International project management

Managing international projects can be hugely interesting and rewarding, but it can also be a challenge. Depending on the complexity of the requirements, the number of different locations and languages meeting the project goals may become extremely difficult, once the project changes from local to global.

International team management
cultural differences

During the past decades we can observe the change in the work environment around the world. Globalization, open borders, ability to travel fast and development of communication technologies were factors which allowed people from around the globe to work together. These days teams are more and more diversified and join people from different cultures. Even COVID-19 pandemic, during which traveling was banned, strengthened working from home culture, which makes it even easier to create distributed, intercultural teams. So what are the challenges and benefits that diversified teams have to face?

Distributed and diversified teams mean that people from different cultures meet and have to successfully work together. The cultural differences should not be underestimated as cultural upbringing influences how people behave and think, and very often as a result can lead to misunderstandings and miscommunication that can in the worst case scenario lead to project failure. And it can be surprising in what aspects cultures may differ.

Common international project management pitfalls

One of the differences can be the attitude towards others – people can be individual or be focused on the group. Depending on whether the team is individualistic, collectivist or mixed, it will affect the team dynamics – for example  it can be difficult to make any decisions, since individuals prefer to make them on their own, while in collectivist teams people will tend to the group decision. It can either result in misunderstanding or delay in the decision making process. 

Another important factor that differs between the cultures is the understanding of the concept of time. And this understanding can vary on many levels – from linear or cyclic attitude to the time, focusing on the past or on the future, or being focused on long-term or short-term goals and plans. Not taking that under consideration can impose potential risks when it comes to timed delivery within an agreed timeline. 

Among other factors, one more worth mentioning is power distance. This describes the distance that exists between managers and employees, in this case the project manager and those involved in the project. For example, group decision making is quite an important process in Japan's business culture. However, as a hierarchical society, Japanese are more comfortable with a high power distance approach when doing business. This type of decision-making process is much slower than in the West, but it builds a sense of bond and shared responsibility for the company. In Poland or in the UK, on the other hand, the power distance is significantly lower; employees are expected to participate in the discussion and also to express their opinion to a boss.

Among other diversities, to name a few, are: the acceptance that power in organization is unequally distributed; approach to masculinity and femininity; level of uncertainty avoidance, etc. PMI offers comprehensive materials describing the differences in details and proposes various solutions to the problem.

Direct and indirect language

Direct language, as we use it in Poland, is perceived as impolite in many countries or even seen as a personal attack. In Japan and many other Asian cultures, unfamiliar facial expressions and gestures or other types of behavior lead to misunderstandings and the potential for conflict increases. 

The gestures differ most between the different cultures. The Chinese, for example, find it unhygienic when sneezing in the presence of a person. Blowing your nose with noises afterwards is just as gross. In China, people prefer pulling their noses up instead of noisy blowing their nose. Spitting out loudly on the street is quite normal there and is not considered reprehensible, as is the case in Poland, for example.

Big misunderstandings can arise when people from different cultures refer to their knowledge. While a German means “no” by shaking his head or communicates rejection, a Bulgarian says “yes” and agrees. The greeting is also not the same everywhere. Poles usually shake hands as a greeting, while the French are best known for a kiss on the cheek "Les Bises". In Russia, the type of greeting depends on gender: Russian men shake hands, Russian women are welcomed with nods of the head. 

In order to minimize this kind of misunderstandings, it helps to jointly establish rules for a smooth collaboration. However, there is no globally applicable catalog of rules for optimal cooperation between intercultural teams.

Japanese culture shock - personal experience

It is impossible not to mention international project management and the challenges associated with them, if we do not mention Japan and its work culture.

When one of us had the opportunity to participate for the first time in a huge project, which was to be a combination of projects carried out in Germany and Japan, it was known that our teams cannot meet without prior preparation.

In Japanese culture, as in our country, there are two divisions Senpai and kōhai means “senior” and “junior,” and this hierarchy is not only present in the workplace, but is part of all relationships in Japanese society. A senpai is usually older and of higher status, or has been employed by the company for a longer period of time. This hierarchy governs all of the unspoken rules of Japanese work culture, including where to sit at meetings, what to do at company parties, and what kind of courtesy is appropriate. A good example of such a division can be observed during "hanami" - a cherry blossom viewing parties, very popular in Japan and treated almost as a national holiday. Hanami is often organized by companies for their employees - many have best viewing spots reserved year after year, occupied from the early morning by kōhai, in order not to lose the spot. Only in the afternoon the senior employees appear, often with their families, and the party can start.

During the trainings, we also paid special attention to punctuality and exchange of business cards.

Being on time is essential in Japan. This is also noticeable in everyday life, for example on public transport, where trains follow a strict timetable and even the slightest delay leads to excessive excuses. If your boss says that the meeting will take place at 8 a.m., you should be ready for the meeting by 7:50 a.m. (which starts at 8 a.m. sharp). The same applies to working hours - being on time means arriving at least 10 minutes before the official start time. Ironically, sometimes this strict punctuality does not last until the end of the meeting, and you may end up in a conference room for much longer than you had hoped. 

The exchange of business cards is essential for the Japanese work culture. This process also depends on the rank, which determines the order: Those with a higher rank first exchange their cards and then continue downwards according to rank - an entire book could be written about the rules of exchanging business cards, but here are at least a few important things you should never do:

  • Immediately put the business card in your pocket or wallet. This is a sign of disrespect for the person who gave you the business card;
  • Do not hand the card face down towards the other person. Your business card is basically your "face," so don't cover it up;
  • Cover the other person's card with your hands. Even more important than your own "face" is the other person's "face", so be careful not to cover the front of the business card with your hands;
  • Do not have any business cards on you to exchange.

The Japanese work culture also contains a very peculiar element - drinking parties. While no one is forcing you to participate, it is expected to help build good relationships within the company.

Looking back, we can definitely say that without the training offered before starting cooperation, the unaware ignorance of cultural differences could have a negative impact on the implementation of the project.

A very important lesson learned is the fact that a basic understanding of the other culture works in favor of the harmonious and constructive working atmosphere. In general, it is good to address conflicting situations quickly in order to find a solution to a problem before it intensifies. A good communication culture is crucial: every opinion is important and constructive criticism is allowed and encouraged.


It is important for all Project Managers to be aware of those cultural differences in order to deliver successful projects. Good international cooperation can have a very positive effect on cost development, time requirements and results. At the end of the day, a diverse team consisting of a vast pool of interdisciplinary skills sets can not only improve the current processes and projects already in progress, but also bring in new creative energy and give opportunities to learn, improve and develop, both personally and professionally.

Contact us

Dominika Załuska

Dominika Załuska

Senior PMO Specialist, PwC Poland

Tel: +48 519 505 630

Marta Falba

Marta Falba

Project Manager | Project Management Specialist, PwC Poland

Tel: +48 519 508 103

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