Often an ardent wish of most of the colleagues I know does not succeed. Many approaches lead to endless long to-do lists or parked mails in your inbox. With approaches like Getting-Things-Done (GTD) and other approaches, which are also applied to mail handling, additional software or other compromises are often involved. I have to say, I have my inboxes quite well under control and not the other way around. Some time ago I came across an approach by Luise Freese, which is very good but not completely suitable for my and probably many other colleagues. I need subfolders for my projects and don’t want to do several steps per mail. Therefore my suggestion is slightly modified and in my opinion simplified.
Objective of Zero Inbox
No mails in the inbox, grouping of tasks by context and the ability to find all mail immediately. Especially with the latter Outlook often plays tricks on me because the “Machine Learning” search results are not always correctly prioritized / sorted. Another reason why I still create folders in the project folder in Outlook.
Create a _ReadMe and _ToDo folder below the inbox. The underscore is helpful, because then these folders are always on top, directly below the inbox. These folders can also be placed under “Favorites” (right-click, show in favorites).
Create categories in Outlook like @Phone @StandUpMeeting @Waiting.
Next, expand the ribbon bar in Outlook:
Then we create so-called QuickSteps:
An example of one of the specified quicksteps:
In detail it is set as follows:
The short text of the “standard reply mail” can be entered as follows: “Hi, I would like to discuss / close this item in the next stand up meeting instead of having a further mail exchange.”
Another Quickstep can look like this:
with the “default mail text”: “Hello, Busy times these days. Just wanted to let you know that I already set a reminder for end of this week and will get back to you by then. If it is more urgent please chat with me on MS Teams.”
And then a Quickstep for completed tasks:
Finally, the following Quicksteps should be created in a modified form:
@Stand Up, @Wait, @Phone, News, Read, Do Today, Do Tomorrow, Do This Week, Do Next Week und Clear bzw. Close.
If I was dissatisfied with Barcamps in the past, it was mostly because the session planning did not lead to full transparency for me. So I went to different sessions, which were a surprise for me regarding the format. I think it is important that it is very transparent for all participants, which format and which session has been planned. Sometimes the format develops differently during the session – that’s the great thing about barcamps – but the type of session makes it more secure to choose the “right” session.
How to make the session format transparent for everyone
That is why face2face barcamps should show these session types (and more) on every session card with abbreviations or even on a prepared card with checkbox option.
Workshop = max. 10-minute presentation and subsequent joint elaboration, e.g. on the electronic Microsoft whiteboard or another jointly available electronic document stored in the Team SharePoint.
Problem definition = collegial consultation. I have a situation that I would like to reflect on and would like to receive input.
Impulse presentation = maximum 15 minutes of impulse presentation and then discussion.
Serious Game = Exercise / learning game with the aim of providing information and education. An authentic and credible, but also entertaining learning experience is the focus of interest.
The participants for the virtual Barcamp “Guided tour in the project” will use an online form before the Barcamp and also at the beginning of the Barcamp before the planning of the session to submit their session suggestions, which are then already categorized accordingly. To ensure the documentation of the sessions, the integration of external tools (e.g. additional electronic whiteboards besides MS Whiteboard in the session) is not desired and not allowed due to data protection reasons.
Have fun at the next barcamp and choose the right sessions!
The article examines how working in programs has changed due to the exclusively virtual way of working. Special attention is paid to the changes in governance, working methods and perception of hierarchy in the company. This contribution is accompanied by a survey on some hypotheses on the future of leadership especially under the aspect of distributed work in order to support or reject these hypotheses. Nevertheless, I will try to formulate some future prognoses on this subject already now. The article wants to give some hints which experiences we should in any case take with us into the “new normality” and thus firmly anchor them in our way of working. People and companies who do not learn and adapt from this crisis and only want to return to a supposed old normality will fail in the future.
On March 2nd I did not go to North Rhine-Westphalia like every week before, because I had cold symptoms and since a few weeks the corona virus was on everyone’s lips, also in our program. So I thought it would be appropriate not to endanger my colleagues in the project and planned one week of remote work. Thought, done. Being one of the few “local” colleagues not to be on site, as expected, led to a lot of more time being spent for work, as now much had to be done via team video call. And this in planned meetings, which was perhaps previously easily clarified across the desk. In the course of that week, my company decided to stop all non-essential business trips and let me work exclusively from my home office. What can I say, the next few weeks were pure stress, because all the meetings, which were previously held locally and often hybrid, were now virtualized, which led to many additional hours of work. Despite my 5+ years of experience in pure home office (globally virtual distributed programs or project portfolios) in my 20+ years of experience in project and program management, virtual work during Corona was another dimension. I would like to go into this in the course.
This personal (including capacity-) crisis has, as often, also led to something better. What exactly has changed?
Changes in governance et al.
When it comes to governance, many people think first of meetings and the committee structure. This is fundamentally correct, but it is not complete. My calendar was overloaded the first 3-4 weeks of purely virtual work, because now a meeting was often set up virtually for many “little things” and then 30 minutes with colleagues was the lower limit. Thanks to Outlook. I immediately remembered the 22-minute meetings. The goal is to have meetings in
22 minute slots,
to have a clear agenda,
ideally, distribute written reading material on the topic of the meeting in advance and in good time,
start the meeting on time and have a clear focus.
I have configured my Outlook so that meetings last either 25 minutes or 50 minutes by default. Here the settings in Outlook help to ensure this. My experience in the virtual environment is that meetings last until the planned end. On site meetings last until someone has to leave because they are changing rooms. Moving from one room to another demand time. In the virtual environment this is usually not granted. Often there is not even time for bio breaks. Unbelievable!
