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Will Your Work Prevent You From A Nice Holiday?

Will Your Work Prevent You From A Nice Holiday?

Nicolai Tillisch reflects on how the different perceptions of time and action prevailing in the region surprise project managers and ruin holidays.

“They cannot cancel Christmas! I know, because there is snow,” is my five-year old daughter’s upset appeal.

She and her brother are watching one of the 24 daily episodes of an old Christmas show. The plot is classic: a jovial and obese king of a fictitious medieval country has to pay his weight in gold to a neighbouring king before Christmas in exchange for peace. About midway in the series, he reluctantly decides to ban Christmas and thereby remove the deadline.

Many project managers and their team members have the same child-like excitement about whether they will get an undisturbed Christmas this year, just like others have similar strong feelings about Eid Al Adha, Diwali or other holidays.

The textbook prescribes that a manager breaks down a project into phases separated by milestones. Their immediate popularity depends on their ability to deliver on time and within budget as well as to allow their teams to have an enjoyable life outside of work.

This is much less trivial to achieve in the Gulf than elsewhere, as the region hosts extremely different perceptions of time and action placing this ideal harmony in danger.

Nationals are proud of their heritage and customs but often demand Western management practices. The workforce is the most multicultural workforce that has ever existed on earth.

The Anglo Saxon culture, from where the dominating project management schools origin, is “linear-active” in the words of Richard D. Lewis, the international cultural expert. You decide what is most important and move forward step by step towards the chosen goals.

Lewis defines the Arab culture together with that of the Latin world as “multi-active”. Many things are important at any moment and you juggle them simultaneously, which results in more spontaneity. The Indian culture also has a twist of this mixed with what he calls a “reactive” trait.

In the Gulf, I received a culture shock when I observed this conflict for the first time. I saw how otherwise very experienced and previously successful project managers from Northern Europe struggled and grew increasingly cynical.

An Arab expat, I call him Ahmed in my book, showed me how as program director he was able to turn around a huge, nearly failing project by violating many of the basic principles that I had learned during my training as a project manager in an international top-tier management consultancy.

Ahmed bothered little about the overall project plan and risk analyses but pushed his team massively hard on the most pressing deliverables. He ignored several of his superiors in his own organization and was sloppy with the internal reporting, while continually courting the customer executives like a salesman.

A couple of times, I witnessed his emotional assurances that he would do everything in his power to make them happy. There is no doubt he did, even though his path was difficult to predict and not without risks.

This is an important lesson: international textbooks do not always work in the Gulf. If you have chosen to work in a culture very different from your own or from that in which your toolbox origins, then you must also make an effort to understand, adapt and sometimes improvise.

This is likewise the case if you want to run a project in a very different way than usual for you or your organization.

Your holidays may be at stake. If you are planning a holiday, then I wish that it materialises and surpasses all your expectations. Happy holiday season!

Nicolai Tillisch is the author of ‘Effective Business in The Gulf: Mastering Leadership Skills for Greater Success’ and the founder of Dual Impact, the Dubai-based executive coaching and consulting company. The book is available on Amazon Kindle, bookstores throughout the region and at http://www.booksarabia.com/effective-business-in-the-gulf.html.

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