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Multi-Cultural Project Management

A few days ago, I attended a seminar on managing cross-cultural projects – these are projects where there are people from diverse backgrounds on the project team, perhaps spread out in countries across the world.  The course was excellent, focusing on the need for managers to understand better the cultural differences that exist between people and perhaps to leverage these differences to improve project performance.  Many illustrative examples were given that showed clashes between cultural norms and how they could impact communications.

I attended another such seminar many years ago, but have not seen too many offered at conferences since then.  This was once a rather specialized topic, of concern to those senior project managers lucky enough to manage large, international projects.   Over the past few years, however, we’ve seen a shift in our team demographics that makes the need for cultural training all the more valuable to today’s project managers.  Two main factors are contributing to this shift:

  • Changing Patterns of Immigration.  The population demographics of immigrants to the U.S.A. and Canada changes over time.  In the early years of the 20th century, immigrants were mainly from the United Kingdom, with early waves of immigrants from China and Italy. After World War II, immigrants primarily came from devastated European countries.  Later, there was a wave of people fleeing Hungary in the wake of Soviet aggression, and another as people left Korea to seek a better life in the wake of the Korean War.  During the later years of the century, immigration patterns shifted to Hong Kong as people fled the country before it returned to Chinese control and Africa, as people fled drought, starvation, and political corruption.  Also, immigration levels increased from India and Pakistan.  Recently, we’ve seen higher numbers of immigrants from other areas of the Middle East and southeast Asia.  The point of this is to show that our population of available project team members keeps shifting as different groups change the makeup of our organizations.  Astute project managers need to be able to relate to people from these cultures, knowing their cultural biases and norms in order to work together effectively.
  • Increasing Numbers of Multi-National Projects.  At one time, multi-national projects were uncommon and were led by only the most senior project managers.  With the increase in using offshore service providers on all kinds of projects, however, such projects are becoming quite commonplace.  Whether outsourcing their call centres to the Philippines, their software development to China, or their engineering design services to India, companies are seeking competitive advantage by using the lowest-cost resources available globally.  Increased literacy and higher-education rates in these countries, has contributed to the commoditization of skilled labour.  Project managers need to focus on the unique challenges of working across cultures and time zones in order to keep their projects successful.

Most project managers these days have felt the impact of these factors on their own projects.  Our communities and our organizations are evolving into a diverse mix of people from many cultures and we are finding co-located teams less common as organizations spread their resources across cities and countries.  “Cultural sensitivity training” may be quite useful, but it is not enough. We need to take advantage of communication tools (like instant messaging, teleconferencing, and video conferencing) to help us work with remote team members.  Tasks as simple as scheduling a meeting become increasingly complex as we need to consider time zones, local holidays in remote countries, and cultural norms about who needs to attend various meetings.

But all of these things are teachable.  Given appropriate training, most project managers can learn the factors to consider and how to make the most out of the teams they have been given.  What seems to be missing in some managers I’ve encountered, however, is a heartfelt appreciation for the value that multi-cultural diversity can bring to a project team.  Bigotry is still an unfortunate reality that we must deal with.  Some people have trouble adapting to the rapid demographic changes in our cities, and others adhere to deep-rooted biases that they bring from other countries.  In the western nations, we have traditionally welcomed all comers to our shores but it sometimes takes generations until these newcomers feel like they are truly a part of our society. 

We need to confront racism whenever we find it and make sure that it does not exert a negative impact over our projects.  We can learn much from each other and it is only through a healthy appreciation for our diverse cultural backgrounds that we can truly bond as high-performance teams, leveraging our individual strengths for the good of the whole project.

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Kevin Aguanno, PMP, IPMA-B, MAPM is the vice president of the Project Management Association of Canada, and Executive Project Manager with a large international consulting company, and a well-known author and speaker on project management-related topics.  He also comes from a mixed cultural background including Italian, Welsh, Irish, English, and Native American Indian.  Find out more about him at

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