In order to avoid the overcrowded calendar, a daily stand-up meeting of the teams should also be planned in the virtual environment. Here it is important that appropriate video conferencing and collaboration tools are used. I use Planner from Microsoft or Trello in my volunteer work to support backlog, spintplanning and standups. With both boards, the daily stand-up meeting with a core team of a program or, as with me currently, the project portfolio management team of typical up to 7 direct reports can be supported very well. Sprint planning and retroperspectives are of course also included.
Another proven meeting sequence is to schedule escalation and decision meetings ideally several times a week and, in the best case, cancel them if nothing needs to be decided or addressed. These fixed regular dates allow for quick decisions, even in times when the calendars of our senior management are full. Should the need arise to be more than once or twice a week, the role descriptions, RACIs etc. must be checked carefully. Then, in my experience, there is not enough information and decision-making authority at the right level. Basically, my remarks on governance and escalations apply here, of course.
Due to the complete virtualization of all meetings, I have noticed a democratization of these meetings. Anyone can switch on the webcam and be present in a prominent position, unlike in hybrid meetings. Anyone can use the “raise hand” function in the collaboration tool. Everyone can see what is being drawn on the virtual whiteboard and not somewhere on a locally available flipchart. Everybody – and not just the local senior management at the table – can be seen equally in the gallery view of the video software. Quietly and secretly, this changes the style of the meetings and, above all, the greater participation of formerly “never-in-meeting room attendees”, because they are, for example, offshore.
Overall, an asynchronous working of the team is to be enabled, e.g. by check-ins in the morning (these can also be created manually in Microsoft Teams). For teams that work on different topics and only interfaces are relevant or where for whatever reason the daily stand-ups are not possible, the check-in approach is recommended in any case. An active exchange on the check-ins should take place via the comment function. Otherwise there is no added value. If a person asks the check-in question manually, no automatisms have to be established via additional tools. In my team we had solved this manually in MS Teams in which a colleague set the daily question at the start of work.
Due to the higher concentration/stringency of virtual meetings, team members quickly notice exhaustion due to the high sequence of meetings. The one or the other coffee talk can then be made possible virtually.
For me, the more intensive cooperation – intensive because of the even higher level of structuring – has confirmed that the team composition is particularly relevant as already described in 2019. For me, in the intensive virtual cooperation I noticed a weaker expression of the intercultural differences. Perhaps this is related to the democratization described above. Here it would be interesting to know what your experiences are about this. Please put them in the comments. Furthermore I have put up a few hypotheses on which I would like to hear your opinion in this Google Form.
Your more advanced hypotheses are welcome in the comments below.
Does Corona bring long-term changes?
This almost philosophical question was already intensively discussed in the media months ago and many authors came to the conclusion that the corona pandemic will change many things positively in the long term. More regionality, less travel, more … I believe realistically, many positive aspects will be forgotten, despite the long duration of the restrictive measures.
Even when the volcano Eyjafjallajökull erupted in Iceland, many had predicted that air traffic would be reduced in the long term. Immediately after the volcanic ash had blown away, air traffic was back at a very similar level.
Maybe some things will change due to the fact that nobody else could work the same way as before during the Corona ban and some things have hardened due to convenience or because companies have taken measures to avoid further shocks. Everyone, including sales representatives, conducted virtual customer conversations and were forced to work with “the unimaginable”. Let’s see.
Ultimately, the further development of the technology will anchor one or the other change in the long term, because ultimately cost-benefit considerations are always applied by individuals and companies. So we can hope that my forecast of changes as described in the article Project Manager in 2030 will come true. Perhaps our ethical and moral approaches have changed so much during Corona, which will directly lead to a change in our common future.
Due to the asynchronous mode of operation in virtually distributed teams, early intermediate work results should be shared in any case – in line with WOL. In the office on site, the interim status review is often provided by informal coffee break conversations, which allows the maturing “product” to receive continuous feedback. In the virtual world, as much as possible of the semi-finished product should be shared in a structured way.
It is also useful to check whether your own self-organization tools are still the right ones, even when working remotely.
What I have firmly decided to do is that even if everyone else around me falls back into the “post-volcanic eruption-back-to-normal” effect, I will work virtually in a team in my programs at least every third week in order to constantly put the program into remote operation. Otherwise many positive effects will be lost.
We should also avoid hybrid meetings in the future. If parts of the team are remote, then everyone should go to virtual meetings because of the “democratization” described above and the higher effectiveness.
The definition of the communication principles in the project gain more importance due to the necessary home office work, because a formalization with more asynchronous work is absolutely essential.
There is one more thing we should maintain: The care for each other and the often heard, in my opinion, serious statement: “Stay healthy!” In this sense… Stay healthy.
In times of corona (in virtual projects anyway always) communication within the team and also across close team boundaries (entire project environment) is essential for project success, but difficult to ensure. Telephone conferences can cover planned topics, but cannot bring up the spontaneous ideas that would otherwise arise in the coffee kitchen. We are all in more web conferences than ever before, but the coffee conversations are irreplaceable and therefore a few hints how to use them in virtual space.
How to do it
Just send out an calendar invite with webconference details and remove the ticks under Response Options for “Request Responses” and “Allow New Time Proposals” so that you are not bothered by replies. But leave “Allow Forwarding” ticked. But send it only to a random sample of team members and non team members ofter the wider project enviornment. Ideally initially to ~ 10 team members. Further will be receiving the invite by others. See sample text below.
With following text suggestion for the invite:
I currently have many more telephone calls than I do have meetings on site in London and I don’t get “real work” started until the evening. This is certainly not only the case with me. Nevertheless, I notice that we have far fewer contacts across provider boundaries and also across tower boundaries. That’s why I think we need more conversations that just happen to occur by chance. So please get involved in the following.
We just meet at the coffee machine in building C1 6th floor by chance and have a little chat. See rules and hints below.
