Cultures In The Project

In this ever shrinking business world, it is not uncommon to deploy a project with colleagues from different countries, with cultures different from our own.  We can even implement a project in our own country and easily have stakeholders, say, from India, China, Mexico, Canada.  Each one will bring different points of view, dependent on their upbringing and experiences (read ‘culture’).  So it is a great business advantage to have project managers who are able to navigate these different cultures, and not end up in the difficulties Mrs. Muddle finds herself in.

Mrs. Muddle is a very capable technical project manager from Ohio, where she still lives.  She has a science degree from a major US university and, because all her projects finish on time and on-budget, Management has chosen her to lead the expansion of key manufacturing equipment in their US and in their Asian (South Korea and Vietnam) locations.

After a kick-off meeting in person and a scope definition workshop, Mrs Muddle wanted to publish some ground rules for the ongoing status meetings. She had noticed that the Asian project managers −Mr. Moon-ki from South Korea and Mr. Chuyen from Vietnam− brought to the meetings no less than half a dozen colleagues.  She therefore issued the rule that, henceforth, only the project managers should attend the status meetings.

Her edict was met with shock and discomfort in the Asian teams. Mr. Moon-ki informed Mrs. Muddle that he absolutely did not have the delegation from his management team to commit the company to any decision whatsoever. Mr. Chuyen made very clear that since the project required tasks from finance, engineering, IT and other disciplines, he could not agree to anything on their behalf.  Mrs. Muddle tried to make her colleagues see reason, indicating that it was more efficient to deal with just one person than casts of thousands.  She was confused as to why such a reasonable rule would make her colleagues angry.

What she failed to recognize is that South Korean and Vietnamese cultures are highly collectivistic, and that these gentlemen were unwilling to make any moves that would upset the peace of “the group”.  In some societies, like the USA and Canada, being “individualistic” is a desirable trait.  But in many parts of the world, the interests of “the group” do take precedence over the needs of “the individual”. Mrs. Muddle was astonished when her manager called her.  Seems like they needed to schedule an apology meeting with the Asian subsidiaries…

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