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Collaboration: A blast from the past

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At the start of the year, I spent many happy hours reading my Christmas present, the magnificent book By Steppe, Desert, and Ocean: The Birth of Eurasia by Barry Cunliffe. This is history in a grand sweep: 12,000 years and as many kilometres. The span of the book runs east to west, from the mouth of the Mekong to the praia of Portugal. Its timescale stretches from the late Palaeolithic to the late Middle Ages. Imagine the projects that encompasses.

We think of our huge infrastructure projects as groundbreaking, but were the Appian Way, the pyramids and the Great Wall of China any less so? As project managers, we have a long history. But we don’t often think of it, much less study it.

Of course, project achievements are not distributed uniformly in time or space. There have been bursts of mega-project activity, followed by periods of calm and gradual decline. And neither is this kind of development evenly spread across Eurasia’s vast continental land mass. This is a function of physical geography and cultural responses to it.

But one human endeavour seems to have extended across the whole land mass and spanned all these millennia: trade. The human need for social contact, coupled with regional variations in the availability of resources, has driven commercial endeavours for as long as we can discern historical evidence.

There are any number of political points to be made here. But the wider point of Cunliffe’s book is a simple fact: for thousands of years, not only have people moved across the continent, but they have also worked together and collaborated.

Just as we do today, we see in history all manner of migrant labour and long-range project collaboration. How on earth could ancient project managers have coped with the Babel of different languages and cultures? After all, they did not benefit, as many of us do, from the knowledge that most professionals around the world speak at least some English. And neither did they have instant messaging, email or videoconferencing. Come to think of it, the hassles of a delayed flight from an international hub airport are nothing compared to the journey along the Silk Road: 14,000 miles and a two-year round trip.

Yet our ancestors did collaborate. They overcame barriers of distance, time and culture that would make our eyes water, and built a world of stunning complexity.

So, what was their secret? I don’t think it can have been some mysterious technology. And this means that, for all our technological sophistication, the answer must lie elsewhere. And that’s a shame, because many software vendors would have us believe that project collaboration is just a cloud-hosted software contract away.

Don’t get me wrong. I love trying new software tools as much as the next slightly geeky project manager. And I have no doubt that they make our lives simpler, facilitating collaboration across time zones and cultures. But they aren’t the answer.

For that, we need to more carefully define the problem, which comes in two parts. First, there are big superficial differences between cultures around the world. And broadly, we can say that cultural difference correlates with distance – although there are exceptions.

Second, humans are predisposed to mistrust differences. We read intentions into behaviours, and the intentions we read are those that would drive the same behaviour in ourselves and the people around us. Cultural differences breed mistrust.

It is not as though past collaborations represent some form of golden era. Trade persisted and mega-projects completed despite near constant conflict. So when cooperation across cultural boundaries took place, how did it happen?

People must have overcome confusions of language and misinterpretations of cultural variation by finding something more compelling – a commonality that bound them together.

This can only come when we stop treating other people as a part of some ‘other’ and start treating them as part of ‘us’. Multicultural virtual teams are exceptionally hard to manage. Even in one language, idioms and interpretations are different. In the context of some cultural norms, ‘yes’ doesn’t always mean ‘yes’, and tomorrow can mean ‘some day, maybe’.

We can get around this partly by learning and experience, but mainly by goodwill and a willingness to spend time. And, of course, some cute software to facilitate the sharing of knowledge and Dilbert cartoons.


This blog originally appeared in Winter 2017 Project journal


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