Foreigner? No Such Thing!

Alien CollageImagine an astronaut lands on Neptune and finds living creatures. What would they be called, aliens? There are no more “foreigners” in our global reality. As a project manager, you’d better have a global mindset because you are likely managing one of the most diverse teams on earth. It was difficult enough getting a bunch of earthlings who were in the same room, spoke the same language and grew up in the same country to get on the same page. Now practically every project seems to be spread over two or three continents and four or more time zones. Welcome to project management in the 21st century global village!

Ever since the first astronauts showed us pictures of our tiny planet suspended against the backdrop of a vast black universe, the world has been shrinking. While the physical size has remained the same, the practical distance between us has dwindled to almost nothing. Our lives are now intricately interwoven with people around the globe. Our kitchenware is made in China, our cars are assembled in Mexico using Japanese parts, the memory chips in our computers may have been designed by engineers in Eastern Europe, and that last drive-through McDonald’s order could have been taken by a gentleman in India and then sent electronically back to the place where the food was prepared and served. I don’t know if the world is flat, but it sure feels tiny!

Project teams today are composed of an amazing kaleidoscope of people from different cultures, people who may be sitting offices halfway around the world from one another, with a diverse array of native languages and customs. But even sharing a common language is no guarantee of mutual understanding, as anyone who has spoken with people from Australia, India, England and Texas knows. Even many co-located teams find themselves composed of a multi-cultural cast of characters. In the Silicon Valley, for example, it’s common for groups to be composed of a majority of people born outside of the US. Yes, we’re a savory stew of cultures from around the world, and in my opinion that’s part of the reason that innovation and entrepreneurship thrive here.

I’ve worked with people from dozens of countries and every continent. No matter what the country of origin, the challenges of project management seem to be shared universally by all of our global neighbors. There’s too much to do and not enough time. Project scope grows, and it all must be done with too few resources. Around the world, the top reasons that project teams fail to achieve their goals are lack of clear goals, communication breakdowns, unclear roles and responsibilities, lack of sufficient planning, : all the usual suspects. A “thank you” and a few words of encouragement go a long way no matter where you’re from, and sincere appreciation of a job well done is a source of motivation.

But forget country of origin! Can there be any greater cultural gap than those between different functional areas, or between companies like IBM and Apple? Engineering and Marketing speak different languages in every country and the gaps between company cultures sometimes dwarf those between countries. Getting themm to communicate effectively is sometimes akin to getting giraffes and octopus to do so!

The rewards of multi-cultural experiences far outweigh the challenges. Whether you currently work in a multi-cultural team or not, one thing is for sure . . . we are all living and working in a global economy. Success in your next project may very well depend on your ability to work effectively in this global village. There are no foreigners in this global economy. And no borders, either. UC Santa Cruz sent me to Armenia to do workshops on product development lifecycle, and they even offer their entire project management certificate program on-line, so people from all over the world can now have access to that credential.

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