Is It Easy for a Project Manager to Manage a Project Overseas?

Now that we’ve explained how to negotiate a Project Management job overseas, the immediate question would be: is it easy for a Project Manager to manage a project overseas with his experience? Or is the Project Manager’s experience transferable to other countries?

Since Project Management is a set of (somehow) standardized best practices to manage a project, then the short answer should be “yes”: a Project Manager with an experience anywhere can work anywhere else. Nevertheless, there are a few factors that will highly influence the survivability of the Project Manager overseas.

Cultural Differences

Cultural differences should be taken into consideration by the Project Manager. Cultural differences affecting the project are many, including:

  • In North America, the vacation days (per year) vary between 10 and 15 days, and resources have to secure the approval of management (which may or may not happen) before taking any vacation. Additionally, most employees do not take all these days at once (normally they take only 5 working days in a row). Project Managers usually are very careful when approving overlapping vacations by two or more resources and they are able to disapprove vacations that may hinder the progress of the project. In Europe, on the other hand, employees are entitled to a month every year. Employees just inform management of their vacation date (they seldom ask for approval, as it’s taken for granted) and length. Not only that, most employees take a whole month in one shot, and they don’t care if the project is struggling and/or other employees are taking their vacation that very same month (which is often the case. For example, most people in Europe take their vacation in August, just before their kids start school, as spending time with the kids is quite important in Europe). This practice of course can stagnate the whole project (especially when multiple resources take the vacation at the same time), and the Project Manager can do nothing about it, even when the project is desperate for resources. The best thing the Project Manager can do is to always account for the “long vacation” factor in the project plan.
  • In developed countries, leniency and fault-tolerance is expected and appreciated by the resources, and viewed as a management best practice. In developing countries where firmness is the norm, adopting those same principles may be perceived as a weakness. This of course can make it hard for the Project Manager to enforce his authority over the resources.
  • In developed countries, micromanagement (for most resources) is a big no-no. In fact resources in these countries resent this practice (some find it even insulting), and can be easily demotivated, ultimately reducing their work output. On the other hand, micromanagement in developing countries is, in most cases, a must. Resources will feel lost and become frustrated if they don’t constantly feel that someone is watching over them and guiding them even when it comes to the smallest of tasks.
  • Gold plating as well as huge padding when estimating tasks (as opposed to the over-optimistim when it comes to task estimation in developed countries), are practices that are usually adopted by project team members in developing countries. Some team members are even unable to give any estimate for their tasks. The Project Manager is expected to do the job of the team members and estimate the tasks himself (hence it is important for the Project Manager to have a technical background when managing projects overseas).
  • Last but not least, office politics can be a completely different play overseas, and this is where most Project Managers fail. Office politics is usually much tougher than at home, and this is caused by 2 things:
    1. Most people working overseas are materialistic people that are there just for the money (and sometimes lots of money), so they wouldn’t mind stepping on other people to reach what they want (this is especially true in a company where management consists of expatriates).
    2. In developing countries, country politics may have a direct effect on the inner politics of the company. For example, there might very well be some senior executives advocating for a certain politician, party, etc… In some countries, religion and ethnicity also comes into play in office politics.

    Navigating office politics in a foreign country can be hazardous, and, if not done right, may lead to either the firing or the resignation of the Project Manager. Studying the company and the country very well, understanding who’s who, and who belongs to who, can really help in this case.

Language Difference

A different language can be a huge obstacle when managing projects overseas. It may lead to the following undesirable outcomes:

  • Miscommunication: Assume the Project Manager is talking in English to resources whose first language is not English. The Project Manager may say something that will be interpreted differently or misunderstood by the resources, who are then shy to admit that they didn’t understand what the Project Manager really wanted. It is the duty of the Project Manager to make sure that what he’s communicating to his project team is crystal clear, usually by asking the resources to repeat for him what he already asked them to do (this is the most basic yet most efficient method).
  • Conflicts: Language misunderstandings that are left unresolved may easily grow into conflicts. It is very important for the Project Manager to immediately address any misunderstanding (resulting from the language difference) in order to avoid unnecessary conflicts. However, sometimes it is very hard to know if a conflict is festering due to something the Project Manager unintentionally said. This is because some resources do not immediately express that they were offended by something, instead adopting a passive-aggressive behavior.

Procurement Challenges

In developed countries, procurement is probably the easiest part of managing a project, especially when the company has contracted a vendor to procure all the necessary equipment/material. In developing countries, procurement can be a problem, as sometimes it becomes very hard to locate some basic equipment, even after contacting many vendors. In order to solve this problem, the Project Manager has 2 options:

  1. Contact the most prominent vendor in the country, and ask that vendor to import goods on the company’s behalf.
  2. Completely take the local vendor out of the equation and import the goods directly.

Both options have pros and cons, and the second option may be better especially if the company is large enough to handle the procurement by itself. Supporting and maintaining the imported goods is a problem in either case. Unfortunately, there is no silver bullet for procurement overseas.

© 2010 Project Management Learning – Reproduction of this material is strictly prohibited without the written consent of Project Management Learning.


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