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Intercultural Project Management


Intercultural Communication is a topic that is familiar to managers working in international contexts. There have been many courses and seminar offerings explaining the theory of intercultural communication and the differences in values, attitudes, and beliefs. It is extremely critical to understand different cultural perspectives as human beings have been socialized, affected, and programmed by the standards set by the societies in which they live. Geert Hofstede describes culture as “the software of the mind”, how we have been programmed to feel, think, and behave. (1998)  However, there is a new trend in Intercultural Communication. It is not only enough to be aware and knowledgeable about these differences, but specific skills need to be developed in how to interact in different cultural settings. That is, how do I understand my own culture in relation to the other? Hence, the name “Intercultural Communication.  The focus of this article is on the development of skills in Intercultural Communication Management. More specifically, Intercultural Project Management (IPM). In order to improve business ventures, managers must be able to practically translate their knowledge into concrete skills and strategies for day-to-day operations. In today’s global economy, and increasing cultural diversity  within organizations, one could argue that Project Management no longer exists without the word Intercultural; in front of it. In any given environment, one must account for and react to differences in thought processes, approaches, ideas, decision-making, teamwork, and leadership. 


What is a project? Something that needs to get done. Something that has a beginning and end. Something that can be broken down into parts and managed. 40 Project Managers were interviewed by Lamson Consulting. Their profiles? 33 are German and have managed projects in international contexts with company-wide agreement that the outcome was successful. Seven more were consultants with backgrounds from Japan, USA, Germany, and Austria working in the field of IPM. The results of this research study will show the barriers and enablers for successful Intercultural Project Management according to these managers. First, the outcomes will be explained, then recommendations will be shared, and finally, a tool for effective IPM will be introduced.  The research has shown that one of the most critical steps to the running of a project is identification of a project leader. Instalment of this person must be assessed within the context of the project itself, the people she or he will manage and, and the skill set they have. This may sound rather obvious, but it is common for an assignment to be handed to someone who may not have the leadership skills. Often this happens because the individual has specific technical expertise, or can speak another language, or may be able to accomplish tasks and drive projects in one context but not in another. The person taking the leadership role should go through an assessment process, should feel comfortable in the role, and should have the skills that are required to manage the intercultural team, as well as, the technical aspects.  Next, the appropriate team members are put in place. Usually it is the project leader who assesses what tasks need to be done and what expertise is needed. This process is critical. Managers require skills in assessing not only the credentials of team members, but how they perform, communicate, and operate in the context of the project. They should be able to analyze and understand the cultural backgrounds, including their own expectations, perceptions and values of conducting a project. Additionally, self-assessment and reflection skills are required of the individual considering participation in the project. They, in turn, should also be able to understand the business and cultural context.  The interviewed managers expressed that good organizational skills were required. But, surprisingly, specific knowledge in project management tools was not considered necessary to successfully manage a project. In fact, most said that they used “typical” spreadsheet software such as excel, word or other database programs. One even said that although they had knowledge and access to such software, they still took two sheets of paper and wrote a “To Do” list.  The nature of project-based work is that it is flexible, responding constantly to changing competitive markets. Therefore, flexibility plays a crucial role and fixed programs, plans, and structures could be a waste of time in such situations.   The key to successful IPM for these managers was developing a strong team. By developing team spirit, the project could operate more smoothly. All of these managers reported that they spent more than 75% of their time talking and socializing with their team on the phone, by video conference, or in face-to-face meetings. Effective communication is seen as critical to meeting project goals, said all of the managers. They added that they called the members on their teams every day to “check-in” and to “build relationship”, prevent conflict, and to continue to secure “buy-in” to the project.  Again, surprisingly, email was used mainly to support these other forms of voice-to-voice communication, to confirm issues in writing, to exchange documents or information quickly, but was not used to build relationship, discuss issues, solve problems, etc. The telephone was the most frequently used (when face-to-face was not available). This constant stream of communication is especially important due to the different needs across cultures, these managers expressed.   As every communication process is driven by the culture factor, all members could conceivably have a different view of how to operate. How much relationship does an individual need? Does one eat dinner for 5 hours and then speak about work? Does one eat and talk at the same time? Does one mix business and pleasure at all? Is a ‘how are you?’ enough to get down to business or does one expect a lengthy conversation about the family first?  Does one get right down to business and then drink alcohol heavily afterwards with their business partners? Some cultures may not want or need much contact at all, but when they do, what do they prefer? Like a toolbox, managers need to have the skills to know when and how to use what tool with which culture.  In asking the German managers which culture was most difficult to deal with out of all of the cultures they typically do business with, 31 out of 33 said the United States, 1 said Russia and 1 stated China.  This is not so surprising for two reasons: a. one isn’t usually prepared for cultural difference when everyone at the table looks the same, speaks the same language and thinks they know something about the culture to begin with. b. Germans and Americans have completely different ways of approaching and managing projects. The thought process is totally opposite.2    Another key point managers indicated is that of trust. These project managers said it must be developed and not broken. There are direct forms of distrust, like lying or cheating or the typical politics within organizations of with-holding information, for example. But indirect forms of a break down in trust could be caused by the perception of how much information should be shared, how the decision-making process occurs, and how incentives are distributed throughout the project. Additionally, there are totally different concepts of leadership.3 As said before, these culturally-bound and therefore automatic behaviors of individuals must be made explicit. 