You must join with your web cam turned on.
You need to have a coffee or tea prepared for yourself before joining.
You may forward this invite only to one further member of the Apollo program after you have participated yourself in the “coffee break.”
The first topic of conversation after you join the videoconference must not be business (instead, for example, homeschooling, weather in your home town).
The 10th or each additional participant leaves the coffee kitchen (the call) due to overcrowding and arrives a little earlier for the next appointment.
I myself will probably not be around very often, but you can meet yourselves. When I’m there, I’m not going to host. Everyone should enforce the rules themselves.
You can run away from the coffee machine with everyone and chat in a small circle in the hallway (by making your own phone call).
I have set up 3 similar appointments. As it is known that these are distributed naturally, I am curious which of the colleagues has all 3 appointments in his calendar first. If you have all 3 coffee appointments of me in your calendar, take a screenshot of each of them and send it to me. The 10th entry receives a bottle of wine from my personal wine cabinet.
If somebody finds this idea stupid –> delete appointment in your calendar, but do not complain.
I would be interested in your experiences with such or different kind of virtual non-organized sessions. Please comment below.
You come to a new company and take on a new role or you take on a new project? How you plan a good handover was described in handover of a program in 6 phases. Now you are in a conversation with one of your new colleagues to determine where the shoe pinches or what needs to be tackled first. Since you will usually not only have an interview with a single colleague in order to have an overall view of the situation, it is advisable to conduct these interviews in a structured manner. For this purpose, I have collected a few questions over the years that are suitable for each interview and can raise interesting aspects.
How do I organise the interviews?
You should always differentiate between team-related and individual questions, because in the beginning it is easier to talk about the team or the overall situation than directly about your own sensitivities.
Team or overall situation
What is the biggest challenge we face right now or in the near future?
Why are we facing this challenge?
What are the most promising and untapped growth opportunities?
What do we have to do to realise their potential?
If she were me, what would you focus on?
How satisfied with your task? In which direction do you want to continue?
What do you expect from your job in the short / medium term?
What do you expect from me?
What are your strengths / what do you want to contribute to the team?
Which work processes can be improved?
What is the cooperation/productivity in the team/team atmosphere like?
What do you / the team / the department need to perform better?
Wishes to the genie in a bottle? A question that often brings up ideas that have not yet been expressed is the question about the three wishes to the fairy. Specifically this means which 3 wishes would you put to the fairy in the given context. Surprising and often very helpful answers come up. These often round off the picture or bring out completely new aspects.
How do I ask?
If the flow of conversation comes to a standstill, you want to recognize a clear priority or you want to find something out more precisely, then the following questions are appropriate.
Conversation fit It is very important to find out whether something is depressing the other person and whether the conversation is not meaningful at the moment.
Alternative or comparative questions
What’s better: this or that? Either way? Here or there?
If that, then what? If not so, by what means?
Scaling questions: On a scale from 0 to 10, how do you deal with this situation?
Determination of causes If you believe that the mentioned cause or reason is not yet substantially addressed, then follow up like a small child with 5 times “Why? If you don’t dare to use them, the 5-Why-method is also popular with scientists. Asking for the “why” can also reveal the reasons for the behaviour and the motivation of the behaviour.
Paradoxical questions or worsening questions can help in the event that creative solutions are needed or a new perspective is to be adopted. Example is, what do I have to do to make the product a flop?
Circular questions help to look at situations from different angles. For example, what would Mr Müller say?
As an alternative to the genie in the bottle question, you can also place the wonder question: The initial situation is that, as if by magic, all problems have been solved and you ask what would be different, how do you know that the problem is gone, how did the cooperation change or which other question of change can be helpful?
Carry out such discussions immediately after entering the new role or task and, above all, regularly. This will keep you on the ball. If you want to record changes early on and across the entire workforce or the entire team, my contribution to team spirit and early indication is ideal. The questions are also a good basis for an employee interview.
A regular status report is important in the project. The status report is the basic information for the members of the steering committee. It is advisable to create a list of the typical contents of a report, which can be used in any presentation form. Also the status light colours must be well defined to ban the watermelon effect.
Addressees and occasion
A regular status report is important in the project. Regular means that a predefined cycle or on certain predefined occasions is created and delivered to the specified recipients. The objective is to present the progress of the project, to address decision-making needs and to point out risks and problems. The status report is the basic information for all members of the steering committee.
Each status report should include the following:
Defined indicators (often performance, deadline and costs) and optionally their development in an Earned Value analysis
Achievements in the reporting period
Planned but unachieved in the period
Initiated or planned measures
Planned for the next reporting period / upcoming milestones
Top (3) risks
Status Light Colours and the Eternal Controversy
Again and again there are energetic discussions about which colour the status light should have. It often doesn’t make sense to take part in them and as a project manager you should have a clear and above all simple, easy to understand and valid definition for all levels at hand in order to be able to avert the watermelon effect (red inside, green outside). The following definition can be of help:
Red = Problems exist which can no longer be solved at the reporting level and which have a negative effect on the defined indicators (usually performance, deadline, costs) or which have already had an effect. Measures were not effective or not possible. There is a need for decision or action at the higher level (level above that of the reporting party).
Yellow = The defined indicators show plan deviations. Problems exist that the reporting person plans to solve. Measures have been or are being taken (list of measures required). The need for decision or action on the part of the higher authority is foreseeable if the measures taken do not have an effect.
Green = No problems at the reporting level. The defined indicators show no deviations from the plan.
Escalations are nothing bad in the project or program. They are the demand for spontaneously necessary or not yet taken decisions in a defined way – provided that a regulated governance is established.
The facts of the case should always be described and agreed upon by both parties (customer and contractor).
Contents of the escalation
Precise description of the facts so that they can be understood directly by third parties.
