Cross-cultural project management: the chameleon syndrome


The only purpose of this short article is to take advantage of the chameleon’s popularity, as I must admit I am deeply upset that cross-cultural management does not seem as fascinating for most people as this little lizard. That is pure, unfair humiliation for us poor Project Managers!

When I am asked how AppTek manages to bring smoother operations on cross-cultural projects, I tend to have two kinds of answers. The first is the “elevator pitch” one: when I do not have enough time to express my natural passion for AppTek’s mission in length. In just a few seconds, I usually mention classic -though quite true- concepts and rules like: respect, constant communication management, accurate planning, tight execution and control, relationship and mind mapping, etc.

And even though the above is absolutely true on top of being a lifetime learning process (developing and practicing them on a daily basis is no walk in the park), I suppose that the time you are taking to read me may be a little better rewarded with some more detailed explanation.

When trying to understand how to be successful in managing complex, highly technical projects with the additional difficulty of addressing people coming from different countries and cultures contributing, one image eventually emerges from the dense cloud of facts and experience of specialized consultants: they are chameleons! You know: this ugly little creature featuring a surprising mix of features, that is still fascinating scientists all over the world.

Integrate in the environment

The most obvious asset that the cross-cultural project manager has to borrow from the chameleon is the ability to integrate and merge with the environment. As the chameleon set on a branch becomes part of the tree, he is dropped in a new environment, surrounded by cultural codes that are not his native ones; however, as he observes the project stakeholders, he quickly learns to behave in a similar way. The trick is to keep bringing what makes his value to the team: a different perspective, the experience of other contexts and/or some reflexes he acquired to improve efficiency. Thus, not only integrating, but also interacting with the environment.

Success comes when the team is convinced that the PM, though from an alien origin, is able to understand perfectly their constraints, difficulties and assets while still continuously challenging them forward. I remember a Spanish CEO saying: “In one week, you have understood our difficulties, in two weeks you were part of the team, and for three months, you have been challenging us continuously to move forward!”

An outstanding sense of observation

Here comes the second feature that allows the first one to be possible. Chameleons have eyes that can be oriented completely independently from each other, which enables them to have a 360° vision, and even over 4π steradian (which means the whole 3D space around, tribute to my geometry teachers!). The sense of observation is crucial for this work: the littlest signal, the tiniest detail will help to understand the context, and avoid psychological, behavioral or purely technical mistakes and their long-lasting effects on performance.

A former colleague provided me with a counter-example. During a meeting with the customer in China, several persons whose functions had not been clarified in advance were facing him, and only two were speaking. He missed the codes and tiny signals showing who was the actual decision maker, which to be fair is far from obvious from an uneducated Western eye. His Chinese translator did not warn him, and he went on with purely technical discussions, while he should have shifted to contractual and guarantees issues, that were the customer’s real concern. This would have forced the engineer to refer to the boss, unveiling what was likely to convince this one. The project was lost, while the technical solution was fully satisfactory.

Realism and humility

Realism is the third point I wish to emphasize, as it is key to survive and find one’s true place. This little animal is quite weak compared to far bigger ones with whom it shares the jungle. But from the above-mentioned holistic point of view, the chameleon/Project Manager will be able to assess his environment and its opportunities and threats in particular. This ability leads to an acute sense of risk anticipation and ways to mitigate them, which is even more than the basic camouflage skill.

Moreover, I have already written about my sincere admiration for the outstanding know-how and exceptional people I meet when intervening in the companies. The external Project Manager brings a different knowledge, an original point of view and some innovative or proven methods but he stays humble, benevolent and willing to influence, short: to lead through example, not serving his own ambition. Above all, his detached point of view helps identifying objectively the strengths and weaknesses in the resources, which proves to be tricky when one is part of the organization, and especially when one’s assessment of them is biased by cultural orientation.

This realism is a major contribution to his customer’s project, like a radar helps targeting the right route, and a dashboard displays what is going on aboard. As one of my friends made me notice recently, this is where the analogy reaches its limits. Contrary to the chameleon which just integrates its greater environment to survive, the Project Manager’s ambition is to bring a breakthrough in the method, pace or both.

Big is good, fast is better

Speaking of pace and finally, have you seen how a chameleon catches its prey? It is stunning! While it was perfectly still just before, it suddenly deploys its tongue within 1/25 sec and with a devilish accuracy to catch the target. These extreme variations in timing represent the last key I wish to share with you. The cross-cultural Project Manager is able to take the necessary time to prepare the action –feel free to read the little text I wrote on the subject– and right after, when time comes, drive an extremely quick and impacting action.

In a project, there are key moments where speed is the key success factor, and sometimes the only one. Even more: the perception of urgent phases or actions is different from a culture to another. Where typical French managers consider setting up a plan and identifying a roadmap to success as a top-priority, many other cultures will rather start to act and steer the project according to events. The point is not to list the pros and cons of each attitude, but to show that what is deemed “important”, or “urgent” varies greatly depending on the culture you are immersed in.

The Project Manager will focus on what is factually important, and increase speed when it is necessary. More, he will juggle constantly with cultural habits to find the right timing along the project and lead the team to success, while avoiding pushing people too far out of their comfort zone.

Back to your daily jungle

I hope this little article put a little color touch in your day, and after drawing your attention for a while from the little lizard to cross-cultural Project Management, I encourage all of you to practice the 4 key abilities above regularly in order to soon be able to switch easily from chamele-off to chamele-on!