Project Management

The Power of Diverse Project Teams

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By Yasmina Khelifi, PMP, PMI-ACP

I first experienced the transformational impact of diversity during a six-month internship in Japan in 2000. The experience made me question every action and learned behavior I had previously made without a thought: how to greet people, how to make a request, how to thank others, how to celebrate, how to apologize and, more importantly, how to collaborate. It opened the door to a stunning new world.

Since then, I’ve reveled in managing projects in an international environment. Diversity on project teams is an invaluable source of innovation and growth for individuals—as well as for projects.

Personal Benefits of Diversity

Throughout my career, I’ve been afforded the opportunity to work in diverse and inclusive environments. And I've learned so much as a result.

First, these experiences taught me humility: By delivering projects in the Middle East and Africa (MEA), I’ve worked with people who speak multiple languages and learned how to collaborate with people from different cultures, ethnicities and backgrounds. These experiences also helped me question the status quo: For example, in my technical field in France, few of my colleagues are female, while most of my Chinese colleagues are female engineers.

My sense of empathy was reinforced: Technical or political constraints can disrupt projects, but despite it all, the teams worked hard to meet their goals. These experiences also ignited my curiosity and encouraged me to broaden my views. I learned to ask open-ended (non-judgmental) questions and to fight against biases.

Surprisingly, interacting with people in other cultural environments also pushed me to better understand my own culture and myself. This introspective journey forced me to step back and grow into a more dynamic, informed and empathetic project leader.

Project Benefits of Diversity

Diversity isn’t just about ethnic or cultural differences—it also means embracing people with varying ages, gender identities, professional backgrounds and levels of experience.

For example, when I first began to work as a project manager, I had a team member close to retirement. His role was instrumental in the team: He calmly listened to our issues and acted like a mentor, sharing his experiences to help guide our decisions.

Conversely, I wanted to improve a project status, but I did not know how. I talked to a younger colleague, and he offered to review it. I surprisingly discovered he was proficient in designing documents.

A few years ago, I worked on a very diverse team, as far as background and experiences are concerned. They were not engineers; some had marketing backgrounds, others were not college graduates, one studied history and managed the supply chain.

During our working sessions, we often strongly disagreed and faced various misunderstandings. But I cherish these projects, because we worked collaboratively to reach a compromise, despite our differences. It also fostered a feeling of belonging and true team collaboration.

Diverse project teams force you to explore and adopt new ways of working. When I began to work in MEA, I discovered new digital communication tools that allowed me to forge a bond with my team and deliver project information to remote team members.

Being inclusive brings fresh perspectives that enhance creativity and spark innovation. It also keeps your project team from falling into a rut of the same old ideas and solutions.

Don’t Fall into the Diversity Trap

Let’s be clear about the diversity business case. Hiring someone only for the sake of diversity is counterproductive.

When I was hired as a SIM Delivery Manager for MEA, a new colleague assumed it was because I speak Arabic. Unbeknownst to them, I cannot speak Arabic. But I do understand project management. Reducing my experiences and knowledge to a cultural fit was demeaning and hurtful.

Undoubtedly, knowing a language and a culture helps to build trusting relationships and offers a competitive edge in our global environment. But this cannot make up for a lack of project management skills.

Inclusion must have a rational and objective basis:

  • What will the project team gain?
  • How will it bring outstanding outcomes to the project?
  • What will the new hire gain?

The desire to boost public image or sway public opinion to appear open-minded and tolerant will not add value. Instead, work to embrace qualified individuals who bring something fresh to your team.

How do you foster and celebrate diversity within your project team?

Posted by Yasmina Khelifi on: July 15, 2020 01:45 AM | Permalink

Comments (24)

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This is truly an informative article. I agree that social-cultural intelligence is an important aspect of being emotionally intelligent and successful in working a diverse project team. A project manager does not know everything. He needs to recognize that every team member is a living library of some sort; so, he must be willing to learn from what each team member has got to contribute for the success of the project he is managing. If he gives team members unprejudiced recognition, show genuine appreciation, give sincere commendation and lovingly offer constructive counsel when required, a project manager will succeed in forging a sense of solidarity among team members and collaboration becomes easier to realize. Such servant-leadership disposition and dealings will win a project manager the confidence of his team, snowball respectful and trusting communication, making it easy to remove progress blockers and foster a win-win spirit in the team. Therefore, a project manager should be a very open-minded, objective, people-oriented leader. When he takes good care of his team, the team takes care of the project and in that case, project success is predictably guaranteed. Thank you very much Yasmina for sharing your practical experiences and balanced viewpoints on the subject matter with us.

Hi Adedeji, thank you very much for your long and very interesting insights! Stay safe! Yasmina

Hi Rami, thank you for your feedback. Stay safe, Yasmina

Very interesting, thanks for sharing.

Hi Eduin thank you very much for your time and feedback. Stay safe! Yasmina

Great job!! This article shows the importance to work and deal with intercultural topics and diversity in the project team.

Hi Ronaldo, thank you very much for your great feedback. Stay safe, Yasmina

Thanks for your sharing

Hi Yasmine,
thanks for sharing. As the song goes "what a difference a little difference would make".

A very powerful article you wrote Yasmina! I’m glad to be part of this cultural circle and relate to your thoughts above. I’m also glad that you have differentiated the True definition of diversity as it is misunderstood in some businesses in the MEA to only a person’s nationality. I believe diversity should be looked at form a person’s experience and knowledge more than where he/she comes from. Truly powerful! Thank you for inspiring our thoughts with your article.

Hi Maysa, thank you so much for your insightful feedback! It made my day. Take care, Yasmina

Hi Alan, thnak you for your time and interesting singing comment! Stay safe, Yasmina

Hi Jean-Claude, thank you for your feedback!Stay safe, Yasmina

'Let’s be clear about the diversity business case. Hiring someone only for the sake of diversity is counterproductive' very true. because many organisations in Australia tends to higher someone to manage diversity and does not resolve diversity issue. Diversity is easily spoken but in reality it is much of being inclusive of skills, knowledge, gender, culture, political believe, culture including culture and much differences of one person to the other.
I tend start from the basic, with cooperation, coordination and collaboration of individuals who are outside the parameters of us, yet include and respect how their differences can enhance the betterment of common objective/s or purpose.

Thanks for this informative article!

Hi Vanaja, thank you for your insightful comments! Stay safe, Yasmina

Hi Maureen, thank you for your feedback. Stay safe, Yasmsina

Loved the article! Very thoughtful, lots of personal, practical experiences. Thanks for sharing - all the best!

Many thanks for sharing your experience, I enjoyed your illustrations via the examples highlighted.

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