In what area and at what time did the facts arise?
Who put the facts on the agenda in which reporting medium (e.g. weekly status report)?
What has been done to avoid the original risk or problem, to solve it when it occurs or to mitigate it?
Who was involved in the solution search?
Howtime-critical is the situation or by when is a solution needed?
Identification of the degree of risk and evaluation of the impact.
Which activities are proposed for the solution?
Description of the solution approach with estimation of the timeline, the resources and the name of the person responsible for the solution.
Escalation always via e-mail. Mails that do not contain all of the above should be returned.
Clear mention of the word “ESCALATION” in the subject line as well as in the mail itself.
All possible measures should be taken to resolve an escalation issue at the lowest level. Before starting an escalation process, the consequences should be clearly articulated.
At each stage, an attempt should be made between both parties to find a solution. If this is not possible, the escalation issue should be passed on to the next escalation stage after prior agreement and taking into account the number of escalation days. (Escalation days = length of stay in working days at an escalation level)
The project manager is responsible for solving the problem and remains so at every escalation stage.
Despite all standardization, special consideration – especially in international project portfolios – must be given to cultural differences among the project participants. The differences should at least be “intercepted”, if not used to advantage. The focus of a project portfolio manager’s work in an international project environment is shifting somewhat away from classic portfolio management tasks such as standardization towards cultural moderation and catalysis. Catalysis in the sense of cleansing intercultural differences and at the same time accelerating intercultural learning.
If there are problems with cooperation in international projects, these usually emerge more strongly than in national projects. Nevertheless, a well-managed international project is praised with more success than a purely national project. With the involvement of a “cultural agent”, these positive synergy effects can be leveraged.
However, not every problem of international projects has cultural origins.
But there are also intercultural problems that are not seen as such.
Cultural differences in international project portfolios
This article is an excerpt of my project study work 10 years ago in the context of the certification as Senior Project Manager (GPM).
Already in 2002, the GPM’s “International Project Work” Section conducted a survey of internationally experienced German project managers and identified the following important problem areas [Hoffmann, H.-E. et al., International Project Management, Munich 2004, pp. 13-14]:
Communication / Language
Legal and political aspects
Technology / Infrastructure
The greatest importance was attached to the cultural differences.
Differentiation of international differences
This paper does not deal with differences in laws, norms, guidelines or standards of the project business. Although these may also be influenced by the cultural conditions in different countries. Here only the differences or effects of culture on the project are to be considered. Culture is defined as “the change of nature through human actions and expressions and, based on this, the totality of life and work forms of a human group (people, class, religious community, etc.)”. [Wissen Media Verlag, https://www.wissen.de/lexikon/kultur-allgemein]
The concept of culture
Keller defines culture on the basis of various characteristics [Keller v., E.: Management in foreign cultures: goals, results and methodological problems of culture-comparative management research, Stuttgart, 1982, p. 114ff]:
Culture is man-made. It is a product of collective social action and individual thinking.
Culture is supraindividual and a social phenomenon that outlasts the individual.
Culture is learned and transmitted through symbols.
Culture controls behaviour through norms, rules and codes of conduct.
Culture strives for inner consistency and integration.
Culture is an instrument for adaptation to the environment.
Culture is adaptively adaptable in the long term.
Hofstede presents culture as a group-specific, collective phenomenon of shared values. [Hofstede, G./Bond, M. H.: The Confucius connection: from cultural roots to econonmic growth, in: Organizational Dynamics, Spring 1988, S. 21]
The cultural programming of a project employee / cultural layers
How does culture influence people, and why can Hofstede speak of a “collective programming of the mind”? A person is always born into a culture and absorbs it directly. Cultivation”, i.e. cultural programming, takes place as early as the baby age – at the age of 7, most of the culture is already internalized. [Dahl, Stephan (2000) “Introduction to Intercultural Communication”, from the book by Stephan Dahl: „Intercultural Skills for Business“, ECE, London, 2000]
People are suited to different cultural strata in different stages of life depending on their social environment: [Hoffmann, H.-E. et al., International Project Management, Munich 2004, p. 17]
The innermost and thus first layer originates from childhood and is characterized by
the social class,
the ethnic group,
the religious faith or also
where they grow up.
The second layer is made up of vocational training. It often turns out that people from the same occupational group but with different cultural backgrounds understand each other better than people from the same country but from different occupational groups.
The third and last layer is made up of company-specific norms and behaviours. This is the so-called layer of corporate culture.
Since the majority of people often only move within one cultural group – and a confrontation with another culture takes place only superficially, if at all – “cultural programming” is rarely conscious either. International project management is a pioneer of change here. According to my own experience, only after typical project durations of more than 9 months do questions comparing cultures become more strongly discussed. After about 3 months in the course of the project, the respective advantages of the different cultures involved are adapted. After about 6 months, the first “frustrations” appear in the cultural field. After 9 months the cultural aspects are considered more strongly and also really considered. This means that for project durations of less than 9 months, a mature understanding of culture cannot be expected among those involved in the project. The project team member/leader continues to behave according to his cultural background and interprets all incidents according to his cultural programming. Thus, the behaviour of foreign project staff is often dismissed as “funny”, as it cannot be explained by their own cultural programming. An open discussion with another culture is therefore subliminally problematic because it can shake one’s own value system and challenge the questioning of basic values. It therefore seems at least understandable that many project participants avoid this confrontation to its full extent and withdraw into the familiarity of their own culture. This confrontation is unavoidable for project leaders who live in another country for a longer period of time. It takes about 12 months just to master the obvious rituals and behaviour under the assumption that the local language is spoken fluently. [Dahl, Stephan (2000) “Introduction to Intercultural Communication”, from the book by Stephan Dahl: “Intercultural Skills for Business”, ECE, London, 2000]
Another approach without exact origin provides for the following “culture shock phases”:
Phase 1 refers to euphoria, travel preparation, travel fever and curiosity about the other country. It usually doesn’t last long.
