Following up on the blogpost Culture at Work: a Collabyrinth, I have started a series of five mini-blogs in which I reveal five pieces of advice that emerged from my Ph.D. study (Smits 2013). The five P’s, as I like to abbreviate them, capture my key recommendations for working in a cross-cultural environment. I want to stress that this list is not exhaustive, nor does it give tools; it rather offers advice supporting cross-cultural work in project management.
Today I’d like to discuss the P for Possibilities, which in short, encourages you to open your eyes for the possibilities and opportunities of cultural diversity at work.
When starting a collaborative relationship, it’s important to have an overview of the people you aim to collaborate with, their specific traits, cultural aspects and preferred work practices. This provides a deeper understanding of the project’s landscape and portrays possibilities to work together. It is essential to be conscious about the wide variety of cultural differences and similarities that can occur in cross-cultural collaboration, and the possibilities for a fruitful collaboration in the daily work environment.
Possibilities lie in combing the skills and experiences of the project partners, in exploring new ways of working together, and in obtaining an impression of the aspects in which one needs to further develop. It is important to bear in mind that culture exists at every level of the project and that there are various layers of culture. National, organizational and professional levels of culture affect the everyday work practices of project organizations; subcultures can evolve. Navigating through the unfamiliar cultures and practices enriches the project participants with new opportunities and challenges. Open your eyes!
In the Panama Canal Expansion Program, for example, operators of Company C were not used to paying attention to how they could enhance the outcome of their work, while for Company D this was common practice. It took cross-cultural code-switching (see: Molinsky 2007, Smits 2013) to successfully implement new practices on the work floor. Experiencing that their way of working clashed with the common practices of Company C operators, Company D took a step back, shaped it’s behavior, stimulating the process of collaboration, and then, slowly, introduced a new methods to improve work outcome. Company D taught the Company C operators how to twist and turn their machines more efficiently so that the work could be done faster. They organized an event for all operators in the project field. Frank, project manager at Company D described:
At one morning, we invited the operators to come to the office of the project, and we explained how they could adjust their operations. These men were super impressed that they could come to the boss’s office and that we explained them how things can improve. This was a big change for them. And what’s most important, they themselves experienced how they could improve. They are not waiting anymore for someone to say: “Hey, you need to change this.” No, now they see it for themselves! (Interview, May 2010)
Frank described that his colleagues taught Company C operators how their work practices could be done more efficiently. However, the effect of the event was larger than expected. Complementary to the modified work practices, the operators developed a more pro-active work attitude and a hands-on mentality in the field! In many other occasions I have seen that, by learning from each other, work practices were adjusted. Field managers, for example, were accustomed to managing the work in the field from their offices, from behind their desks. In collaboration with field managers from their project partners they saw the value of managing the operations by actually being present in the field. Led by the example, the field managers altered their work practices and started to spend more time among their employees in the field (Fieldnotes, May 2010). Working collaboratively, the project employees adjusted their practices so that the collaborative relationship amongst them advanced.
This is just one of the many examples illustrating that opening your doors for new work practices, different cultural aspects and fresh perspectives supports collaboration in project management. Take a look around at your project organization, what different work methods or cultural practices can you decipher? Talk about these aspects and discover differing ideas and practices that you can implement in your everyday practices. You’ll find out that awareness of the cultural diversity, (best) practices and distinct interests in the project organization provides an abundance of possibilities that can enhance the outcomes of collaboration.
Molinsky, A. (2007). “Cross-Cultural Code-Switching: The Psychological Challenges of Adapting Behavior in Foreign Cultural Interactions.” Academy of Management Review 32(2): 622-640.
Smits, K. (2013). Cross Culture Work: Practices of Collaboration in the Panama Canal Expansion Program. Delft, Next Generation Infrastructures Foundation.