Successful Cooperation

In May 2015, 19 middle and upper management executives from small and medium-sized Chinese family-run companies came to Cologne to attend the Manager Training Programme at the TÜV Rheinland Akademie. Project management was one of the central topics on the agenda. The course highlighted some country-specific differences between China and Germany.

Cologne. Project objective, timeframe and available resources are generally viewed as the three main components of a project. But the old adage “business is about people” applies to Germany and China in particular. For international projects, it is most effective to expand these three core project areas by a fourth overriding dimension: “culture”. If the cultural differences between China and Germany are not considered, cooperation is almost doomed to fail before it has even really gotten off the ground. The group compared and analyised German and Chinese approaches to phases of project management.

Project goal
Setting a project objective for a project that involves a number of firms ideally results in a binding contract that describes project flow. German companies view this contract as a list of milestones and set of standards that need to be completed and checked off. For the Chinese though, it is just the initial foundation to be changed and adjusted over the course of a project through numerous discussions. It is a “moving target” of sorts, and can create a state of constant flux that does not seem to comply with the German concept of project management on first sight.

Identifying the stakeholders is another large difference. Chinese recognize and understand power relationships, while German team members have make an effort to acquire this understanding. When working with a comparatively flexible project goal, this knowledge gap can lead to more than just a sense of insecurity.

During training, MP participants expressed astonishment at the decision-making power accorded every German project manager. This power is not based on the implicit trust of the boarding team, but rather on the exact specifications and responsibilities that limit the project in all dimensions like guide rails.

In Germany, as soon as the project goal is set, internal communication is very goal-oriented and direct. Supported by charts, time-distance diagrams and protocols, personal preferences are subordinated to the project goal. In China discussion reigns supreme and protocols, for example, are seen more as guideposts for further development. A Chinese partner should ever be publically shown up for a difference between the goals set and what was achieved. The same applies to mistakes. In China, a mistake is depicted as an opportunity to look for alternatives and blame is not assigned directly to any one team member. This also means though that the German members of an international team have to learn to recognize hints about a mistake they may have made. The objective is to find ways to promote intercultural communication. Chinese managers assess themselves as much more flexible in this area compared to German business partners.

The time factor is relevant worldwide and exceptionally important for large and small projects alike. In Germany, the set project plan generally stipulates a final completion date. In China the schedule is determined more by external or internal stakeholders. As a rule, short projects are the goal everywhere. In the Chinese business environment, time delays are strongly compensated by the manpower factor.

The project team and project manager are key success factors for any project. So the composition of the project team is approached from very different culturally specific perspectives. In Germany a project team is set up based on skill sets. This helps install a small, highly efficient team. In the first project phase, the team members get to know each other better and everyone uses their expert skills and strengths to the team’s advantage. Team configuration is generally structured and equal. In China though, trust is viewed as the basis for fruitful cooperation. So in a Chinese project team, the formal and information connections among the individual team members determine team composition. The entire project team is subject to many very strong invisible hierarchical structures. From a German standpoint, it might initially seem like chaos, but the Chinese equanimity evident should not be interpreted as indifference.

Every project involves risks. These may be technical, financial or involve human resources or time. Then there are the environmental risks or external risks such as suppliers. This classification system is very European though, and perhaps even very German. These risks are analysed in more or less detail depending on the size of the project, and evaluated using mathematical models and simulation software where applicable. The probability of the possible risks and their financial consequence is identified for every stage of the project, according to the German theory at least. A risk manager is usually not included in a Chinese project team. From a Chinese point of view, the efficacy of taking on a role in which a person can only “lose” realistically is questionable. A pragmatic approach is preferred with a focus on solutions for the imponderable.

In conclusion, successful Chinese-German project regardless of size require a great deal of trust and intercultural skills on both sides to be successful.

10 recommendations for Chinese-German projects:

  1. Base projects on mutual trust and openness.
  2. Everyone involved should complete intercultural training before the project kicks off.
  3. Project team members should get to know each other at a kick-off meeting.
  4. A unified project language should be agreed from the outset.
  5. Two equal project managers reduce the amount of discussion, increase transparency, and limit problems caused by time delays.
  6. Project costs should be calculated ahead of time and budgeted on both sides.
  7. An atmosphere of curious, mutual learning is an effective partnership foundation.
  8. Criticism should be deal with cross-culturally as on a sports team.
  9. The project should be as flexible as possible and inflexible as necessary.
  10. Only a “team” can successfully complete a project.

Thomas Starke