Phase 2 is the time of cultural shock when everyday life begins in the new environment.
Phase 3 is called acculturation, i.e. cultural adaptation, when one learns to live under new conditions, when one already knows some of the foreign values and integrates them into one’s own behaviour.
Phase 4 is then the mental stability finally gained, which can take on 3 different forms. Either
Strangers continue to feel strange
or in the new environment just as well as at home, so can live in both cultures
or more comfortable in a strange place.
The length of the phases is variable and depends on the duration of the stay in the foreign country.
Conversely, foreigners are also experienced by insiders (locals) in 4 phases:
Curiosity means positive interest in strangers.
Ethnocentrism means that insiders judge guests/newcomers/foreigners according to their own standards. One’s own little world is seen as the centre and pivot of the world. Ethnocentrism is related to a culture the same as egocentrism is related to the person.
Polycentrism means that different people have to be measured with different standards, as well as the ability to understand strangers on the background of their own norms. A moderate form of multiculturalism.
Xenophilia means that in a foreign culture everything is seen as better than at home.
The cultural programming of a culture
A culture is a group of people who all have the same or at least very similar cultural programming. This means that they almost all behave according to the norms and values of the culture, and measure the behavior of other people against these norms and values. Of course, this does not mean that all persons within a culture are totally identical – they behave only relatively similarly compared to behaviour in another culture, not necessarily compared to their own culture.
Models of cultural contexts
Various models have been developed in the search for explanatory patterns that help to understand the logical connections between norms and rules of a culture. “A model is a simplification of reality. A model can never be complete because it is always a simplification and cannot reflect all aspects of reality. For this reason, there are also different models for intercultural cooperation, each of which represents different aspects. For a project situation it is therefore helpful to be able to compare several models. [Hoffmann, H.-E. et al., International Project Management, Munich 2004, p. 32]
Cultural levels according to Edgar Schein
Schein distinguishes three cultural levels [Hoffmann, H.-E. et al., International Project Management, Munich 2004, p. 22]:
The first level contains the directly perceptible characteristics such as clothing, food, music or manners. Although these are visible, they require interpretation.
The second level consists of values and norms that provide guidelines for behaviour in a culture. These are also persons of the respective culture also only partly conscious. Cultural members often assume that these guidelines must also be identical in other cultures.
The third level contains beliefs that are so self-evident that they are ignored.
The cultural dimension “context reference” by Edward Hall
Hall compares cultures with regard to the strength of their contextual reference [Hoffmann, H.-E. et al., International Project Management, Munich 2004, p. 25]. Under context a situation or message can be understood anything that could be related to it (e.g. tone of voice and experienced or inexperienced colleague) [http://changingminds.org/explanations/culture/hall_culture.htm]. The degree of influence of the context on a situation is cultural and therefore interesting for Hall to define. A culture with a high contextual reference is a culture in which the context enjoys a high degree of attention [Hoffmann, H.-E. et al., Internationales Projektmanagement, München 2004, p. 25].
“Gifts are a sign of appreciation and are expected in cultures with a strong contextual reference to business initiation.” [Hoffmann, H.-E. et al., International Project Management, Munich 2004, p. 65]
Cultural dimensions according to Hofstede
In order to capture culture, a wide variety of approaches were shaped and studies carried out. One of the most important and yet trend-setting studies, which has come into its own in the meantime, records the following four most important dimensions (see table at the end of the article): Hofstede study. The higher the value, the more pronounced the index.): [Hofstede, G.: Intercultural co-operation in organisations, in: Management Decisions, 5-6/1982, p. 53ff; Index and classification: http://www.clearlycultural.com/geert-hofstede-cultural-dimensions/ ; Hoffmann, H.-E. et al., Internationales Projektmanagement, München 2004, p. 26ff]:
Power distance: The power distance expresses how high the acceptance is to accept power differences.
Individualism versus collectivism: Here it is described whether the individuals see themselves as individuals and independent or as members of a group/culture.
Masculinity versus Femininity: Masculinity in a culture is recognized as performance-related or success-related and self-confident. A feminine culture, on the other hand, pays great attention to interpersonal relationships and cooperation.
Uncertainty avoidance: Threat from uncertain or unknown situations and their avoidance.
The other dimensions are descriptive or approach supporting dimensions, which were added in 1987:
Time concepts: Here it is defined how strongly a culture is oriented towards the present, the past or the future.
Conceptions of space: Here it is recorded how socially distanced or introverted members of a culture behave.
Contextuality: There is a direct or indirect communication. This means how much context or non-verbal communication is anchored in the culture.
Cognitive processes: How are the thought patterns, the way of thinking, judging and conclusions pronounced in a community. E.g. Analytical, rational versus synthetic, intuitive.
Religious Concepts: Depending on their religious beliefs, the respective cultural members tend to regard their fate as self-controlled or under foreign control.
Effects of cultures on the project business: In the following, the first four cultural dimensions will be used to record the differences in the international project business.
If employees from different cultures are deployed in a project and thus follow different power distances, different aspects have to be considered. My Indian colleagues have a higher power distance than my Scandinavian or German colleagues. This means that an Indian colleague expects more individual instructions and wants to make fewer decisions without consulting his project manager in order to be in his comfort zone. This should be applied up to operational guidelines with which a Mexican colleague as well as the Indian colleague feels “more comfortable” with very detailed guidelines, e.g. when preparing a status report. In comparison, induction training should be more detailed and systematic – based on the same project experience. An Indian colleague feels misplaced in a strongly cooperative project structure and expects clear structures and thus stability in his cultural structures.
