Steering projects to success in unfamiliar territory

Published in RICS Business.

It takes specific skills to steer a project to success in unfamiliar territory, believes John Judge.

Imagine the following scenario: forty containers of materials essential to your building project are sitting on the docks in the Sri Lankan port of Colombo, waiting to be collected. A six-week port strike, part of the continual unrest of a country gripped by civil war, is preventing their release. Without those materials arriving on site the project will haemorrhage US$100,000 every week. Even if the strike ends, it will take a month for the port to return to normal service. What do you do? I faced this situation in 1990. The containers were crucial to the successful delivery of the Sri Lankan Ministry of Environment’s US$14m water supply scheme.

At times like these, it’s vital not to become blinded by the dilemma in front of you. Although it may sound over simplified, every problem really does have a solution. In this case, we agreed to pay striking workers US$50 a night each if they helped to bring in the containers.

The total price of this operation came to US$25,000, but the goods arrived two weeks earlier than scheduled, thus making a profit of US$75,000 for the client. The port strike had seemed beyond the project’s control but this is where the ability to exercise lateral thinking can stand you in such good stead. People who are prepared to push themselves out of their comfort zone and play to win are far more likely to be successful than those who settle for second best.

In Sri Lanka the situation appeared hopeless but if you have the will to win, not even a global recession or the chaos of civil war can stop you from delivering a project successfully. The big question is: do you have an able team around you?

With the right mixture of staff and skills, difficulties that at first seem insurmountable can be overcome and amazing results can be achieved.

Failure should be looked upon as a choice. Every project requires players who are driven and determined, and who do not entertain the notion of failure as an option.

Understanding different cultures

Finance speaks volumes when it comes to a project’s success or failure, but it is not everything. It is just as important to understand the culture of the country you find yourself working in. Every country has its own interpretation of what is deemed rude or offensive, or what is recognised as a sign of gratitude. It is your business to get to grips with local gestures and customs, and to behave wherever you are in the world and whoever you are with, be it in your dealings with the tea lady or indeed the head of state.

Language barriers

Many countries will have a number of different languages. Nigeria, for example, has hundreds of dialects currently in use. But not being able to speak any of the languages of the country you are working in is not necessarily a big obstacle. The art of unspoken communication can be very effective in getting your message understood, especially if you have multi-lingual staff. It obviously helps to have an interpreter you can trust. And sometimes you may need more than one interpreter so that you can tell one what you want to say and have that tested by another.

Before going into a meeting it’s useful to discuss the objectives you want to achieve from it with your main interpreter. It may be that some delegates will have private discussions in their own language during proceedings that contradict not only what you’re trying to achieve, but also what has been said to you previously.

Rather than have your interpreter begin questioning them during the meeting, it can be more effective to have them make a signal to you that such discussions have taken place. The signal could be anything from the scratching of the back of the head to outstretching their arms. The signal would be the moment you ask for a break in the meeting. Once out of the meeting your interpreter can tell you what was said.

This is a very effective way of weeding out anyone untrustworthy and damaging to the success of your project. Being ousted as untrustworthy in some cultures, in Nigeria for example, would be the biggest of humiliations. If you reveal to the guilty party what you know about them in private, they are likely to want it kept private, which makes it easier to eliminate them from the project. The circumstances might be different in each country. What’s important to remember is: language need not be a barrier if you have a strategy in place.

Summary of practical tips

• When faced with a problem do not allow yourself to be blinded by it.

• It might sound simple, but every problem has a solution.

• Think laterally – can a compromise be made to meet your goal?

• Push yourself out of the comfort zone and learn the signs and issues of risk.

• Simply don’t accept failure as an option.

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