Culture-Driven Complexity

Peter Thomas’s recent comment (here) and his post on developing an international BI strategy (here), reminded me that I had forgotten to post on some interesting dimensions of project and project complexity.  Or at least they’re interesting to me…

This PDF outlines some of the complexity that culture introduces to managing global projects.   It’s nothing revolutionary, but I’ve always liked two aspects of these slides:

  1. One slide outlines the cultural dilemnas well: “How does an India-based SAP project manager talk to a Manhattan-based marketing analyst?”
  2. Another reminds us that we need to remember that we’re individuals, not stereotypes… and yes, I’m the Paul R. on that slide.

PM Quote of the Day — Francis Bacon

A prudent question is one-half of wisdom.

“Fools rush in” should be the motto for anyone leading a global, matrixed, or virtual team.  While many projects and firms are going to English as a common language, many colleagues simply won’t have the background to know how to express nuances or translate cognates.  Sometimes the results are funny — in Singapore, I had a French counterpart spend ten minutes grilling me about the meaning and derivation of middlebrow

Too often, however, the results are time consuming at best and disastrous at worst.  Having a sense for when a colleague is struggling to express an idea is essential for cross-cultural communication.  One of the benefits of learning a foreign language as a youth is a sensitivity to translation problems, especially when trying to express complex ideas.  Here are three approaches that have worked for me:

  1. Now, when my counterparts say something that sounds “off” or awkward, I ask a clarifying question about the phrase or word — often they’re trying to translate an idiom from their native tongue. 
  2. If a clarifying question doesn’t work, then I try to re-state their position myself and highlight where I am unclear about their intent. 
  3. Finally, sometimes the misunderstanding is driven by a literal translation.  I’ll ask straight out — How do you say “fill in English word in question”? — in their native language.
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