Individualism versus collectivism
This dimension deals with the setting of priorities within society on the individual or on the group. In an individualistically pronounced society, the individual is at the forefront. In projects with employees from different cultures who represent different individualism indices (degrees of individuality), measures should be taken to support team building. Cultures such as the USA are considered very individualistic, which means that project staff from this country should be absorbed particularly intensively in the team spirit. Asian employees need intensive feedback continuously during the course of the project. They are dependent on feedback from many colleagues. They will actively demand feedback from all sides. It is advisable to include a feedback round in weekly or 2-weekly meetings / telephone calls that are already planned. North American projects required more portfolio-driven coordination rounds than, for example, Asian projects. The approach and coordination in Asian projects is more culturally rooted.
Masculinity versus Femininity
The Hofstede study found that the differences between women and men in this dimension were less pronounced. The cultural differences among men are more pronounced towards the poles versus . In my Scandinavian colleagues, the focus on interpersonal relationships and quality of life was very clear. Pressure to perform is not conducive in such environments, even rather harmful. The target values of a project are usually defined differently there than in comparison to projects initiated in German-speaking countries. This could be particularly clearly determined with the sensitive topic location dissolutions. Topics which were especially discussed differed between the sites in Sweden and Switzerland. In Switzerland, the focus was on the effectiveness of the closure (short project duration) compared to Sweden, where particular emphasis was placed on employee-oriented scheduling.
Uncertainty avoidance can be defined as the degree to which the members of a culture feel threatened by uncertain or unknown situations. The differences can be seen in dealing with these threats. Societies with a strong tendency to avoid uncertainty seek to influence uncertainty through rules, laws, codes of conduct and security measures. Accordingly, particular emphasis should be placed on risk identification in countries with low uncertainty avoidance. In “emerging countries” such as Singapore, Hong Kong and Indonesia, the project environment should place emphasis on detailed risk identification. Project managers from these countries tend to overlook or ignore project risks. Project managers in countries with a high degree of uncertainty avoidance, such as Portugal, quickly identify risks on their own, but are more likely to have problems working out risk avoidance. This means that these project managers tend to bring the same risks to the table without taking the necessary measures. These are more “blocked” by the identified risks compared to other cultural circles.
Essentially, two concepts of time were identified in Hofstede’s study. The linear and the cyclical conception of time. In simple terms, cultures in industrial societies are more subject to a linear concept of time than cultures, e.g. in Asia. The linear approach represents the idea that what was in the past is over forever. In contrast, the cyclical time approach is based on the assumption that there is a constant change between day and night, moons, seasons and meal cycles. This approach is based on the assumption that a current performance weakness can be compensated in the future. These different approaches were actually identified in my portfolio. The degree to which objectives have been achieved and, above all, forecasts are strongly influenced by the cultural perception of time in the project manager’s home country. My Asian project managers are strongly guided by the approach that the current performance weakness of the project can be compensated in the near future. Generally speaking, project progress reports are more optimistic in cultures with a cyclical view of time than in cultures with a linear understanding of time such as the USA and Central Europe.
Another difference in the field of time perception can be observed in sequential or synchronous thinking. This means that in sequential thinking the idea prevails that things should be done one after the other. In contrast to the synchronous concept of time, which is based on the assumption that several things can be done simultaneously. In my portfolio, I was able to recognize this tendency not culturally, but person-specifically. This means that I could derive the differences in phase models, for example, less from their origin than from the personality of the project manager.
The German culture says: Everyone can use his time most efficiently if he has to wait for others as little as possible. The Spanish coinage leads: Everyone can make the most efficient use of their time when the issues at hand are closed in a meeting and no further discussion is necessary. In Spain, the one who breaks off a meeting to keep the next appointment is considered rude. [Hoffmann, H.-E. et al., International Project Management, Munich 2004, p. 20]
The distinction here is made whether in the cultural sphere much context prevails in the spoken (e.g. non-verbal communication; “reading between the lines”) or whether more direct, explicit communication prevails. My European project managers are much more direct / “blunt” in their communication than colleagues from Asia.
Essentially, a distinction can be made here between western and eastern thinking styles. In the West the analytical style prevails and in the East (very pronounced in Asia) the synthetic style. In the West, the problem is broken down, in the East the problem is captured holistically and interlinkingly. Rational and systematic thinking style in the West in comparison to the intuitive and holistic thinking pattern in the East.
Cognitive orientation can also be found in the diversity of problem-solving styles. One of my Indian colleagues is strongly influenced by the “encircling thought”, which means that the problem is surrounded and encircled holistically. Progress is slower, but ultimately more complete and conclusive. In contrast, a German project manager breaks down the problem into its individual elements more strongly and solves subproblems for subproblems. Individual progress can be recognized more quickly, but may require subsequent holistic correction.
Depending on religious beliefs, different cultures tend to see their fate as foreign or self-directed or controlled. I could not confirm the effects on religious beliefs in my portfolio, since cultural circles with a typically foreign-controlled background nevertheless produce project managers with a strong self-drive. It seems that changes have taken place since the study was conducted or that I have identified exceptional cases.
The cultural dimensions of Fons Trompenaars
Another cultural model was developed by Fins Tromenaars and Charles Hamptopn-Turner with the following seven dimensions: [Hoffmann, H.-E. et al., International Project Management, Munich 2004, p. 29ff]
Universalism / Particularism: In universal cultures (e.g. Anglo-Saxon and German-speaking countries, Holland and Scandinavia) all people are treated according to the same rules and laws. In particularist cultures, on the other hand, rules and laws are respected by one person, unless an important person would be disadvantaged. The same applies to concluded contracts: [ Hoffmann, H.-E. et al., International Project Management, Munich 2004, p. 67]. In particularist cultures, exceptions to contracts are made on a case-by-case basis. Universalistic cultures do not allow this.
