If you missed the first part of this six-part series, see: Part 1 of the series, Creating An International Culture Of Success, or see the entire series right here.

How we think of time is a tricky subject, and one that varies from one culture to another, as I’ve talked about before. Does your culture view time as more fluid, a resource that is infinite? Or is timeliness and meeting deadlines of critical importance?

Time, Projects, And Business

In the project context, time becomes very meaningful. To the business, meeting a product delivery date can be the difference between success and failure — but, at the same time, different cultures will view the importance of meeting that date relative to other priorities. In strongly relationship-driven cultures, for example, the date is subordinated to relationship building. Customer happiness may be more important than shipping before the Christmas buying season. It can also imply an expectation of tolerance and understanding when dates slip.

Time can have a dramatic impact on our business relationships as well. When Japan and Australia entered into a sugarcane export agreement, conditions where beneficial for both parties. As time changed market conditions, Japan ended up with the “dirty end of the stick.” But the relationship-centered business model of Japan led to a huge misunderstanding when Australia refused to renegotiate business terms — in essence, Australia felt the timing of the deal was good fortune for them, while Japan expected that business terms would adjust as time went on. A very fixed versus fluid perspective (and one that resulted in a long and nasty dispute).

The American phrase “time is money” indicates how the typical American prioritizes time, but this approach never works in a culture that prioritizes the relationship (meaning, most of the Middle East, South America, and Asia). To these cultures, it’s more important to get to know each other, to build a trusting relationship, and then begin talking about business. There will always be time to make money together — in the future. Anyone that rushes the process is probably going to be viewed as impetuous, unreliable, or even untrustworthy.

The Global Project Compass™ identifies the following management disciplines as being most directly affected by time orientation:

  1. Project Time Estimation
  2. Quality Assurance Plan
  3. Requirements Management
  4. Testing Plan
  5. Acceptance Plan
  6. Performance Measurement

Project Time Estimation

Probably one of the most obvious consequences of viewing time differently is how we estimate time. Is that estimate a “drop dead” date that we absolutely will meet, no matter what? Or is it an average of where we’ll end up if all goes reasonably according to plan? Might it merely be a hopeful guess at what could be possible?

Depending on your culture, any of these options will be true. Understanding how your partner’s culture views time is crucial to knowing what a project estimate means.

Quality Assurance Plan

Planning the successful — and problem free — launch of any product demands forethought. It demands awareness and convergence of many different plans: Research, development, supply, construction, testing, marketing, customer support, distribution, and more. In a multinational situation, supply chain logistics and regional conditions ranging from weather, product availability, and local holidays play into it.

Assuming a quality assurance organization that is timely and schedule driven, it’s not hard to imagine how difficult their job must be. Consider a global team, where different offices have different notions about the priority and meaning of “time.”

And finally, ask yourself: How does our quality assurance organization, itself, think about time? Is being on time important? Is it one of the quality metrics they are watching out for?

Requirements Management

Are the requirements known at the outset of your project? Or are they vague and fuzzy, with new features “popping up” here and there? Scope creep, or the unending addition of new requirements, is one of the most dramatic influencers on a project.

If your business cares about setting a clear end-point for a project, the team needs to understand that. In cultures where time is fluid, the idea that a product is set in stone and cannot change will seem irrationally rigid and short-sighted. At the same time, projects that seem to shift like a sand dune under someone’s feet will drive a sequential, time-oriented person crazy.

Setting the right expectations is part of the solution, but also knowing how to leverage the strengths of each perspective is key.

Testing And Acceptance

Different products take different approaches to testing. Software can begin testing early in the product life cycle, while manufactured goods need to be tested once they come off the production line. In all cases, though, testing and acceptance is critical and needs to happen at the right time, and in the most effective way.

Both are “critical paths,” too. This means that someone, somewhere, is waiting on the results of testing or acceptance.

Will your testing team be ready to go at the right time? Will the right urgency be applied to the process — or will testing be run like like a fluid project, adding new requirements on the fly?

Time Orientation: Fixed Or Fluid?

Understanding time orientation means knowing how to build a healthy organization — one that supports the time orientation of its employees, without sacrificing necessary business goals. It’s a tough topic to master, because how we think about time is so deeply ingrained in our subconscious. It’s a part of who we are, and changing that doesn’t come naturally.

Think about how you feel, when kept waiting in the conference room for the other team. Are they late, rudely wasting your time — or are they instead thoughtfully giving you a few extra minutes to prepare, while they respectfully and unhurriedly wrap up another meeting?

Think about how hard it will be to change that initial, first reaction, the next time someone is “late,” or seems offended that you are not “prompt.”

Cover graphic attribution: The artist and visual designer Yang Liu was born in China and lives in Germany since she was 14. By growing up in two very different places with very different traditions she was able to experience the differences between the two cultures first-hand.

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