Why Cultural Differences Matter to Project Stakeholders
In his recent Harvard Business Review blog post, Peter Bregman describes a scenario where a hopeful employee missed out on a promotion in part because he didn’t say thank you. I can only begin to imagine the employee’s disappointment over what appears to have been such a trivial oversight.
This example highlights the importance of having an appreciation for the corporate culture and the national culture of the organization and the stakeholders with which you are working. This appreciation of culture—including national culture—is of paramount importance on projects too.
Many projects today span organizations, countries, and time zones. Business analysts and project team members will be interacting with multiple stakeholders, potentially distributed all over the globe.
The reality—and this certainly won’t come as a surprise—is that different cultures are different. They have different values, norms, rituals, and expectations. This complex stakeholder landscape raises the risk of inadvertent misunderstandings, conflict, and culture clash.
When working with stakeholders to understand their needs and requirements, it’s essential to build rapport—and this requires empathy and understanding of differences in cultures.
One of the challenges is that while it’s easy to observe the culture of others, it’s often difficult to look introspectively and observe our own culture. I spent most of my childhood years in Britain, but I spent one year in the US. I remember subtle differences in language, as well as significant differences in culture. I remember my American friends were far more forthright and direct in their communication; we Brits tend to hide behind politeness and indirectness.
Neither is inherently better or worse—just different. However, the important point is that we tend to observe others through our own internalized cultural lens.
An important way to avoid culture clashes on projects is to focus on developing self awareness of culture—that is, to understand our own cultural identity and norms.
Professor Geert Hofstede has written and researched on cultural differences, and the Hofstede Centre website provides a useful reference point for understanding how your native culture compares with others, as well as how others might perceive your culture. Hofstede proposes a number of cultural dimensions on which cultures can be compared.
This is extremely useful to consider for projects that span countries and cultures—as different cultures have different attitudes toward authority, for example. This might affect how you elicit requirements. In a highly hierarchical culture, lower-ranking employees might not feel empowered to speak openly in front of their supervisors, and you may need to plan for this.
Whilst Hofstede’s research is extremely useful, it’s also beneficial to understand specific cultural norms and practices. It is well worth reading cultural guides so you can build an understanding of any specific cultural practices that might be important to your stakeholders. This kind of knowledge will help you avoid inadvertent cultural slip-ups.
For projects that span countries and nationalities, culture matters. Cultural research and self-awareness pay dividends.