By Denise Larcade, CSM, CSPO, LSSGB, Prosci
My daughter and her family live in the Netherlands and my husband and I are lucky to travel there for a visit every year.
One thing I always look forward to on these trips is talking shop with my son-in-law, Han. He has been a Project Manager for a company there for 15 years. Although he has been an internal corporate project manager for the last 10 years, his prior project management experience was serving international customers at their locations.
Leading up to this year’s visit earlier this summer, I was finishing up my work for a public sector client here in Sacramento. As an organizational change management consultant, the project I worked on involved supporting the standing up and operationalizing of a Project Management Office for one of our public sector clients.
With project management on the brain, I was interested in talking to my son-in-law about how project management differs in the United States versus different countries. I wondered what kinds of challenges project managers from other countries face, and what we can we learn that would help us improve our project management services here in the states.
Below are some project challenges both my son-in-law and talked about—plus his perspective and how they manage these challenges at the company he works for.
1. The Problem: Goals. Goals are identified at the highest level and not defined or translated to projects successfully, resulting in a lack of clarity, direction, and committed deadlines.
According to Han: It’s about communication and translating the goals into the right key performance indicators (KPIs). Also, management needs to set an example. A radio commercial I heard mentioned that if health is an issue in a company, it’s not a matter of defining all kinds of improvement programs—managers need to behave according to the ultimate goal themselves. It’s the same with parenting—don’t tell your children not to abuse smartphones, while parents sit at the dinner table with social media on standby.
2. The Problem: Accountability. No one wants to take responsibility and tends to point the finger at someone else.
According to Han: One of the key points at my company is to speak up in the case of a mistake. The Dutch believe strongly that it’s better to let others know sooner rather than later, since that speeds up fixing the problem much faster and avoids any worse outcomes. When I’ve worked with American engineers, I have experienced two instances where an engineer was fired on the spot for making a mistake. Obviously, that punishment undermined trust and encouraged people not to admit mistakes or to avoid difficult situations.
I do recognize that employees don’t take responsibility/accountability, which puzzles management. I think it’s kind of a circle effect, where management doesn’t trust the employees because goals are not met. Consequently, management gets over-involved, making decisions which are not supported by the employees, who then will just carry out what is asked from them, without actually believing it’s the right direction. As a result, management thinks employees don’t take responsibility, whereas employees are actually overruled too much.
3. The Problem: Communication. Project success can often be attributed to a project manager’s ability to effectively communicate to the project team in a timely manner. A lack of communication leaves the project manager in the position to blindly lead a team without leadership support or awareness to impacts or changes. Even the best communicator finds it difficult to be successful if they don’t have exposure or access to upper management and leadership. A team can successfully deliver on the wrong goal if the project manager does not have multi-directional communication.
According to Han: Obviously, I think this problem is not much different anywhere. The difference is that Dutch have no problem (less hierarchy) asking ‘why’ at all levels.
4. The Problem: Managing Expectations. Realistic expectations must be identified and communicated. Unreasonable deadlines, insufficient resources, and/or lack of stakeholder engagement can result in project failure
According to Han: By default, the plans at my company are often too ambitious. On the other hand, a clear and challenging goal must be set at a high level and it’s up to the rest of organization to create and show a plan that is realistic and feasible. There will always be setbacks and unforeseen circumstances along the way. To anticipate the possible risks, all kinds of methods are used—FMEAs, risk mitigation plans, etc. But, let’s not forget that the goal itself is perhaps not the most important, but rather the reason ‘why’ the goal was set.
No matter where in the world we are, there are challenges we face in project management. What I have learned is that as project management and change professionals, we have more in common than we think, despite how many miles apart we are. Vacation in the Netherlands with my family—and listening to and learning about my son-in-law’s professional perspectives—is not only refreshing, but recharges me as I return to the daily challenges of project work.
About the Author: Denise Larcade is an Organizational Development Consultant and Merger and Acquisitions Expert. She has over 25 years of experience in training, development, and leading companies through organizational change management. Denise has worked in corporate retail, technology, and government healthcare and has experience with large-scale implementations nationwide. She currently works as an Executive Consultant with KAI Partners, Inc., providing client support to one of KAI Partners’ state clients. Denise grew up in the Silicon Valley and relocated to Utah and Idaho before recently returning to her native California roots.