Some specific strategies these managers recommended for successful IPM were:

  • Do intercultural training and coaching with the team.
  • Record all information and distribute within the team.
  • Hold meetings regularly (weekly) with team members.
  • Be aware of changes in attitudes and behaviors of team members.
  • Visit the international sites; get to know the people there.
  • Make time to socialize, i.e. do outdoor activities together.
  • Install an incentive program, i.e. have incremental celebrations along the way.
  • Be honest and truthful throughout the whole project.
  • Intervene in conflict situations and manage them.
  • Re-assess goals and activities and communicate changes to team.



  A basic outline of the IPM tool Lamson Consulting suggests starts with defining the Purpose of a project. Ask “Why?” this project is being done, the answer will give you the Purpose. Secondly, check Resources: What is in place? What needs to be installed? Thirdly, develop a Plan. How could the project be carried out? Fourthly, and most importantly, create your network – Who are the experts that will drive the project forward? Fifth, develop communication systems between team members and players in the project. How will commitment or “buy-in” be secured? How will decisions be made? Who will take leadership positions?   Since IPM is currently the way business functions globally, one must continue to optimize teamwork and leadership. Particularly when today we are looking at more and more technology for managing projects, less travel-time, less down-time due to jet-lag, and overall more convenient options to do business internationally.  It is critical to assess, select, and define the roles of project members. Additionally, leadership and task managers need to be installed from the beginning. All members should be brought together for a “kick-off” meeting, emphasizing knowledge and discussion about different cultural approaches, and each new member in the duration of the project should be introduced and initiated in a way that continues to build team cohesiveness. Good planning and organizational skills are necessary and recording steps taken in the process should be done along the way. Communication systems should be installed – calling and following up with an email or email and follow up with a call. Simple processes must be decided upon and upheld. Benchmarking along the way to achieve the purpose is also important; reviewing where you are and where you need to go in regular increments. A structure for accountability should also be implemented so those individuals know they are responsible.  Throughout all of these steps and recommendations for successful IPM, the culture factor needs to be considered. Since individuals have different expectations, behaviors and ways of approaching a project – a combination of styles, consensus, or a completely new system that works for the whole team may be developed and implemented. Managers need to be savvy in not only awareness and knowledge, but skilled in Intercultural Communication in order to get the maximum output from all members. Diverse teams have more chances of conflict and misunderstanding and without strong skills in Intercultural Communication, risk losing a lot. But capitalizing on the cultural difference that exist creates the opportunities for multiple perspectives, more market share, increased customer-base, speeding up of production and distribution. This can far surpass how international business has been done in the past.  

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