Power Distance And International Success

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.

I’ve posted in depth on power distance and how it varies from one culture to another. To recap, power distance, or “PDI,” is the degree of inequality in society and the emotional distance that separates subordinates from superiors.

Many Western cultures thrive on very low power distance principles. Since most of today’s modern management theory has come directly from the West, this means these theories work great in Western cultures but tend to have problems in the East.

Most modern management expects employees to think independently, be honest and critical, question the status quo, and openly voice disagreement. Many recent management tools, such as Scrum and Agile methods, empower the employee so much that the line between “boss” and “employee” becomes blurred and — sometimes — almost eradicated.

Across much of the Middle East and Asia, this approach fails miserably. Traditional organizational structures don’t tolerate this approach. Direct criticism and questioning tends to be viewed as dissent. Respect for seniority, wisdom, and age play into it. Decision making happens at higher levels in the company, and decisions flow downward. Employees are expected to act in unison, provide information when requested, and respond like a well-oiled machine to the strategic decisions of their senior management.

The Global Project Compass™ (introduced previously) covers 27 project management disciplines. It identifies the following management disciplines as being most directly affected by power distance:

  1. Goal Setting
  2. Organizational Structure & Policy Setting
  3. Standard Compliance
  4. Business Case Validation
  5. Positive Assurance of Compliance

Goal Setting

As pointed out in the introduction, different cultures have different expectations about where their goals come from. Employees that are used to low power distance will feel slighted if they are not closely involved in setting goals, or if their voice is not heard. On the other end of the spectrum, those accustomed to being told what to do may conclude that their boss doesn’t really know what’s going on if too many questions are asked or if the boss seems to rely on subordinate opinions.

Organizational Structure & Policy Setting

Closely related to goal setting is policy setting, and that includes the hierarchy (or lack of hierarchy) in an organization itself. Employees from high power distance cultures tend to feel far more comfortable in an environment that provides clearly defined roles. That translates into greater hierarchy, and more clearly responsibilities. As Honeywell learned, without adequate training and management programs, their Chinese R&D department really had no idea how to go about inventing truly new products.

Standards Compliance

Compliance is an interesting topic to explore, because it shows off a reversal of competence along the power distance spectrum. Employees accustomed to high power distance and being given clear guidelines tend to flourish when it comes to compliance. Such standards provide a clear set of instructions, set boundaries, and make the job an easy one to follow (at least, when the standards are well documented).

Unfortunately, with poorly defined or conflicting standards, problems occur. Poorly written rote instructions rapidly lead to chaos when those instructions are in conflict — and high power distance cultures also tend to demonstrate little critical thinking or problem solving here.

On the other hand, with a team that is used to low power distance, standards can become a “thorn in the side.” These teams — trained to think critically and voice their opinions — often struggle to see the rationale or validity of standards. They might push back against them, although when the standards themselves are questionable this can be a boon: Those same teams will quickly point out flaws (and perhaps push to have the standards disqualified).

Business Case Validation

Critical thinking, scenario planning, and a talent for seeing the future are traits needed when validating a business case. These skills tend to flourish at the executive level in high power distance cultures, while the critical thinking of low power distance teams can be incredibly valuable to examine every aspect of a business model.

Positive Assurance of Compliance

Making sure that you are complying with standards is often the responsibility of the quality assurance department or a separate standards body. Power distance and organizational structure play a huge role. Assurance of compliance carries with it a need for authority. Failure in compliance means, potentially, putting a stop to project activities, and challenging the organization and the team (at least, in so far as ensuring products conform to agreed standards). Organizational structure is important, but often the standards compliance body is not set up with adequate authority — in some cases, being subordinate to conflicting objectives (such as project management). Ensuring that the right structure exists; that there is a separation of concerns; and there is authority to act, is critical, and very dependent on the cultural biases at play.

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.

Creating An International Culture Of Success

The International Business Dimension

Multinational teams present new challenges for the International manager. There are logistics problems: How do you coordinate teams that work in different time zones? What kind of collaboration can you create in a team that rarely sees one another?

