Cultural impacts on project management – Anglo-Saxons versus the Spanish.

The Spanish and the Anglo-Saxons are both different and similar - armadas, monarchy, football, empires, you name it. They also both 'do' project management.

The Spanish and the Anglo-Saxons are both different and similar - armadas, monarchy, football, empires, you name it, writes Phil Thistlethwaite, CEO of The Birchman Group. They also both 'do' project management.

I have worked extensively with European stakeholders over the past 12 years, and been fortunate enough to have managed large-scale change programmes on Asia-Pacific, European and global scales. And being an opinionated Australian, I feel well qualified to comment on the question I have pondered for many years - who does project management better?

My initial foray was tainted by the Anglo-Saxon stereotype of the Spanish, eg Fawlty Towers and/or Mañana. However, the longer I worked in Europe, the more empathy and respect I developed for the Spanish approach.

The Anglo-Saxon approach

The Anglo-Saxon approach generally revolves around planning to the Nth degree and then applying a consistent, high level of effort to the programme for an extended period. For "normal" programmes, this period culminates in a condensed "panic phase", usually less than 15% of the timescale.

At the beginning, the Anglo-Saxons focus on locking down requirements and design elements as early as possible and hoping to block client change. It also relies quite heavily on having a few heroic hard workers who make up for those colleagues who just "clock in" and do very little.

The Spanish approach

Let's be honest, Spanish project management is devoid of unnecessary planning; it is often devoid of any planning at all. When I first started to work with Spanish colleagues I was pulling my hair out. How can these people deliver successful projects? As time went by and I learned more about their culture and values, I could see how they did it.

They have a more family-orientated and life/work balanced culture. The Spanish also treat the capturing of requirements and design elements as "conceptual", anticipating that it will change halfway through when the client realises what they really want.

The Spanish approach dedicates very little effort to the first 30% of the timescale. They use this period to recharge their batteries, enjoy life, invest in the family and gently move things along. They then spend the next 30% lifting their efforts and arguing to sort out the natural order within the project environment. Then comes the Spanish "chaos phase".

The chaos phase is where the Spanish really come into their own. They work an insane number of hours, they argue, they negotiate, they compromise, they agree, they don't see their families, but they deliver. This phase starts earlier and lasts longer than the Anglo-Saxon panic phase (see diagram), taking up approximately 40% of the project timescale.

Horses for courses

The older I get, the more affinity I have with the Spanish approach to project management. This makes the duration of the work shorter, but the level of effort extreme; while the Anglo-Saxon approach has a lower threshold of effort over a longer period of time.

Both approaches work and I don't believe there is one model that fits all. Delivering fast-paced change requires us to span organisational and cultural boundaries, and when you do this it is important to understand the values, beliefs and approaches on which your different colleagues will be relying.


Photo: Barcelona by Tiago-Ribeiro on Flickr

Diagram: The Birchman Group

This was last published in July 2009

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