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Managing Projects Across Borders

Created on 15 October 2008 Written by Lothar Katz and Sue Freedman
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The future of project management is undeniably global. More and more projects depend on the expertise and the cooperation of geographically and culturally diverse teams. Leaders in the international project arena today are more aware of the challenges and more excited by the opportunities than ever before.

As experience with these international project partnerships grows, the organizational competencies needed for success are emerging. Most prominent among those is the ability to select the right projects and partners for international work, coupled with the ability to select, develop, and support leaders with the critical international leadership skills.


The Challenges of Working in an International Project Environment

As corporations all over the world have found time and time again, international project success requires mastering numerous challenges in a complex context. Conducting projects in different countries, with their unique legal and political environments, security issues, economic factors, and infrastructure limitations and requirements, increases complexity far beyond that of projects executed in domestic settings. In addition, the geographic distances, language barriers, and cross-cultural gaps typical of an international project environment introduce further leadership challenges and additional risk. Consider the following example:

  A high-technology company has assigned an experienced project manager to initiate, plan, and execute a project to develop and manufacture a complex new electronic product. A formal selection process named a major manufacturing company in Bratislava, Slovakia as the best production facility for the product. This manufacturer combines the necessary experience and competence with a significant cost advantage over competing vendors. The product’s hardware design will be done in the US, while the development of the complex system software will mostly take place in a wholly-owned company subsidiary in Bangalore, India. The Slovakian manufacturer has assigned a number of test and production specialists as members of the project team.

Under a tight timeline, the project receives special attention from the technology company’s senior management. Nevertheless, a number of issues surface as the project moves through the planning and execution phase. One issue is the discovery that the manufacturer’s quality systems do not meet the project’s requirements. Another is the high staff turnover rates in Bratislava that make it difficult to build and maintain the required know-how, a third is the changing labor regulations by Slovakian government agencies that lead to significant cost overruns, as well as frequent misunderstandings between the engineering teams in the US, Slovakia, and India. Making matters worse, Slovakian management, upon learning that the software team in India encountered a delay of several weeks, temporarily reassigned key people to other tasks. The project manager does his best to get all tasks back on schedule, but with limited success. The first production prototypes from Bratislava end up being two months late and failing several critical tests.

After further attempts to get the project back on track failed, it becomes clear that the product would miss its market opportunity. The company’s senior management decides to stop the project and terminate the contract with the manufacturer in Bratislava, who subsequently brings up a legal case in a Slovakian court.

Clearly, this international product development project was troubled by a number of the challenges discussed above. For most projects, it is impossible to pinpoint any one challenge as the root cause for the project’s struggle or failure. Taken in isolation, each of them represents a task an experienced project manager would find challenging but manageable. Collectively, however, these challenges elevate international projects to higher degrees of overall risk and greater complexity than domestic projects with similar technical scope.

Three factors are most prominent in influencing the success of international projects:

Selecting the right projects

Selecting the right partners

Providing effective project leadership

Selecting International Projects and Partners

When selecting cross-border projects and partners, including suppliers, manufacturers, development houses, or venture partners, it is important to consider all relevant legal, political, security, economic, infrastructure, and cultural factors.

Cultural aspects are often overlooked or receive inadequate consideration. For example, a culture’s orientations towards risk and time may have a substantial impact on the planning and execution of international projects. Assigning a high-risk project to a team whose members belong to more risk-averse cultures, such as Japan, China, or Germany, often leads to disappointing results: team members may spend excessive time planning unpredictable tasks, attempting to reduce risks by changing performance aspects, or articulating reasons why “it won’t work” instead of focusing on how to make the project successful. Similarly, executing time-critical projects in cultures where being patient and accepting fate are crucial values, for instance in Indonesia, Thailand, or certain African countries, can cause friction, as can sharing critical knowledge with partners in countries like China that lack a strong culture of IP protection. It is vital to review cultural characteristics in the context of a project’s priorities, considering alternatives where appropriate.

Another challenge lies in the approach to selecting international partners. It is never sufficient to verify that a targeted partner has the required competencies. Inherently, companies are characterized by their key values, goals, and objectives. When partnering with others, these factors are rarely fully aligned between domestic business partners, let alone those working across borders and cultures. Successful partnering requires sufficiently aligning goals & objectives on both sides. Reaching similar alignment over the partners’ values, however, may be hard or even impossible, especially when working across cultures. Though the collaboration will be easier if both sides’ value sets are well aligned, the existence of value gaps per se is not a reason to abandon a partnership. However, it is crucial to identify and mutually acknowledge value differences in such a project partnership.