As well as the logistic problems come cultural problems. For example, successfully creating a culture of innovation can be a challenge. Honeywell experienced this, according to a November, 2013, Time article, when Rameshbabu Songukrishnasamy began working as general manager of the company’s R&D centers in Shanghai and Beijing. He found his employees were not innovating. They weren’t tinkering or inventing on their own — not a positive sign in an R&D lab! “They were happy just doing what they were asked to do,” Rameshbabu says. The problem is, R&D is about doing something new.

A project manager for a large corporation in Brazil recently told me that the PMI Book of Knowledge is used infrequently at best inside Brazilian projects. He also warned against assuming that someone with a PMI certification has extensive experience, as is the case in the US. — Moore, Brandi, The Little BRIC Book.

Rameshbabu found that his Chinese workers had a fear of failure. They worried that the company would be upset if their work did not yield positive results, so they didn’t experiment. Another problem is that some Chinese engineers “tend to shy away from critical questioning,” a process that is fundamental in R&D. “The reason they are able to make so much innovation in Silicon Valley is that people question the status quo and find alternative ways,” says Rameshbabu. But he found that Chinese culture and education focused on rote learning, not critical thinking.

Creating A Culture Of Success

Creating successful International programs requires understanding and adapting to different business cultures. Applying Western management practices in Asia will fail, just as surely as transplanting Western employees into an Eastern environment. Imagine an independent, critical thinker from Silicon Valley landing in Foxconn, Shenzhen — where challenging the status quo is forbidden.

Team dynamics play a huge factor in management style, objectives, and capabilities. Building a culture of innovation is just one example of where these dynamics become complicated. Power distance will affect everything from goal setting to how problems are socialized. Communication style can quickly lead to misunderstandings. Differences on the fluidity of time can mean completely missing the mark with customer deadlines. And differences in identity and engagement style can lead to initial confusion, bad first impressions, or distrust.

This is why understanding business cultural practices is so important. Hyrax International LLC has a program that explores each of these five preferences. The program examines each of 27 different management disciplines, such as goal setting, risk management, change management, and assessing outcomes. The affect of business culture on each discipline is explored and explained, providing a road map to success on the International management scene. The company also offers many free resources to explain and explore International project management, and is also sponsoring Successful International Project Management, an in depth book that maps project management processes to cultural preferences.

We’ll be posting five more parts to this article (read Part 2, or see the entire series right here) in the coming couple of weeks. Each post will look at one of the five business cultural preferences, and briefly introduce how that preference impacts and affects the 27 management disciplines.

Hyrax International LLC’s Global Project Compass™ is the only visual map that clearly shows the connection between business culture and business process. This is what makes Cross Cultural Management™ so much more effective than traditional management.

The Compass maps 27 project management disciplines directly to business cultural preferences, and shows how these preferences affect business. The goal of the Global Project Compass, and Hyrax International’s associated management program, is to show how culture affects businesses worldwide — and to provide a clear map on how businesses can adapt successfully.

Managing Time In Different Cultures

Meeting deadlines and managing project workflows when working with people from different nationalities can be one of the most challenging aspects of managing intercultural business relationships. Different cultures have very different perspectives when it comes to the importance and flow of time.

Hi, I’m Zacharias Beckman, President of Hyrax International. Somebody asked me recently how different cultures think about time, and I thought the best way to explain that would be with a short story.

Recently, I moderated a panel, here in the United States. In order to prepare for the panel I put together about seven slides that introduced the topic, which was the global economy, and each of the panel members. But, when I ran those slides by the panel coordinator, she was really concerned that I would take too much time. I had seven slides, she told me I had only four minutes, to go through the entire introduction.