Individualism and collectivism: Identical with Dimension von Hofstede.
Emphasis on emotions: This is a comparative measurement of how feelings such as joy, sadness or commitment are shown. Project team members from the Middle East raise their voices to emphasize your emphasis. Asian project workers are associated with a loud voice, anger and lack of control.
Specific / diffuse cultures: Specific cultures (e.g. Anglo-Saxon countries, Scandinavia and Holland) clearly define roles and assign concrete situations or localities to them. In such cultures, the role of the superior is not necessarily transferred to another (e.g. private) environment. In diffuse cultures (e.g. Arab countries and Africa), assuming a role means that it also applies to a change of environment.
Performance versus origin: In performance-oriented cultures (e.g. Anglo-Saxon and Scandinavian countries), superiors are respected who perform their tasks competently and demonstrate adequate professional competence. In cultures based on origin (e.g. China and Malaysia), on the other hand, the project manager receives his status through his title, age or family affiliation.
The relationship to time: In polychronic cultures (e.g. Latin America, Africa, the Middle East, France), time is an unlimited, simultaneous commodity that can stretch. One plans, but can easily adapt the plans. Several things are done simultaneously. For this reason, one can observe a French project team member approaching a meeting and important telephone calls in parallel. In monchronic cultures (Saxon, northern and central European countries), on the other hand, time is considered a limited commodity that must be carefully planned and adhered to. Work is more sequential, i.e. linear.
Relationship to nature: Indoor controlled cultures (e.g. Anglo-Saxon countries, Northern Europe) want to keep their environment and environment under control. This is closely linked to the belief that one can influence one’s destiny through action. Externally controlled cultures (e.g. Arab, African and Asian countries) shape people in such a way that they see themselves as part of nature and should therefore adapt it to their environment.
Non-verbal communication and body language is not a direct cultural dimension, but a collection of behaviours. A direct connection with a cultural dimension as described above does not seem to exist, at least not directly. Basically one can assume, however, that in Asia in particular body language is rather subdued, whereas in Southern Europe body language is used more. It is therefore advisable to familiarise oneself with the most common symbols before interaction.
Avoidance of intercultural misunderstandings
Intercultural competence is defined as the ability to move successfully in cultural areas other than one’s own. The acting persons should be able to understand the ideas, motives and problems of interlocutors from other cultural areas and to react appropriately. However, since there are still no clear findings in science about the key factors for human adaptation to foreign cultures, there is also no clear understanding of what intercultural competence ultimately consists of.
If a project manager or project member perceives a violation of rules by a person of another culture, his conclusion should not be “he violates the rules”, but “he violates our rules”. [Hoffmann, H.-E. et al., International Project Management, Munich 2004, pp. 18-19]
“So it’s important to understand the behavior of others in the rules of your culture.” [Hoffmann, H.-E. et al., International Project Management, Munich 2004, p. 19]
Cultural misunderstandings can also be reduced by applying universal communication rules:
Meta-communication: Meta-communication is communication via communication. It is about communicating the meaning and intention of what is said by talking about the rules and patterns according to which communication takes place.
“My intention is to … experience …”
“How would you proceed in your culture if you had that intention?”
Active listening: Active listening means picking up the others in their emotional world. Active listening includes the following techniques:
Repeating the heard facts – the listener reproduces what the speaker says in his own words. “You mean that…”
Speaking to feelings – The listener tries to express in words what feelings and sensations he has perceived in the speaker.
“I have the impression you enjoy it.”
Inquiry – Inquiry offers the opportunity to present the problem situation even more clearly and to understand it better. “What do you mean by…?
Promoting qualities for learning intercultural competence:
Ambiguity tolerance the ability to cope with unstructured and contradictory situations
Empathic ability to read out the empathy, concerns and interests of others from vague hints, gestures or other signals.
Tolerance of frustration to deal adequately with errors, misunderstandings and failures.
Conflict ability and conflict tolerance
Readiness to learn with curiosity
Strong individual-cultural identity awareness of one’s own cultural imprint as a prerequisite for dealing with people from other countries/cultures
Distances ability to view oneself from a certain distance
Humor, the ability to laugh at oneself.
Prejudices and stereotypes
“A collection of information on what behaviours and norms typically prevail in a culture is called a stereotype. [Hoffmann, H.-E. et al., International Project Management, Munich 2004, p. 19] Stereotypes help people to interpret the behaviour of people from another culture.
This in turn allows the classification of further information.
The prejudice arises when the embossed stereotype is no longer changed by new information.
Nobody meets the standards in all points, some even deviate strongly from each other [Hoffmann, H.-E. et al., International Project Management, Munich 2004, p. 21]:
Moreover, some countries are in such a state of flux that there are clear cultural differences between parts of the younger and older generations, such as the former communist states. [Hoffmann, H.-E. et al., International Project Management, Munich 2004, p. 33]
United Arab Emirates
The higher the value, the more pronounced the index.
The first hours or at least days within a project do shape most of the ongoing communication in a project or program. In other words: if you do not or too late define communication principles in a project you will need to cope with issues in a later stage.
All soft topics like usage of mobile phones or laptops during meetings, respect between each other, listening to colleagues, confirm understanding, participation by all in meetings, avoid mails but call instead, and so on and so forth are topics which are often more easy to follow than the individual behavior in following topics. Therefore guidance should be given.
A set of my standard communication set up in projects from day 1 onwards as an example below.
Useful communication principles
I would like to ask you to follow these communication principles:
To minimize our mail traffic and an easier organization of our mailboxes we should agree on the following rules:
Only send mails towards the team members who need the information!
Sounds funny, meant is: avoid big distribution list without need! (same with copy!)