For the above reasons, the process of selecting international partners needs to include a clear definition of goals and objectives for the partnership. It must start with a candid assessment of the values, stated and unstated, of the company seeking an international partnership. Once potential partners have been identified, the next step will be to clarify and align competencies, intentions, and expectations on both sides. As part of their due diligence process, both potential partners do well to verify and confirm all of the information they are given. Lastly, the potential partners must analyze differences between their respective values that might affect their collaboration and decide how to deal with them.

Asking the following six questions can be helpful when starting the process of picking international projects and partners:

1. How complex is the project?

2. How complex is the project infrastructure?

3. What are the key risks areas of the project?

4. How time-critical is the project?

5. What are your long-term objectives?

6. Which cultural barriers will you have to address?

Of these, the first four relate to risk management and help in deciding which projects to take international and which partners/cultures to work with. The final two questions serve as guidance for the analysis of value differences between the partners that could affect a project’s success if not properly addressed.

Leading Across Cultures

Working with different cultures places new challenges on those leading the projects and those who lead the organizations selecting and sponsoring those projects. Cultures have differing expectations of leaders, different rules about business relationships, and differing rule sets around ways of work. A look at the following example illustrates some of these differences:

  A team in Hyderabad, India, is responsible for creating a tool for an internal customer of a US company. Four weeks into the project, the US team lead comes to the project manager complaining that India is making the tool too complex and causing delays. The project manager picks up the phone and calls the Indian team member working most closely with the US lead. He explains, politely but clearly, that the Indian team is to develop the tool exactly as requested. The team member in Hyderabad is very gracious. He assures the project manager that there will be “no problem.” The Project manager hangs up the phone, satisfied that the problem is solved, and moves on to his next action item. Two weeks later, the US team lead is back in the project manager’s office, explaining that she is getting no response from India at all, even though she has called and emailed a number of times. She is frustrated and discouraged. She voices her opinion that this whole international project partnership idea is a bad one, because “these people can’t be trusted.”  
This example illustrates how routine project issues escalate into real problems in international settings. The US project manager dealt with his Indian project team member in a way that undoubtedly works with US project members. In doing so, he ignored highly relevant cultural differences between India and the US. He insulted the team member’s supervisor by going directly to his subordinate. He put the team member in the difficult position of speaking for both his boss and his team mates with no opportunity to consult them. In addition, by being so direct, the project manager assured an affirmative answer from the team member and missed any small opportunity he may have had to get reliable information about the problem.

India is an authoritarian, group-oriented culture that often uses indirect communication. The US, on the other hand, is more egalitarian, more individualistic, and much more direct in its communication. These differences mean that communication is very often confusing for both sides. If the confusion gets too great, work and communication simply stop.

To solve this particular problem, the best course for the US project manager is to pick up the phone and call the manager to whom the Indian team reports. He needs to apologize, acknowledging that he should have discussed the issue first with the manager. He needs to listen and then work with the manager to find a solution to which they are both comfortable. Finally, he needs to spend some time working with his US team lead, explaining cultural differences and the strategies that work best in adapting to them.

Challenges in Leading Across Cultures

As illustrated above, the challenges a project leader faces in leading across cultures are significant. In addition to altering behaviors to accommodate the different expectations of leaders, he or she must recognize and adapt to differences in decision making and work styles, adjust to differences in influence and negotiation rules/tactics, and deal with the communication challenges that accompany language differences and separation by distance and time zones.

Project leadership is the responsibility of the project manager. Leadership can be defined as the ability of an individual to influence, motivate, and enable others to contribute toward the effectiveness and success of the organization (House, 1999). Thinking of leadership in this way helps clarify why it is so important for the international project leader to adapt his or her behavior to the expectations and values of the culture of his or her foreign colleagues. Most (but not all) cultures value authoritarian leadership more than the US and many other western countries. People in these cultures expect the leader to be more autocratic and directive. Leaders who are too familiar, too casual, or just too friendly with subordinates generate distrust and confusion. On the other hand, there are cultures whose members expect their leaders to be more egalitarian than most others and will resent and often ignore the leader who acts as if he or she is in any way superior to their subordinates. They expect their leaders to consult with them and to treat them as equals. This means that it is entirely possible to behave in the same way and be viewed as weak and ineffective in one culture and viewed as boorish and ineffective in another. Cultures who value more authoritarian leadership include almost all countries in Central and South America, as well as Russia, China, India, and most of the Mid and Far East. Cultures that value more egalitarian styles include Scandinavia, Israel, Australia, and New Zealand.

