Intelligent about culture

Culture wields a strong influence over us all. At the national level, it defines, among other things, how we are brought up and...

Culture wields a strong influence over us all. At the national level, it defines, among other things, how we are brought up and how our education, legal and social systems operate.

At the organisational level it defines how companies function and our careers progress; how we interact with our colleagues and the political landscape.

At a functional level it defines our local working environments, while at the team level it defines the basis of high (or low) performance.

Project managers need to be aware of these factors when embarking on projects outside of their natural habitats.

Anyone who has worked overseas, across different sectors or for more than one organisation is likely to have developed some intuitive cultural intelligence skills. They will unconsciously adjust their working style and behaviour to the local culture.

Project managers who have spent their time in one organisation and have been involved with cross-functional change will have experienced the differences in culture first-hand.

But responding intuitively is not enough. We need to make these skills specific, harder-edged and part of the project manager's toolkit. We need to ensure that cultural intelligence becomes embedded within the universally accepted project management disciplines and is as valued as planning or risk management. Then we would no longer underestimate the need to adjust our approach to different cultural settings.

For example, we would expect the dynamics of a project to be quite different in an investment bank and a central government department: while the former is fast moving, reactionary, process-free and mercenary, the latter is slow-moving, process rich, considered and somewhat fragmented.

The same applies to international projects, as working in the US will be quite different from working in Asia. In each case we would know how the culture - international, organisational or functional - affects how we plan and execute our project.

This will prevent culture-shocks and the problems arising from poor cultural intelligence, which include stereotyping, unnecessary conflict, and delays, increasing the potential for failure and leading to poor return on investment.

By adjusting your behaviour, approaches and working style to the local culture or the culture of your clients you are more likely to succeed because you will be able to reduce the time it takes to introduce change, and win people's trust more readily.

Cultural intelligence is all about working with the grain of the organisation as a means of making change happen, which is, after all, the job of the project manager.

Fifteen years of experience in the industry have taught me that project managers need to become more culturally intelligent. Cultural intelligence is about adding a new dimension to effective and first-class project management.

And, who knows, it might help to resolve the long-standing problem of the culture gap between the business and IT.

Andrew Holmes spoke on cultural intelligence at ProjectWorld on 2 October 2002 at the NEC in Birmingham.

For further information contact Lorna Candy on 01932-730700 or go to

Andrew Holmes is a director at PricewaterhouseCoopers

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