As long as we are working on drafts or on finalization of templates the drafts are only send around the nominated team
Often big copy distribution lists in mails are used for escalation just to be sure in case this could be needed: Please contact and inform the Program Manager respectively the needed team member before. The Stream Leads are asked to design a workaround for internal escalation handling in their streams.
We agree that the work of all of us is very important for this program! For that reason only mails with a critical timeline are marked as urgent.
Mails with a critical impact for the program content have to be marked with URG at the beginning of the subject.
To avoid overload the capacity of our mail server we send links where ever it is possible
Last but not least: Don’t bury the needed information’s in mail chains …
Mail naming convention
All Mails have to be marked with the kind of information is given with the e-mail
INF: Information; an information is given to the addressees, no action required
ACT: Date, Action; and action is required by the addressee
DEL: Delivery; a required action is delivered
URG: urgent information’s start with this prefix e. g. URG: DREAM: SP01: … – see also file naming convention
Mail subjects needs to include a short and clear description of the content
Addressees on copy have in general no action !
Escalations In general the escalations come up as followed:
Team Members to Subproject Managers
Subproject Managers to Project Management
Project Management to Program Sponsor / SteercoE.G.: INF: DREAM: SP01: Mail Convention
Document naming convention
All documents in the program are named as followed:
Project Name (DREAM) and sub project number (e. g. SP01)
Version (drafts V 0.1 ff; finalized versions V 1.0 ff)
Why does the topic of committees move us as project managers? We need clear decisions for our projects in cases where our empowerment is not sufficient. Why is it often difficult to obtain these necessary decisions promptly, clearly and precisely?
For this we have to understand that there are countless terms for one and the same … and many terms are used several times in practice.
I will come to the typical problems with the committees that result from this later.
Where can we find a solution? PMI braces role descriptions and organizational structure. So we cannot be helped here. Prince2 defines the mentioned committees in detail and harmoniously with IPMA or GPM.
DIN 69901-5 defines the project board as a “superordinate body to which the project manager reports and which is available to him as a decision-making and escalation body”. This does not really help much.
Then let’s see how the PM3 of the GPM supports us.
What are steering committees? They can align the ship’s rudder in all directions on all seas.
These steering committees are … internal and … cross-project. Patzak/Rattay defines steering committee, steering group and project advisory boards as synonyms. The task of this committee is to analyse, observe and control the selection of projects and the interrelationships between projects.
The project board is also very well defined in the Duden … in my opinion ….. Namely as the “Committee for Economic Steering”. In contrast to the steering committee, this is not about defining the general meaning of a project, but about economic observation and influence. The project board is therefore represented at the steering wheel in the car on specified roads and can decide which direction to take at which intersections.
This committee, the steering committee, can also include external partners such as important suppliers or the end customer.
The PM3 states that there are no uniform rules in the organizations how control boards should work. It therefore differs from company to company. However, a typical responsibility can be worked out. The steering committee
appoints the Project Manager
initiates projects and shapes the
sets high level targets.
The PM3 also describes typical areas of responsibility for the project board. These are
project progress tracking
to clarify conflicts and powers between line and projects
accept milestones and project results
escalation in corporate management or portfolio management and
possibly, if there is no separate change board, the decision of amendments.
What do we as project and program managers have to do to be successfully supported by committees? Based on my experience I will explain the most important points.
we need to shape these bodies by
integrate necessary external partners
attract members to the committees who are highly placed in the hierarchy
demand that a spokesperson for the panel be appointed
escalation instances and solution durations at the respective escalation stages and also to
agree change management process.
What prerequisites and knowledge are required in the steering committees? According to Patzak / Rattay, they must have transparency and knowledge about the corporate strategy and knowledge about the project portfolio. Otherwise, the steering committee or portfolio board cannot act sensibly.
In order to be able to use the committees properly, we must observe a few basic rules.
Children and managers have at least one thing in common. They can only remember 3 things.
In your remarks as project manager in the project board, I therefore recommend that you address
the most important status information
a decision request and
a wish to cooperate
to the management.
Always pay attention to formulate these core messages concisely and precisely, because since the year 2000 until today, the attention span with us humans has fallen from 12 to 8 seconds. Thanks to the new technology and the new lifestyle.
Now I come to the typical problems that have already been announced. Experiences from my projects.
Berlin. Public project. In public projects, it is often very difficult to separate the project client and the shareholders. Especially the governance organization becomes complex. Defining the requirements in such a construct is particularly difficult, as is managing changes. A “reinstatement” – this verb sounds already governmental or public – is preprogrammed here.
South Africa. A project at an energy company with several divisions, which is to standardize central processes and IT systems. Due to the sheer size of the project, several external parties are required. In large-scale projects, the project offices are often staffed by external consulting companies to underline the challenging and neutral character.
Even as the largest contractor, it can be difficult to formulate uniform committee definitions and appointments. Agreeing on maximum solution times for escalated problems at the respective escalation levels is often an impossibility, but critical to success.
Israel. Again an energy company with several subsidiaries to harmonize their procurement organizations and processes. A further problem with the committee use is the decision fixation and above all the enforcement of decisions. In the run-up to committee meetings, pre-socialised decision alternatives and decisions are often questioned or not enforced again after the meeting has taken place. Here the cultural influence is formative and steering out. Decision making can take many times longer.
Bonn. Escalation levels are not mirrored for the client and contractor, i.e. there is a different number of hierarchy levels. Problems are inevitable. A further problem unfortunately arises from frequent statements and implementation of “an internal project must also function without LA”. How is that supposed to work?
I would like to conclude with the typical problems here.
What 3 core messages should you take with you today?
We must understand the differences between the Project Board and the Steering Committee and always recognize the two types of bodies, and