Project Management Around The World – Guildford, UK


This post is my contribution to the second #PMFlashBlog, in which project managers from around the world give a regional perspective on their view of project management. This is week two of the sequence, with the spotlight on Europe, and I’m posting from the United Kingdom.

It’s all a matter of culture

At first glance, it is a ridiculous idea to look at project management around the world. Why would it be any different? We’ve  got an ISO standard devoted to project management – which by its very existence proves that project management is the same everywhere. And yet it isn’t. It is sometimes said that “project management is about people”, and – fortunately for all of us – people are not the same everywhere. We come from different cultures, and like it or not that has an influence on the way we behave. For project managers, it gives us a bias in the way we work and it affects the way others see us.

What is “culture”?

The cultural influences that I’m talking about are the behavioural biases that we absorb from early childhood onward. The modes of behaviour that are influenced by our family, friends, teachers, peers and leaders. The common experience of our upbringing – and for sure what I might regard as “common experience” is completely different from someone raised in China, Africa, South America… or even just across the Channel in France.

Our cultural upbringing influences our values, manners, and attitudes. It gives us our body language, tone of voice and sense of humour. It affects our outward display of emotion, our sense of hierarchy, our acceptance (or not) of authority and our attitude towards personal space. It gives us our foundation of attitudes to age, gender, race and religion.

Yet we are all individuals, we are all different, and most of us do not walk around behaving as national stereotypes throughout the working day. We can choose our behaviours to a greater or lesser degree. Or perhaps we only think we can. We can reject the attitudes of our upbringing and choose a different course. There are good project managers and bad project managers in every culture, in every part of the world. Still — we are all influenced by our cultural background, and for a project manager it is essential to be aware of our biases and the effect that these may have on others.

“The best Project Managers come from the UK”

Not my words, but the words of a Swedish client that first made me think about cultural aspects of project management. I was working in Sweden, and we had just come out of a tense project meeting at which a dramatic change of scope had been agreed. It was a difficult decision, but I was happy with the way the meeting had gone, and comfortable with the outcome.

Client: That’s why I like to use a British project manager.

Me: What do you mean?

Client: Because if a Swede had run that meeting, we’d be too worried about hurting people’s feelings to reach a decision.

That conversation got me thinking. Is it true that the best project managers are from the UK? Well, obviously not exclusively, but there are certainly some cultural biases that might help:

  • Good natural mix of “hard” and “soft” skills – which means being able to keep focussed on the objective but without too many casualties along the way
  • An ability to deal with ambiguity – to make progress even in the face of uncertainty
  • A gentle humour – to bring enjoyment into even the most challenging of situations.

What I’m now going to do is risk insulting friends and colleagues by talking about stereotypes! Please bear with me… it’s all in a good cause… and I’ve taken pains to point out we are all individuals and are not bound by our national stereotypes. All of the following are from personal experience in countries where I have worked for extended periods of time.

Disclaimer (in case I haven’t spelt it out clearly enough): I could name many excellent project managers from every one of the countries that I’m using as examples!

Americans: “Hire and Fire”

It’s a tough environment for PMs in the USA, where commercial success is everything and failure leads to a swift exit. Bad news is unwelcome, particularly where executive bonuses are at stake.  There is, sadly, a tendency to the “shoot the messenger”, who more often than not is the project manager. If a PM is punished for honesty, then being economic with the truth becomes a survival tactic, to the detriment of the project.

I’ve seen it happen, and it isn’t pleasant to watch. If you’re working on my project, please don’t be a “good news” PM.

The Dutch are rude!

A quality that I admire in the Dutch is their direct approach to communications. No beating about the bush or British circumlocution here. If you don’t like something, then say so. Argue and fight about it in a business context – and then afterwards go and have a beer as the best of friends, without any hard feelings.

It’s a great approach once you understand it – but be aware that most of the rest of the world regards such confrontational behaviour as ill-mannered and rude!

Germans need a process

In the German approach, every problem has a correct solution; it is just a matter of finding it. Detailed analysis is everything, and I admire the extraordinary effort that I’ve seen being put into the search.

The danger? Of course, it is “analysis paralysis”. Whereas other nationalities might be content to make the best of a bad job and move on, to a German it is better to get to root of the problem before proceeding.

Swedes are too nice

I’ve already touched on the Swedish philosophy that people come first. Let me give an example of a conversation after another meeting that I attended, that had a more typically Swedish outcome.

Me: That was a terrible decision.

Client: Yes, I know.

Me: So why didn’t you speak out in the meeting?

Client: Because everyone felt good about the decision. And sometimes that matters more.

British Project Managers are superficial and lazy

Having established beyond any doubt that the Brits make the best PMs, is there a down-side?

Of course there is, because what I may think of as a positive attribute can be seen negatively through someone else’s cultural filter.

Great sense of humour? No, the British are a constant irritation in the way they trivialise important discussions.

Able to work with ambiguity? That’s just an excuse for being lazy and superficial.

What this means for me, as a British project manager, is that I need to think about and tailor my approach for maximum effectiveness depending on the culture that I’m working in. In the USA, I think carefully about the message. In Sweden, it’s about acceptance by the team. In Germany, I need to apply more rigour to my analysis. And so on.

How to be a better Project Manager

We are, each of us, a product of our cultural background. By being sensitive to these factors – our tendency towards particular behavioural strengths and weaknesses – we can modify our approach to each situation, and become more effective as a Project Manager.

By |2015-08-19T10:54:44+00:00March 10th, 2014|Project Management|3 Comments

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  2. Barry Hodge March 14, 2014 at 13:39

    Russell, I really enjoyed your post and as a fellow Brit I got the humour! I also find that project managers from different industries have different approaches. This is particularly evident with comparing public and private sectors project managers. I would love to right more but I am a little bit lazy!

    • Russell Whitworth March 14, 2014 at 14:01

      Thanks visiting, Barry, and thanks for the comment.

      Yes, you are right about the sector differences. Perhaps that would be a good topic for a future #PMFlashBlog. Most of my career has been in the telecoms industry, where “fast to market” is the imperative. There are other factors that play a much greater part in project management in different industries, such as regulatory compliance (e.g. Finance) and safety compliance (e.g. Aerospace).

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