Sometimes the scariest part of the project is what you don’t know. We can be warned about all the potential risks, issues, technology roadblocks, end user concerns and customer concerns, but those unknowns that loom concerning the environments we are entering into can often be the most problematic and are not for the faint of heart. Project managers…prepare to enter the cave of darkness…or start asking questions fast so you aren’t caught off guard by cultural, social, political and physical environment issues concerning your project customer. You certainly can’t control all of them – or even most of them – and you certainly can’t prepare for everything, but you can work hard at being aware and keeping your team aware before you jump headfirst into the project.
Virtually all projects are planned and implemented in a social, economic, and environmental context, and have intended and unintended positive and/or negative impacts. The project team – starting at the top with the project manager – should always consider the project in its cultural, social, international, political, and physical environmental contexts. Perception of the project from these standpoints will help the team prepare for issues, plan for risks, and better understand that factors at work around, and possible even against, your project.
Cultural and social environment. The entire project team needs to work hard to be aware of how the project affects people and how people affect the project. This may require an understanding of aspects of the economic, demographic, educational, ethical, ethnic, religious, and other characteristics of the people whom the project affects or who may have an interest in the project. The project manager should also examine the organizational culture and determine whether project management is recognized as a valid role with accountability and authority for managing the project.
International and political environment. Depending on location and who they are interacting with – especially with a remote customer and a geographically dispersed team – project team members may need to be familiar with applicable international, national, regional, and local laws and customs, as well as the political climate that could affect the project. Other international factors to consider are time-zone differences, national and regional holidays, travel requirements for face-to-face meetings, and the logistics of teleconferencing. This certainly comes into a bigger view for remote project managers working with virtual teams stretched across a country or around the world. This wasn’t nearly the common occurrence 20 years ago that it is today with our ability to use technology to collaborate with our team at a moments notice from just about any location.
Physical environment. If the project will affect its physical surroundings, some team members should be knowledgeable about the local ecology and physical geography that could affect the project or be affected by the project. As we consider green initiatives and environmental sustainability on our projects – concepts that often play big roles in projects at this time – the physical environment of the project can be a big factor.
We can’t know everything about our customer before the project starts. But we can do our homework and ask some important questions before the project starts so that we are as prepared – and productive – as possible as we begin project kickoff and the actual project work itself. These kinds of customer environment questions are best answered as early in the engagement as possible – not halfway through – as they can definitely have an affect on the communication processes as well as on the solution and other important considerations.