So we start the panel presentation, everything goes great. We get through the introduction, less than four minutes, and we start the panelist’s portion. Now, during the panelist’s presentation, she is sitting right up in front, where I can see her, holding up cards to show us how much time is left. 30 minutes, 20 minutes, 10 minutes, 5… 2… and the last card, a big zero on it, to show that we are done. You have to stop now. So we end up wrapping up the panel at exactly 60 minutes, when the panel coordinator comes up to the podium and makes it clear that we’re done, even though there were still a lot of people raising their hands and wanting to ask questions. This is typical in the United States, and few other Western cultures where time is so important — it rules all.

Now lets compare this to my very first experience teaching, offering  a presentation, in Asia. I went there with all of these preconceptions about how important time is. As I was preparing for the presentation, I asked the Project Manager, how much time should I take and he said, “ohh… you know, about an hour. That’s fine. You do whatever you think is right.” Well, being American, I planned exactly for one hour.

Now, the next day, when the presentation starts, I’m really stressed out. Because it’s 10 o’clock, we are supposed to be starting, and people are just starting to show up. I hurriedly asked the Project Manager, “Do you want me to shrink the presentation, because we are late, I could pull it down to 45 minutes or so.” And he says, “Oh, you know, if you think that’s right, you do whatever you think is best. 45 minutes would be fine.” So, on the fly, I cut pieces out and we wrap it up in 45 minutes.

The presentation went well, but afterwards when I am talking with the Project Manager, he asked me, “Why did you finish so soon? Everybody was loving it! They had so many questions! We could have gone for another hour, or another two.” So it turns out that I had sent the wrong message. I had said that my time was more important than spending time with the group, answering their questions.

It’s important when we are working in a multinational context to be flexible and to be observant. To ask somebody, what does the local culture expect and to look for hints. I would have been better served to have paused the presentation and ask the Project Manager, “Do we need to finish up now? Does the team need to get back to work? Or should we keep going?” Remember that particularly in Asia, the focus won’t be on time, it’s going to be on developing a relationship… the focus is going be on you.

Improving Multinational Team Collaboration

Power Distance in the Global Context: How business cultural preferences can directly impact your team’s ability to work together and communicate effectively.

When we talk about our own culture, it won’t seem like culture at all. It’s just the way things are. For example, if you’re American you believe everyone has a right to free speech and you think any thing else is a human rights violation. You also enjoy about two or three weeks of vacation each year. And you’re very prompt. You feel like your entire day is interrupted if someone’s late.

If you are Turkish, you know about free speech, but you probably don’t dare talk about it much. You are blissfully unaware that you have more official and not so official vacations than anyone else in Europe. And for you, time is fluid. Being half an hour late is fine, you don’t expect anybody else to be on time, so you plan on doing several things at once. These are examples of culture, and businesses have culture too.

Phil, a CEO at a US company, came to me telling me that they had outsourced all of their product development to India. But, they had a problem. They hadn’t met a single deadline in over a year. Product development was stalled. When I asked Phil what was wrong, he said the team in India was terrible at communication. They never raised a red flag if something didn’t make sense.

The problem is Phil was completely wrong. He was ascribing Western expectations to an Eastern team. The real problem was more complex, but the root of it was power distance. Power distance is the degree to which a boss and an employee are separated by society. And in the East power distance is very important. Employees can’t simply tell their boss that they think he is wrong. But Phil’s employees are rewarded for questioning and challenging and thinking outside of the box. He had no idea how unfamiliar this was for his India team.

We worked with Phil to develop a cross cultural training program. A year later, Phil’s company is doing great. Their new product just shipped and Phil told me that the team has hit every milestone perfectly. This is just a small part of how business culture can affect a global business. It’s why we created the business synergy compass; to guide businesses to success in the new global economy.

How Do I Communicate With My Overseas Team?

When it comes to delegating work, how can you communicate tasks to your overseas team, and know those tasks will be handled reliably? Communicating with your overseas partner or your outsourced vendor can be a lot more complicated then you might think.

Communicating with your overseas partner or your outsourced vendor can be a lot more complicated then you would think. Yes, sure, it’s fine to pick up the phone and send an email — and actually you should do that a lot. It’s extremely valuable to build those strong relationships and to maintain a lot of communication with your overseas partner. But, its easy to make mistakes when you assume that they are going to be communicating with you in exactly the same way.

