm not recommending such drastic actions, but I felt strongly enough about my experience to take the risk. The moral of my story: Culture shock does not have to be a negative or incapacitating. I used my experience as a source of motivation, introspection and change. 

It led me to a lifetime of researching organizational and national cultures and sharing my experiences of working with multicultural and multigenerational teams.

As a project manager, how have you recovered from culture shock and turned it an opportunity for professional growth? 

Share your thoughts below along with your Twitter handle, and Voices on Project Management will publish the best response as a blog post.
Posted by Conrado Morlan on: May 24, 2013 09:37 AM | Permalink | Comments (3)

Video Series: Women in Project Management, Part Three

Voices on Project Management presents a six-part interview with Beth Partleton, PMP, PMI Board of Directors, on "Women in Project Management."

In week one, Beth shared her road to project management and how she has seen project management evolve from a male-dominated profession to an excellent career opportunity for both men and women. 

In week two, Beth shared the role mentors can play in a project manager's career and what lessons she learned from them about effective team interaction.  

In week three, Beth addresses the opportunities and challenges for women to take on leadership roles in project management. For example, did you know research indicates that more successful companies have at least one woman on their board of directors? In your organization, have you noticed an increase in women in leadership roles?
Posted by Administrator on: February 11, 2013 09:31 AM | Permalink | Comments (0)

Video Series: Women in Project Management, Part One

Categories: Human Aspects of PM

Voices on Project Management presents a six-part interview with Beth Partleton, PMP, PMI Board of Directors, on "Women in Project Management."

Beth's background spans three decades of project, portfolio and risk management, particularly in the area of capital projects. She headed Miller Brewing Company's PMO and served as senior project manager and functional project manager of architecture and civil engineering. She has been a certified Project Management Professional (PMP)® since 1991.

Beth is a strong advocate for the value of the project management profession not only for organizations but also for practitioners. "Women in Project Management" provides her perspective on how women are closing the gap in traditionally male-dominated fields.  

In part one, Beth shares her road to project management; her thoughts on the misconception that project management is a male-dominated profession; and the strides organizations have made in including women on project management teams as well as some candid observations on what still needs to be done.

Posted by Administrator on: January 24, 2013 01:43 PM | Permalink | Comments (2)
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