Cultural issues can be devastating on any project. It is much larger than the obvious language barrier. In fact, since it is so obvious, language is often the smaller issue. It is critical to understand cultural differences and change the management style to accommodate it. Everyone should spend time learning about the different cultures on the project. A few examples help underscore the point.
I sent a note to professional organization's program director the other day asking if their group would be interested in hearing about methods to increase project success. The organization was for a technical group that worked with data transformation—a skill set used in every IT project I have ever been on. The reply came in a prompt, succinct, and sarcastic reply:
"We [sic] you please tell me just how this would ever relate to the members of our group. You obviously do not understand that we are not responsible for running the project."
Information Technology organizations continually struggle to build systems that meet their customer's needs. They work tirelessly developing solutions that are delivered late, difficult to use, or deficient in key features and functions. This is nothing specific to the last couple decades; it stretches back to the first systems developed. Fredrick Brookes eloquently underscores this in his recount of the 1960's software engineering project to develop the IBM 360 in his book The Mythical Man-Month (1975) and is required reading for all IT executives. For the Chief Information Officer to solve this problem takes a new approach, one, nearly opposite from today's direction.
CIOs have two major responsibilities—keeping IT's lights on (backups, networks, email, etc.) and providing support for business initiatives. Being mediocre at either will make for a short career. Although the respective budgets are normally a 70:30 split, a CIO will be fired in a minute for failing to properly support the 30%. That portion of their budget actually generates the company money. Keeping the lights on is a thankless job. People simply expect networks run, data served, and viruses inoculated. It is expected much as we expect water when turning on the tap. Supporting business initiatives is just as thankless since 60% of projects seem to always be in trouble.
The other day, someone said, once again, that an issue we were discussing was like pushing string. She said it with the sigh of resignation in her voice. I understand the metaphor, but the people saying it are stuck looking at the problem wrong. Immediately, two solutions to their dilemma come to mind. First, add a little water, freeze the string. Voilà! Push that string wherever your little heart desires. If that is too hard, then roll it into a ball or put it on a spindle. Now, we can push, roll, carry, and even throw it. The problem is the predisposition to the inevitability of the issue—there is no reason to look for a solution because it is out of our control. Worse than that, we are so defeated that we rarely ask the question "Why are we trying to push that string?"