Assumptions And How We Communicate

So, for example, we have had clients that would pick up a phone and call their Chinese or their Indian partner to brainstorm about ideas. But, because of misunderstandings between the two parties and between power distance and saving face, the partner over in China, or in India, might take that brainstorming session to be a directive to get to work on something. And so they throw everything else out and the schedule goes out with it — and they start working on something new. And month’s later, you’re surprised — what the heck happened? Why are they working on that? We were just talking about a fun idea we had.

Communicate Assignments Without Misunderstandings

So, how do you avoid misunderstandings like that? Well, one of the most important things you can do is make sure that you have a procedure or a system in place to manage tasks, and assignments, and responsibilities between your teams. There are a number of systems that we’ve used with our clients. Some of them are pretty simple. Basecamp is very popular. We actually don’t recommend Basecamp. It’s not too hard to get lost in Basecamp and much like sending a phone message or an email, people can start pointing fingers, saying, “Oh, I thought you had that task,” “No I had that task.” Also, base camp doesn’t have a great audit trail. Instead we tend to recommend more advanced systems that provide better audit trails, better assignment tracking, and permission and workflow systems.

Salesforce, if you are in a sales organization, actually does a great job of assigning tasks to different people, keeping track of records, who made a call, who didn’t, where is that customer support ticket. If you’re in a more technical discipline, then tools like Rally and Atlassian’s JIRA products are excellent project management tools. They can also be used for customer service management, ticket management or even call tracking because they are very customizable. Especially JIRA which has a very powerful workflow management system that you can customize to do whatever you want. But the best thing with all of these tools — Salesforce, Rally, JIRA and host of other ones — they work over the world wide web, they work on mobile phones, and they all have excellent audit trails, so you can see what has happened, who was assigned the task, and why did they give it to somebody else… And they also make it very easy to expose all of this information to anybody that wants to see it.

So, our number one recommendation, when we are talking about how do you get a hold of your team whose overseas, you can get a hold of them on the phone and with email. But you shouldn’t use those methods to communicate tasks or assignments or new requirements. Those things, if its official, it needs to go into a system. And everybody needs to understand that the system is what dictates who is working on what. That way when your team in China receives a call from the CEO saying, “Hey, what about this great idea?” — well, they’ll understand that if it wasn’t assigned to them in the system, they’re not supposed to start working on it.

Why we can’t just burndown everything

Prashad is the project manager for a new product. After reviewing the project scope, Prashad’s team gives it an initial estimate of about three to four months to complete, which is good enough for management. The project kicks off, and using Scrum along with a little bit of project management, the project gets underway. The first month goes quickly, there is great progress, and everyone loves what they see. But in the second month, things start to slow down — so, Prashad adds more resources to the project to compensate. But by the third month, there are real problems and it looks like the project will be late. Prashad adds even more resources. Now the team is almost double the original size. He adds a lot more quality assurance and testing support for the team, too, because a lot of problems are cropping up. The team cranks away, and they finish the project in the fifth month, and claim “success” because they almost hit the deadline (it was, after all, just an “estimate“).

But what about all those additional resources? Is it really success if the project cost twice as much as originally estimated? The problem is, that cost was never formally stated. It was never tracked as a metric, so the fact that the project went horribly over budget is quietly swept under the rug — at least this time. There are plenty of cases where the budget isn’t there, or the resources aren’t there, or the product just can’t ship late.

So, if so many projects are missing their mark, what’s causing the problem?

The fallacy of so called Agile methods

According to studies conducted by KPMG, as much as 70% of projects fail to meet their goals. In this case, “goals” mean quality, schedule, and function (or a combination of those). Clearly, being able to accurately estimate a project’s delivery date is important. Without knowing when a project is done, you can’t predict cost, plan business operations, or dovetail releases with marketing, training, and customer service.