In addition to these adaptation issues, leaders of international projects face significant development issues, as international work at the project level is still new territory for everyone involved. Even those with many years of experience report they are still learning how to best understand and communicate with their international colleagues. Project leaders at all levels, as well as project team members, have to learn new ways of working together.

Superiors who are unaware of the differences in leading across cultures create major challenges for the project leader. These individuals, with the best of intentions, often miscommunicate, misunderstand, and misinterpret the behaviors and intentions of their foreign colleagues and subordinates. At the upper levels of the organization, this can be particularly difficult for the project manager. Below is a list of behaviors or directions typical of an uninformed supervisor of an international project manager:

 Delegates completely, doesn’t see any reason to get involved.

 “They work for us—you make that clear to them!”

 Asks if the project manager is keeping “banker’s hours” when he/she comes in late after being on the phone from 11-3 the night before.

 Sees no reason to be selective (except technically) in placing people on an international project.

 Selects high risk/high collaboration projects for international work.

 Assumes the time required is the same for international and domestic projects

 Is unwilling or unable to change leadership style to meet cultural expectations.

The behaviors are indicative of a leader who simply does not understand the realities of an international project. In this situation, the project manager has the added burden of educating his or her boss on the realities of international project work. This is perhaps another reason for selecting project managers who are very skilled at influencing, negotiating, and adapting their behavior to different people and contexts.

Ideally, the project manager’s supervisor is aware of the challenges of international projects and is able to provide support and advice to the project manager. In addition, that ideal supervisor will have close relationships with his counterparts in the partnering organizations and can use his influence when necessary to resolve issues or expedite solutions.

There are also project managers who should not be assigned to international projects, even when they are very successful in their own cultures. Below is a list of the behaviors or perspectives that predict failure in leading an international project:

 Doesn’t work to build relationships

 Insults or ignores foreign subordinate managers (often unknowingly)

 Spends little or no time in designing/building communication systems

 Always supports the own country’s side in project conflicts

 Talks very fast and/or very loud

 Expects all the adapting to be done by foreign colleagues

 Attributes problems to laziness, stupidity or insubordination (and shows it)

 Refuses to change his/her behavior to accommodate differences

 Doesn’t follow up to insure that agreements are understood and executed.

 Assumes there are shared rules around time and quality

This list characterizes a project manager who is uninformed about the impact of cultural differences on international projects. One of the most common complaints from experienced international professionals is about the number of people sent to work with or for them who are, and remain, unaware of the very real impact of culture and language on the way in which a project must be managed. An emerging best practice is to assure that adequate training in cultural differences is provided to all those managing or working on international projects. In addition, it is best to select those project leaders who have significant relationship building skills and are well aware of the role relationships play in international project success.  


Projects that cross borders offer unique opportunities and significant risk. Best practices that mitigate some, although certainly not all, of that risk are available. These include disciplined project and partner selection practices that weigh legal, political, security, economic, infrastructure, and cultural factors. Also critical is the careful alignment of the goals and objectives of all participating parties.

Careful selection and alignment, however, are not enough. Organizations that excel in international project management must select, train and support the right project leaders at all levels. Those leaders must be  flexible enough to adapt to significant cultural differences and deliberate enough to manage the systems and structures that assure timely communication and adherence to strict quality standards. Leaders who possess those unique set of talents are rare, but their numbers are growing.   
About the authors:
Sue Freedman Sue Freedman, Ph.D. and Lothar Katz are the creators and primary instructors of Managing Projects Across BordersTM, a series of three workshops on Leading International Projects and International Project Organizations. Sue is a consultant and teacher specializing in management, leadership, and change management strategies for projects and project based organizations. She has worked with fortune 500 and other companies in the areas of international project management, international leadership, complex collaboration, team effectiveness, and large systems change. Recent public presentations include: Management Across Borders” (Project Management Institute, Houston, 2007), “Initiating and Planning International Projects” (PMI SIG, 2006), and “Executing International Projects” (PMI SIG, 2006). Lothar is a management advisor in the field of international business. He has helped many organizations grow their global competence and maximize their international business success. During his 16 years with Texas Instruments, a Fortune 500 company, Mr. Katz gained extensive negotiation, business leadership, and project management experience. As a Vice President and General Manager, he successfully led international organizations across four continents and regularly interacted with employees, customers, outsourcing partners, and third parties in numerous countries. Mr. Katz is the author of the book “Negotiating International Business – The Negotiator’s Reference Guide to 50 Countries Around the World”, a faculty member of the Project Management Program at the University of Texas at Dallas’ School of Management, and a Business Leadership Center instructor at the Southern Methodist University’s Cox School of Business. Contact Sue and Lothar at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.. lotharkatz.gif  
Last Updated on 31 July 2012

