The 3 Challenges of International Projects
Tackling language, culture and distance
As internationalization continues its relentless progress, impacting so many walks of professional life and general society, project professionals, as with so many others, are increasingly stopping to ask themselves a question: whether there exists a specific set of skills which will enable them to succeed in this rapidly and unevenly globalizing context.
It’s a reasonable question but one which, quite naturally, carries a number of assumptions: that ‘international’, or ‘international project’ in this case, can be seen as a single entity or experience, which embodies specific challenges requiring skills proven to navigate the related challenges successfully. Beginning with the first assumption, of course ‘internationality’ is not a single phenomenon. The experience of international projects is immensely diverse, sometimes with the ‘light’ touch of a ‘foreigner’ joining a predominantly domestic team in a small-to-medium enterprise, stretching all the way up to a multinational team dispersed across the globe deploying project deliverables in several local business units and even regions.
To which degree is it then possible to identify generic international challenges if the notion itself is so broad? Interestingly, most professionals will claim quickly and confidently, categorizing the challenges of internationality as threefold: first, language (which often implies, ‘I don’t speak good enough English’ (non-native English speaker) or ‘They don’t speak good enough English’ (native English speaker); second, culture (meaning national culture, but then I’m flexible enough – ‘When in Rome, do as the Romans do’); finally, distance and those annoying time zone differences and the fact that people send me too many emails. Yet, these intuitive definitions may be misleading. For example, we know that speaking perfect English cannot be said to define international communicative competence, or native English speakers would be the best international communicators, when they are actually often the worst. As for culture, well, what isn’t culture? The term is so huge, so complex, and moves so quickly to damaging forms of national stereotyping that it becomes useless as an organizing principle to understand other individuals. As for the virtual problem of time and distance, research provides no empirical evidence that proves virtual is more ‘difficult’; indeed, it may even have advantages.
Internationality is a diverse phenomenon, and can be experienced as minor or major, as exhilarating or deeply problematic. Yet for those working in large corporates today and leading international projects, to focus on this specific target group, a common landscape of experience has emerged presenting four broad challenges, which in turn demand a particular mindset, a specific approach to communication, and the strategic deployment of project management practices. While this might seem prescriptive at first glance, it is precisely the opposite, predicated as it is on the recognition of diversity of international projects and plurality of potentially successful project leadership strategies available in any given situation.bl
About the author:
Bob Dignen is the co-author of Leading International Projects and is a trainer, facilitator and coach. He is also a Director of York Associates where he delivers intercultural skills programmes and international team and leadership communication seminars to clients.
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