Agile methods like Extreme Programming and Scrum make promises that, in my opinion, they can’t keep. For well over a decade we’ve seen an increasing trend in project failures, and a large number of those failures are the result of “unending projects.” Projects that go on and on, continuing to deliver improvement but slowly creeping over budget and never reaching an end state. Part of the problem is the lack of formal estimation and metrics.

Both Scrum and Extreme Programming dodge the entire issue of project life cycle estimation. They focus on the near term, providing estimates for the next one or two sprints. This works great if you don’t have budget or time constraints, but in the real world that’s rarely the case.

Burndown just doesn’t work

Most Agile methods don’t explicitly define how you estimate progress, but the most common method is burndown — the measurement of completed effort against the planned sprint goals. This is fine for a quick-and-dirty project but as a strategy it utterly fails to pinpoint problems with budget and timeline. For anything larger than a few months effort, it doesn’t do the job.

And the problem is, few of today’s engineers seem to be getting the formal education and training needed to use proper estimation methods.

There are better solutions than burndown

Earned Value Management, or EVM, is nearing it’s 40th year of practice. Throughout this 40 year history, EVM has repeatedly evolved to meet new demands as technology and innovation made new leaps forward. It’s a proven method for measuring progress and it’s been proven time and again.

Of the dozen or so software engineers I spoke with about this article, none of them had even heard of EVM.

Earned Value Management, as well as a variation known as Performance Based Earned Value® (PBEV), are my favorite choices for estimating a project. The PBEV approach provides an incredibly robust method for measuring progress and staying on top of your project. It’s only marginally more difficult than other techniques of measurement. And most project managers are already capturing the metrics needed to make it work.

PBEV is an improvement over Earned Value Management Systems’ (EVMS) national standard. It supplements EVM with guidelines for the integration of project cost, schedule, and technical performance — thus created a comprehensive and highly accurate method for measuring true progress in a project. The key here is integration of effort with schedule and performance.

Had Prashad been using PBEV, he would have had a very different experience. The early estimates would have been more accurate, since PBEV estimates the entire project. It would have measured not only resources and cost, but also the actual performance — the rate at which work is being done. Had the project gone off track, Prashad would have known much more quickly, and would have had a more precise picture of how to correct the project’s course.

There will definitely be situations in which PBEV is not warranted, and a skilled project manager will need to know when to use other methods, and why. EVMS, for instance, addresses only the quantity of work completed, ignoring cost and schedule metrics. The implication here is that a quick burndown or EVMS-based evaluation of a project might look A-OK, when in fact the only reason it’s on track is because resources are being thrown at it — and costs are skyrocketing.

Burndown versus critical path thinking

Burndown is a very simple method for estimating work effort over a short term. It explicitly avoids timeline, cost and performance metrics. That’s fine for projects that are not constrained by time, budget, or resources. The problem is, burndown is used as a defacto standard too often, on the promise that using an Agile method will deliver a project faster or cheaper than its alternatives. I don’t disagree on this front. Agile methods generally are faster and cheaper — but the question is, faster and cheaper than what?

Most business need to be concerned with time, money, and staffing. Projects that have those constraints need to think about the critical path — the sum of all activities to reach the end of the project. Having a solid understanding of the fundamentals of critical path management is important to managing any project schedule. Depending on the nature of your project, you may be able to rely on casual effort estimates — or, you may be required to carefully identify, analyze, and attack critical paths to shorten your project lifecycle and stay within stringent guidelines. Without understanding the principles, and knowing where to turn for more information, neither is possible.

I’ll revisit the topic of PBEV in a future article and provide more depth into how it can be applied to a project. If you’re eager for more information, check out Performance-Based Earned Value®, Paul J. Solomon, Ralph R. Young, IEEE Computer Society, Wiley Interscience, 2007.

What you won’t get out of your certification

When it comes to project management certification, there’s no doubt quite a few options available. The real question is, do you know what you’re getting with a shiny new certification (such as PMI’s PMP, or IPMA’s Level A through D)?

