Triumph over complexity

Luck gives an insight into how to build managers’ confidence in handling
projects across international boundaries

Most managers are responsible for managing projects. Their job title might
make no reference to their project responsibilities and their professional
development might never have included training in project management, or in
hard or soft skills, yet, they are commonly found in positions of leadership in
major technology or change initiatives. Sometimes they manage a trained project
team, or they are reliant simply on their general management skills.

The challenges faced by modern managers are made even more complex by the
fact they are increasingly called upon to operate in multi-project,
multi-partnered, multicultural environments.

Project environments are increasingly international and multinational in
terms of markets, stakeholders, customers and suppliers. Managers typically
have to build, manage and motivate new teams across cultures, often where they
have no formal authority.

It is small wonder that delivering on time, within budget and to
specification, seems an ever more unattainable goal for many managers. How can
breakthroughs be achieved in the success rate of projects? Is it simply a
reality of modern business life that projects fail or overrun on time and
budget? Does the complexity of an international project environment
automatically reduce a project’s chance of successful delivery?

Dynamic environments

Success or failure of a project can determine the success or failure of
company strategy. The outcome of a project can often be determined by the
leadership styles adopted in the early stages of the project. It is
increasingly accepted that strategy is a dynamic process. So too, are project

The unforeseen events, developments and opportunities that emerge in a
project life cycle will be multiplied by many factors in a multicultural,
multi-partnered, multi-project environment.

From our experience, it is clear that projects where team members embrace
wide cultural diversity are likelier to encounter higher levels of uncertainty
and lower levels of agreement.

Instead of a ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach to project management, managers
should be encouraged to heighten their awareness of diversity and address it
through appropriate styles of management and leadership, so that the tension
inherent in the diversity results in creative outcomes.

The model below, adapted from an idea by Ralph Stacey2 is used to help
managers consider the styles they need to adopt for their project, and is
particularly beneficial in a multicultural project environment.

A typical project with high levels of agreement and certainty is where the
outcome of the project is already known and predictable, such as the building
of a new factory.

Projects of this type resemble a jigsaw puzzle – where the picture is on the
box and even on the jigsaw itself, but might still be quite complex to put
together. While we accept there will be some areas within this type of project
that are uncertain and with low agreement, the overall objective of the project
is more certain. In this type of environment, a project leader will find it
easier to plan, monitor and control outcomes.

Conversely, in some projects there are low levels of agreement and low
levels of certainty. This type of project resembles more of a problem than a
puzzle, and the nature of the problem may not even be known.

In this scenario, a project leader needs to be more facilitative. If
undertaken in a multicultural environment, a project leader must create an
environment of trust, openness and collaboration. They must engage people to
define the problems and co-create the solutions. If achieved successfully, stakeholders
will find experimentation stimulating, and bottom-up change can be created.

While perceptions may lead managers to believe their situation corresponds
to a ‘top right’ position (on the diagram below), by an innovative combination
of technical and softer skills, new knowledge can be co-created, moving the
projects into the familiar arena of plan, monitor and control.

‘Soft’ project management skills can be used with great effect throughout
the project process.

When Ashridge Consulting works with organisations, its prime purpose is to
transfer consulting skills such as facilitation, principles of working with
change, conflict resolution, influencing without authority and individual
executive coaching, to build high-trust relationships and a learning community.
This approach creates sustainable learning and ensures the learning loop is

Reasons for uncertainty

Research has demonstrated that uncertainty in projects can arise from:

– Difficulty in estimating task time

– Student syndrome (not starting the task until the last minute)

– Parkinson’s law (work expands to fill the time available)

– Unsynchronised integration of dependent tasks

– Bad multi-tasking

All of these reasons for uncertainty are addressed by Dr E H Goldratt’s3
critical chain methodology, which creates a common language suitable for
cross-cultural teams. It not only produces collaborative ways of producing a
robust project network, but provides visual ways of accurately monitoring the
project’s status .

This methodology has a proven track record of reducing the time of projects
by up to two-thirds. In strategic terms, this often involves introducing a new
product into the marketplace faster, reducing large-scale set-up times in
factories and boosting the strategic implementation ability of the
organisation, thereby gaining a competitive advantage.

Cross-cultural communication Good communication that enables all team
members to understand and learn is essential to a project’s success. Barriers
to understanding are too often created, even within a single cultural
environment, if the learning styles and preferences of various team members are
not taken into account. For example, if a project manager explains the
project’s content, or the ways of working on a project, in a highly theoretical
or technical way to a team member whose learning style is more experiential or
practical, there is likely to be a barrier to understanding. This is likely to
be experienced even more frequently when linguistic barriers compound the difficulties
in understanding.

A strong antidote to theoretical approaches that run into communication
problems, particularly useful in cross-cultural environments, can be the use of
expressive forms.

These can be used to promote the understanding of current reality vital to
any project scenario. Stories and artistic representations can often build
pictures more effectively than formal language.

For example, a cross-cultural team within a multinational client as recently
working to understand and describe the project environment at the company.
Storytelling, drawing, body-sculpture and poetry were all used to portray a
scenario, which emerged in a far more meaningful and broadly understood format
than could have been created by any word-bound analytical approach .

Given that the present is the stories we shall one day recount, this more
‘whole self’, playful approach should not be discounted. It breaks down
cultural barriers and facilitates good communication. Every learning style
within a cross-cultural team can be engaged by these more experiential ways of
working, because they have to think, participate, experience and then reflect
upon their learning.

Cross-cultural understanding

Apart from appreciating problems caused by linguistic barriers and multiple
learning styles in cross-cultural groups, the project manager has to be
familiar with the less visible aspects of cross-cultural work that can
complicate the project. Many such examples are cited by Fons Trompenaars4, as
often projects involve multi-stakeholders, including suppliers.

The type of situation that might arise is a case where a contract is signed
between an Arab supplier and a US contracting firm. If the individual who
signed the contract leaves the US organisation, the Arab supplier may consider
the contract void. Clearly, this would be counter to the understanding of the
US contractor.

Similarly, there are different cultural views about where decision-making
power lies. The United Arab Emirates, in line with Poland, the US, Sweden and
Czechoslovakia, is likely to believe it is vested in the individual. This is in
stark contrast to France, Italy, Spain and Japan, where people believe
decision-making power is vested in the organisation.

Project managers must heighten their awareness of these issues in their
particular cross-cultural working context.

Multicultural project working will be created by a diverse group of
participants in the forthcoming Ashridge PMA programme, on 7-11 July 2003. A
subsequent programme will start on 3 November. For more information, see or contact Gary
Luck on 01442 841183


1. Guide to Strategic Positioning in The Strategy Process,
Mintzberg and Quinn, Prentice Hall, 1997

(reference to Mintzberg on figure 1)

2. Stacey, Ralph D, Strategic Management & Organisational
Dynamics, Financial Times Pitman Publishing, 2nd Edition, 1993

(reference to this in figure 2 and in text above)

3. Critical Chain, Dr EHGoldratt, 1997, North River Press,
Mass. USA

4. Trompenaars, Fons, Riding the Waves of Culture:
Understanding Cultural Diversity in Business, London, The Economist Books, 1993

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