Interview with Anujit Mukherjee (member #1800)

Created on 20 April 2008 Written by Jean Binder
Hits: 2260
In the interview below (conducted on the occasion of the 1800th membership in our LinkedIn group), Anujit Mukherjee talks about his experience as a programme manager, and suggests that negotiation plays an important role for the success of global programmes.

What was the most complex situation you lived on a global project, and how did you survive?
While working in Japan, on behalf of Kodak, I needed to get buy-in on a product concept that was mutually beneficial to both parties. The Japanese company needed to have product features skewed to their end. Laying out the Project Plan carefully and in details, and showing that the only returns would be reached if we had the current configuration, resulted in a common deal. This was extremely important to our Asia Pac growth and I had to drive a hard, but reasonable bargain via intense project negotiation based on clear scope and all the other project artifacts. 

What do you enjoy about working on global projects?
The challenge of the convergence of cultures yields some of the most valuable experiences ever.

What are the main challenges you face on your day-to-day project management, particular to Global Projects?
Communication, Negotiation and control of scope across borders. 

How do you believe the Global Project Management Framework can help global project managers?
Listening to the experiences of my peers have always played a major role in helping me understand the success metrics for global projects.  

What would you recommend to improve the framework in its next version?
The community could organize web conferences to share experiences around programme and project management successes and challenges.

What word of advice would you give to other global project managers?
1) Focus on the project deliverables
2) Be mindful of cultural distances
3) Take care with respect to intellectual property issues
4) Take into consideration schedule risks due to unexpected issues.
5) It is important to browse through books, such as the ones written by Friedman, who has written about global issues and cultural acceptance of products.

Click here to post a comment

Anujit Mukherjee has 20 years experience in Product Planning, Technology Strategy, Business Strategy, Market Strategy, Market Research and R&D for complex imaging technologies and systems. He is interested in Organizational innovation and technology obsolescence analyses as means to drive new products, and to create digital concepts and take through the research and development process to make them ready for commercialization. See his profile on LinkedIn and invite him to join your network. 
Last Updated on 31 July 2012

Collaborative networks and global projects

Created on 12 August 2007 Written by Jean Binder
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Image © Carole Nickerson | Dreamstime.comMany organisations form strategic alliances and partnerships to access specific markets, to obtain capital resources or sponsorship, or to share R&D and manufacturing skills. Very often, the relationship is sealed around a group of programs or projects. A seamless exchange of information is essential for these initiatives to be successful. The chapter 15 of the “Global Project Management” book describes the characteristics that define these collaborative networks, discusses the main challenges presented by these forms of relationship, suggests a strategy to achieve effective collaboration and makes recommendations to kick-off the partnership and to concentrate on the interfaces during the project execution.

Castells (2000) suggests that organisations are evolving from multinational enterprises to international networks, which include large corporations and a series of small and medium business, each in a different country and organisational culture, all with a shared mission to be achieved within a limited timeframe. These networks can aggregate the main suppliers, producers and customers with their sub-contractors and service providers, and are strongly reliant on the cooperation among different individuals and on the communication between the computer networks.

Program and project managers have the responsibility of driving these networks towards their common mission, by coordinating the collaboration and communication activities, and managing the sharing of interests between the common objective and the goals of the individual companies.


Castells, M. (2000) ‘The rise of the network society (Blackwell, UK).

 Image © Carole Nickerson | 


Last Updated on 31 July 2012

Project Lessons Learned

Created on 09 August 2007 Written by Marie-Paule Sottiaux
Hits: 1920

Here is an example of all lessons learned from a Sourcing Program.

This has originally brainstormed with all the Project Managers in a MindMap session and than converted into a Powepoint document to present to the Steering Committee during the Closing session.

Click here to download the presentation

Last Updated on 31 July 2012

A mindmap on global collaborative networks

Created on 22 February 2008 Written by Jean Binder
Hits: 2097

Download a mindmap that can help you to improve the processes and communication on global collaborative networks.

Click here to download a mindmap on global collaborative networks

Click here to see a list of other mindmaps.

Last Updated on 31 July 2012
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