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I am currently building a Project Management Plan for a new project where members will come from different cultural background. I clearly identified that not all the project members will share proficiency in a common language (e.g. English).

Is there a project management approach which can efficiently take this limitation into consideration? Is it just a human resource management issue, or can we address this limitation within the project management practice?

How can our team overcome communication issues within the project when members are not sharing the same language?

  • Your question was also lightly edited to prevent it being closed as an opinion poll. "Best practices" questions are usually too broad or invite opinions; however, I think the question is now sufficiently targeted to be answerable. – Todd A. Jacobs Oct 7 '14 at 12:12
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How big are groups of people in a specific language?

Agile Practices like scrum typically work around this kind of situation by creating smaller independent modules and sprints. You then form smaller groups of people who are comfortable with a specific language and ask them to work on individual sprints.

So a group of people who are confident with English can work on Module X where else a different team proficient in another language works on Module Y. Both these modules run their independent sprints.

Each team has their own scrum masters (basically a lead or senior developer within that team who knows some level of English can play this role).

Each team has their own daily scrums in the language of their choice. Other team members don’t have to be a part of that scrum since they have scrums in their own languages focused on their specific modules that they attend.

At the end of the day you have a “Scrum of Scrums” – a quick five minute stand up call where these scrum masters / team leads / senior developers (or what ever it is that you want to call them) show up and instead of answering scrum questions like “What did I work on, What am I going to working on tomorrow, and is there something I need from the team?”, answers questions like, “What did we (as in me and my team) work on today, what will we be working on tomorrow and is there something we need from the team?”.

Put simply the local lead, becomes your default interpreter for the rest of the team. This lets these teams work autonomously without a lot of Micromanagement from your side and will also eliminate a lot of friction resulting out of cultural differences. Usually works really well if you have two to three members in each language – which is a perfect size to make pizza teams that can deliver small sprints autonomously.

The leads coming together daily will also ensure that there are no issues with integration. Besides you can use continuous integration to ensure that what each team is building fits in the larger image. Standard XP practices will help you with that.

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TL;DR

Communications planning is an essential part of the project initiation process, and some methodologies (e.g. PRINCE2) include it as a formal documentation process for that phase. The specifics of your plan, as well as the pros and cons of any given control, are very situational. Specifics can't be effectively addressed outside the context of your organization or your project.

Address Communications Within a Project Plan

As a process question, there are certainly steps that should be taken as part of the overall project planning and management process. Regardless of the project management framework, the following list identifies basic steps you can apply to your project.

  1. Communications impediments should be clearly identified as project risks in your project plan.
  2. Project controls should be designed to limit or remediate the risks.
  3. Any residual risk should be formally accepted by the organization.
  4. The costs to implement, design, and maintain the controls, as well as the costs of any residual risk, should be quantified and applied against the project's budget.
  5. All impediments, risks, controls, and costs should be made visible to project participants and stakeholders.

Some Practical Suggestions

It isn't possible for anyone outside your organization to determine all the constraints faced by your project, so there isn't a canonical list of ways to address language barriers on a project. However, here are some common-sense suggestions that may help your planning process.

  • Hire one or more interpreters, and build those costs into your project plan.
  • Add ongoing communications training activities to your budget and your project plan.
  • Acknowledge that communications deficits will slow the project throughout its lifecycle, and factor that into your estimates and scheduling.
  • Put extra slack into your processes to allow for re-work attributable to communications failures.
  • Use an iterative development process rather than a framework that depends on clearly-communicated, up-front specifications and requirements.
  • Design your project plan with many additional opportunities to inspect the work and the process.
  • Keep everything about your communications process visible and transparent.
  • Focus on making impediments highly visible so they can be fixed, rather than on "holding people accountable" or sweeping delays and mistakes under the rug.

Your project team may also identify other controls and processes that are better for your organization. Use this list as a starting point for developing your own project controls, but be creative and don't limit your project's potential by assuming that there's a ready-made solution already out there.

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  • Based on my experience, I would add one point to your excellent list: Use simple language structures whenever possible. Shorter sentences, simple tenses, and clear concepts. – SBWorks Oct 10 '14 at 3:06
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From my perspective it is a human resource issue but then with project operating from multiple location / countries across the globe it is one of the situation that you will find occurring quite often.

Approach that I would follow given this situation is:

  1. Figure a common language which most of the people are comfortable if not fluent.
  2. Keep communication in writing over emails and presentation over communicators as far as possible.
  3. Plan for the cross cultural training and some kind of basic language skills for all the team members to understand each other better in terms of culture and language both.
  4. Identify this as one of the risks and budget for training of resources in terms of time and schedule as well.
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You have two choices: Hire interpreters or hire resources that speak whatever primary language you want. There's nothing to over think here.

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  • Hi, David. I don't think your answer is wrong, but it comes across as a bit gruff. I'd be less concerned about the tone if it were just a comment, rather than an answer, which implies a bit more intent. – Todd A. Jacobs Oct 9 '14 at 15:05

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