CXO

4 tips for managing a diverse project team

Most project management approaches and toolsets are organized and geared toward values from American culture. Here are a few strategies for making sure everyone can contribute.

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The first White House Demo Day in 2015 featured women and minority founders in technology, and President Obama urged tech companies to more rigorously pursue workforce diversity.

In part, this call to action came because tech company surveys showed a preponderance of white and Asian males in tech with only one-third of the tech workforce comprised of women, and with even lower levels of Hispanic and black workers. It is findings like this, and also the need to attract top tech talent, that have prompted more tech companies to actively pursue workforce diversity.

SEE: Does your company need a chief diversity officer?

"We are a company of millennials," said Sarah Nahm, CEO of HR software company Lever, and herself a millennial. "What millennials value are transparency, participation in strategic decision making and diversity."

A diverse workforce brings great benefits to a company because it provides mindpower from different cultural perspectives. But project managers must be willing to make adjustments to standard project management practices in a diverse workforce environment.

Just that are these accepted project management practices, and how should you adjust them if you're working with a culturally diverse workforce?

Explain project objectives in plain English and let your project leads take it from there

This is project delegation, which all project managers are urged to do. However, if you have a diverse workforce, you might have team members whose native language is not English, and who require extra attention to ensure that they clearly understand work directives. You might personally take the time to ensure that work instructions are fully understood, but your project leads may not. At least until a new project is on a sound footing, this is an area of interpersonal communication where the primary project manager may need to directly get involved, even if it means that there will be little micro management of project leads.

Stress project values so the focus is on conquering obstacles and meeting deadlines

Most project management approaches and toolsets are organized and geared toward values in US culture.They emphasize absolute deadlines to be met and absolute results to be delivered. Over the years, this has proven to be sound project thinking, because it certainly leaves no doubt in the project team's mind as to what needs to be done—but it doesn't always play well in every cultural context. For instance, in the US, the idea of a "team" conjures up sports analogies, and the project team is often urged to function as if it is in a competition against time and obstacles at any cost — even if it might cause rifts within the project team. But if a project manager is directing the same project in a Latin American or South American country, which places a high value on a cooperative team that works together like a family and not as a sports club, the better approach might be to drop the sports analogies and to focus instead on cooperation and collaboration. Either way, the project can succeed.

Focus on the project at hand, not on personalities

Although great managers understand the importance of developing sound relationships with their team members and project leads, relationship building is seldom anything that gets factored into a project timeline. However, if your staff and your project leads are starting a project with a diverse project team and they are inexperienced with this, it is a good idea to modify the project timeline a little to allow for some extra team building that might need to be done. In some cases, you might even encounter project leads with biases that need to be addressed, but you won't be able to see these biases until the project is underway. Many of these biases are simply due to the fact that people from diverse cultural perspectives can approach projects (and especially project problem solving) in different ways.

These new ways of looking at projects and at addressing project impasses should be encouraged—because this is where project breakthroughs come from—but at the onset, your project leads might perceive this as the project getting "off task." The more you can sensitize your team leads to these situations in advance, the more equipped they will be to value the creative energy that diverse minds can bring to a project.

Maintain project management consistency at all costs

The value of consistent project management methodology is that it is repeatable and that team members always know what to expect. This creates a feeling of security in team members, and it frees minds up to focus on the project and not on what's going on around it. Unfortunately, when project teams are diverse, cultural contexts vary and project managers need to know how to adjust their project management techniques to fit these contexts. A number of years ago, I was working on a Wall Street IT project. the project team's motto was "Lead, follow or get out of the way." That approach worked in New York City—but it wouldn't necessarily have worked in another country or even in another part of the U.S. where project work moved at a slower pace and more value was placed on interpersonal team relationships.

SEE: Agile project management: The smart person's guide

The takeaway for project managers and leads is that, although you might need to modify some standard project management practices, there is real potential for diverse project teams to achieve superior project results.

"Diversity has real value," said Manny Medina, CEO and co-founder of Outreach, a sales and CRM solutions provider. "You can bring in a diversity of ideas and perspectives to a project that isn't possible if you are just aggregating opinions from team members who share the same point of view."

Also see:
Project communications: What works, and what doesn't
Diversifying tech: Yes, white men can be part of the solution and not the problem
Millennials are twice as bored at work as baby boomers, report says

About Mary Shacklett

Mary E. Shacklett is president of Transworld Data, a technology research and market development firm. Prior to founding the company, Mary was Senior Vice President of Marketing and Technology at TCCU, Inc., a financial services firm; Vice President o...

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