PM Essence
Cultural Intelligence of a Project Manager – India Perspective
– Anup Kumar Gupta, PMP, ITIL, IBM India Pvt. Ltd.

In any global project management assignment it is important to consider and be aware of the potential problems arising from cultural diversity that exists among project managers, project team members and other stakeholders. This cultural divide may cause many cross-border projects to fail or succeed depending on how effectively the Project Manager has been able to put in practice his cultural intelligence.

Cultural intelligence has been established as a core capability essential for the success of any business transformational initiative in 21stcentury and beyond.

Any Business transformation begins with collaboration between various global teams to define the programs and projects. Hence, it is of paramount importance that we understand this important aspect called ‘Cultural Intelligence’ which could be a major hindrance to this collaboration itself, and eventually determines the end result of the transformation initiatives.



Cultural Intelligence

Let’s first try to understand the meaning of the word culture. There is no single definition of “culture” exists”, culture as being “a collective programming of the mind which distinguishes the members of one group or category of people from another”.

Culture can be represented as an iceberg. Like an iceberg, culture has small “visible part which we perceive through our senses. Ref. fig # 1 – there is a large “invisible” part which consists of the values and thought patterns that each culture has created over time.

Cultural Intelligence (CI) could be defined as the recognizing and understanding of the beliefs, values, habits, attitudes and behaviors of a group of people and the ability to apply that knowledge towards the achieving of specific project goals.

The Cultural Intelligence model consists of three dimensions: cognitive, motivational  and behavioral. The first dimension illustrates “person’s understanding of culture-specific behavior” and includes learning of the foreign culture principles. The second one represents motivation factors and attitude of individuals towards cross-cultural interaction. It can be also presented as curiosity towards a new culture. The behavioral dimension defines behavioral patterns adopted by an individual in order to effectively participate in crosscultural communications.

Why Cultural Intelligence

Some of the main reasons for the failure of international projects are the Project Manager’s lack of competencies for securely moving in intercultural environments.

The reasons that cultural intelligence is important could be

Culture is the inner fabric of a person – it is what he/she believes in and holds dear

In terms of talent management, cultural Intelligence is a way of unleashing the inner passion and potential

Respect comes from understanding and tolerance. If we do not engage with the people’s culture, we will not really respect them.

People are different, and we should not try to impose sameness on them.

Different cultures bring different strengths to the table

Cultural Intelligence also helps us to adapt to the cultural differences and work to bridge them.

The most frequent challenges project managers have to confront relate to the triple constraints of project i.e. schedule, cost and scope.

Schedule – There can be different understanding of the schedule as such. In some cultures like India a schedule is seen as a rough orientation and in other cultures it is taken as set in stone.

Scope – Different attitudes towards quality can potentially lead to over or under fulfilling of scope items. Relationship orientated like the Indian culture versus the goal oriented like the western culture can lead to incomplete or missed scope items. The ‘never say no’ and ‘do not ask why’ attitude that the Indian’s have developed due to the long colonial rule, although leads to good relationship with a customer or other stakeholders, however could potentially lead to scope creep or gold plating, which are both dangerous for the overall success of a project.

Cost – The western attitude of “Time is money” does not apply around the world. There are substantial differences in the value and importance that are assigned to money. Like the schedule, the project budget can be perceived as either a given, or a mere recommendation.

Project Manager is a “Manager” first when project management meets globalization; additional dimensions of complexity have to be taken into account. Project Managers usually have to deal with a variety of cultures at the same time.

Historically, Project Management was a face to face environment where team meetings involved all players convening together in one room. The team itself may even be co-located. Today, because of the size and complexity of projects, it is impossible to find all team members located under one roof.

The importance of culture cannot be understated in this scenario. Below points need mentioning regarding the impact of culture on virtual teams.

1. Team leaders and members who understand and are sensitive to cultural differences can create more robust outcomes than can members of homogeneous teams with members who think and act alike. Cultural differences can create distinctive advantages for team if they are understood and used in positive ways.

2. The most important aspect of understanding and working with cultural differences is to create a team culture in which problems can be surfaced and differences can be discussed in a productive and respectful manner.

3. It is essential to distinguish between problems that result from cultural differences and problems that are performance based.

4. Business practices and business ethics vary in different parts of the world. Virtual teams need to clearly articulate approaches to these that every member understands and abides by.

Managers and leaders in today’s changing and increasingly complex market conditions should be fully ‘compliant’ with the three dimensions (Cognitive, Motivational and behavioral) of Cultural Intelligence to ensure successful Business transformational initiatives.

To achieve project goals and avoid potential risks, project managers should be culturally sensitive and promote creativity and motivation through flexible leadership. Any international business transformation initiative will not be complete unless the Cultural Intelligence dimension is not fully deliberated as  separate and major stream.