Ensuring Success in a Multi-Dimensional Multi-Cultural Project
How on earth are we going to integrate a group of 50 engineers and experts from 8 countries and 17 organisations in this research project?
This was the Question the designated Project Manager asked me the first time we met.
It was multicultural complexity at its richest, encapsulating simultaneously, a wealth of potential and a high risk of conflict, waste and failure if not set up appropriately.
The 17 organisations included bureaucratic state-owned entities, global corporations who were competitors in a hard-fought market, research institutions, academic institutions, small niche specialists. Some team members were highly experienced, others were in the first job. Some people were very happy to be part of the project, some were simply ordered on to the team by their employers. Some were concerned with promoting their careers, others were status-oriented. Some were looking for follow-up business. Many had international experience, some had none. Not a single member had previous experience of leading a multicultural team. The language of communication was English and the Project Consultant (the author), who was not formally a member of the Project Team, was the only native English speaker.
The challenge went way beyond the conventional: “How to achieve the project objectives within time and budget?” We had to ask outrselves: “How to enable this vastly diverse group of experts to focus together on achieving the project objectives within time and budget – over a period of three years in continuously changing sub-groups as required by the project specifications?
How to proceed?
Some members of the steering committee wanted a conventional project kick-off, thinking a series of presentations on the tasks accompanied by Q&A and a good meal would be fine. – No chance!
Others pleaded for using personality tests accompanied by work on “cultural differences”. – While this may have been an interesting exercise for some individual participants, it would not have moved the group forward at all. In fact, it would have been a complete waste of time, focusing on separation rather than collaboration.
With the degree of complexity in the team including such a broad range of preferred working styles as well as interests, I pleaded, we could only hope to achieve desired results if we focused on integration: project integration though people integration.
The main project sponsor, an experienced technocrat, was initially sceptical, but gradually warmed to the approach as he saw the results.
What we did … The Space
Using the project as a vehicle, we opened a space enabling people to connect. The group had opportunities to exchange on their experience, working preferences, values, prejudices, and more. We discussed leadership modes, responsibilities, decision-making, conflict resolution approaches, meeting culture, and more. We used galleries, personal conversations, world café, appreciative inquiry, and yes, we did include technical presentations with essential information. We outlined the interconnections and interdependencies among the work groups in the project, through which the groups realised their responsibility in making this work. The team created their project charter starting from a blank sheet. We ran a risk appraisal. We ran open progress and engagement appraisals as each critical stage. Not everything ran smoothly. Some negotiations were hard and not particularly enjoyable. Yet the group always found a way to call upon the sense of collective responsibility they had committed to from the outset.
They built relationships over time and often looked forward to the personal meetings despite having to travel. All were aware of the need to be on the ball – the sponsor only released the following tranches of the budget when critical intermediate deadlines were met. He was hard, very honest and fair in his criticism.
The project came in on time, within budget and the results were far better than anticipated. In an appraisal of success factors, the team mentioned, among other points, the fact that they had spent time building personal relationships; they had made the effort to travel to important meetings, the external facilitator to provide perspective and hold space for them in critical situations including conflicts. They enjoyed working on a worthwhile project and felt challenged; they had a common visible focus; the feeling that they were able to leverage the broad experience in the group and know-how within the group.
The Key Success Factor for Multi-Cultural Projects
Denial and avoidance, conscious or otherwise, are common reactions to apparently overwhelming challenges.
Attitudes when faced with multicultural complexity may include … We’re all the same now. We’ll work it out. Why should it matter, we like each other? We’re engineers; we’ll find solutions.
This may lead to one or more of the following outcomes … a focus on the mechanics of the task and the mechanics of relationships; avoidance of problems; failure to take responsibility; blame; interpersonal conflict; … failure to reach objectives.
It’s costly both financially and psychologically.
It goes without saying that project team members need the appropriate technical know-how to contribute. This said, it’s … Relationships … that drive any project.
Make it possible for Project Team Members – People – to connect and build relationships so they are able to focus on their “technical” work.
Culture is a dynamic.
Enable people to build their own Project Culture.
This is a Space … a field to cultivate.
The inherent complexity informs the approach … facilitated – not guided.
The people know.
Of course it requires an investment in time and resources – we always need to invest – albeit a relatively minor one.
For those who think they can’t afford the investment, perhaps ask …
“What does it cost your business if even 3 of your experts are in conflict for just one week?”
By enabling the group to create this space very quickly, cultureQs accelerates alignment and integration. The outcomes overwhelm the minor investment.
in the words of the project sponsor: “This is one of the most successuful projects I have ever been repsobible for.”