Certification programs are more about demonstrating your competency than about learning how to manage. Consider this: PMP and IPMA certification takes you through a process guide and an examination that you can easily enough prepare for in a few weeks. The process guide itself is a valuable reference, a great way to organize all the possible areas of knowledge in a project — but it’s just that. A process guide is largely a checklist, giving you a tool to make sure all the right pieces of a project are in motion.

The other part of the certification process is the exercise of documenting your experience, as a project manager, and having the certifying organization vet your experience (although the vetting process is often cursory). It’s supposed to show the world that you have a certain level of project management competence. It is explicitly not going to teach you that competency. The real theory behind PMP certification is that by achieving it, you have demonstrated relevant competency as a project management professional. There’s a good bit of debate regarding the value of this certification: How well does the PMI do in vetting experience? Is there any qualitative distinction in the evaluation? I’ve seen a few terrible managers get their PMP by documenting their management of projects that were miserable failures.

For the most part, deciding whether a candidate’s PMP or IPMA certification (or lack thereof) is valuable lies with the employer. For the individual, I always recommend learning the bodies of knowledge, so long as you are fully aware of what you’re getting. Here are a few of the things that either program won’t prepare you for:

  1. Project management is more about management, and less about process. Most of the certification programs out there tend to emphasize the latter, the process, and spend little time on the “soft and fuzzy” bits: People. The fact is, this is where you’ll succeed or fail. It often comes down to how good you are at picking up on subtle (and not so subtle) cues between team members, sponsors, and stakeholders. There is no certification program in the world that will teach you how to be a great manager — that requires experience, more than anything else (but if you have a degree from a top management school it’s bound to help).
  2. The rosy project you just inherited is actually completely out of touch with reality. More often than not businesses will commit to a project that can’t be met (often establishing budgets and schedules in the process). Studies by Standish and KPMG bear this out, pointing at 70% of projects failing to meet cost, schedule, and quality goals.
  3. Identifying all the right pieces of a project is just the beginning. For example, knowing who the stakeholders are (an important step in the PMBOK) is the easy part. You’ll spend far more time motivating them, coordinating their schedules, dealing with stakeholders that want your project to fail (or just don’t care about it), responding to impossible demands, and figuring out what everyone’s secret agenda is all about.
  4. You’ll need to be good at managing other people’s anger and frustration. Part of being a strong manager is knowing how to evaluate the project dynamics, and then make the right decision. Most of the time, you won’t find a rosy world where everyone agrees about what has to be done. You’ll be stepping inside someone else’s world, and messing with it. You’ll have to tell people to do things they don’t agree with, or don’t want to do. You’ll have to step in and change everything, and people don’t like change.
  5. Your certification didn’t warn you about some of the important bits. There is no such thing as a comprehensive process guide or methodology that gives you all the answers. Some guides are really good in some areas, and horrible in others. The PMBOK, for example, spends precious little time talking about quality assurance and risk management — so little, in fact, that without turning elsewhere you won’t have any idea what these two things are, how important they are, or what to do about them.
  6. You are actually not ready to manage a large scale project simply because you’ve earned your PMP/IPMA/PRINCE2 certification. These certification programs document your past experience, and your basic knowledge of the relevant process guides. Unfortunately, splashy advertising sells certification, so I’m sure we’ll keep seeing claims such as “everything you need to manage complex projects!” It’s a lie.

Deciding whether obtaining a certification is worthwhile or not is a personal decision. I definitely recommend learning the reference material — and after all, if you learn the PMBOK, it’s not much more work to get a PMP certification. Just be honest with yourself about what it means. Being a good project manager means having the experience to guide an organization toward success, not just recite the process guide. I always recommend starting small and finding out what your personal aptitude for management is.

Your key to success as a project manager is going to hinge on your ability to listen to others, learn from others, and always be open and ready to support your team. You’ll need to turn to other people and other sources of information. Be humble, never let obstacles derail you, and make sure your team knows they can rely on you for support. These are the things you don’t find in the process guides.