The trainer in project management stood before a room of twenty Russians in a city two hours East of Moscow by plane, near the birthplace of Tchaikovsky and home to the Kalashnikov factory, a city of onion-domed churches and warm convivial cafés, whilst outside in Winter it can touch -40C.
The Russians present were tough oil-industry workers, from as far away as 8 hours drive through the silver birch forests. In the winter snow the silver glistens white on white. The twenty Russians were solemn. The interpretor had just translated the vital importance for a project of a committed sponsor, and above all the critical skill of a project manager of managing upwards for the project’s vision, success factors, risks, performance indicators, and key decisions to be clarified on time.
And the Russians looked like stone, the atmosphere sullen. Russians can take a while to warm up, especially with icicles being scraped off the overhanging roof and a naive head office consultant standing in front of them imploring them to listen. Later on in the week this Russian group will become effusive and soulful. But, for now the ice needs to be cracked.
In Russia the top manager is like a Tsar; so the trainer tells a story. "This is how it is in Western Europe: When you want to communicate or sell something to a top manager, you have to call them 50 times. And they won’t be there. The manager will be in a meeting, then on the phone, then not to be disturbed, then away on a mission. And then after many calls, you’ll ask to speak to the assistant. And the assistant will be busy on the phone and not to be disturbed. And then one day, maybe after twenty calls, you’ll manage to speak to the assistant. And you’ll treat the assistant with lots of respect, explaining the reasons for your call and why it’s important. And then one day the assistant will open the door to the top manager." "How does it work in Russia?" A big guffaw from the group: “That’s how it works in Russia.” They’ve warmed up. Perhaps, we’re not so different after all.
The Russians like to test your mettle. "Who are these flashy consultants with their fancy methods, thinking they can tell us what to do?" Dogma will get you nowhere. You have to respect a proud culture; and all cultures are proud. The Kalashnikov AZ47 was a wonder project; it includd a work breakdown structure with cost and value analysis for every work package.
Next course, in a famous town near Kazakhstan, the top manager was a poet, a latter day Pushkin. Everyone roared as he recounted his verse, in Russian. "What is it this time? This not work in Russia?" "This project was successful because in 1947 we had one project manager, Josef Stalin." Eyes looking down, eyes looking up, heads shaking, shoulders heaving with mirth, red faces, glee; not one person's body language like another.
"Surely Stalin was the sponsor, not the project manager?" "He was the project manager!" More laughter. "Then why was the AZ47 project finished in 1948?" Red faces turn gleeful, and glee goes red.