The last time I did and article I was on holiday in Greece last summer and I was marvelling at how Greece and its inhabitants were getting on with current recession issues and how they ‘just did it’ – i.e. got on with business irrespective of certain restrictions.

Well, as we all know, the world has moved on somewhat since last summer, and so have I. I spent the end of 2010 and the beginning of 2011 in the Middle East (on business – not on holiday) and my experience of business, and specifically on projects and project management, in that area has changed my perceptions again of how people operate and what we in the West and Europe can learn from other countries and cultures.

Lesson 1
A signed contract is the start not the end of negotiations. In the West we spend a lot of time defining the project plan up front and then ensuring that this is encapsulated in a ‘watertight’ contract.  This then can be used to beat up the other party should the project go off track – cynical I know, but we’ve all been there! Well my greatest recent lesson and something I now need to investigate further is the ‘custom’ of the Middle East which treats the signed contract as the beginning of negotiations, not the end!

In the Arabic culture, from what I can understand (as I’m no expert), trusting someone is as important as the contract discussions and agreements, if not more so. You can discuss, debate and put hundreds of versions of the project plan together, but if they don’t trust you then I’m afraid the project will either not go ahead or you may not be part of it, if it does! If they trust you and take you as a man of your word then more likely as not your contract will be signed. But that’s the start, not the conclusion of discussions. The signing of a contract seems to me more of a statement of faith and trust in you than a legal document. It is stating that “we like you and we think we can do business with you…now what we really want is this…” So for me I need to spend more time understanding the people I will be doing business before I get down to the specifics of a project plan and contract negotiations.

Lesson 2
Be a man of your word. Project deliverables are not just about sequence and timing and milestones, they are about being a man of your word! A colleague missed a deadline for the submission of a document. In the grand scheme of things it was trivial and actually not vital. As a result he was doubted throughout the project as someone who could deliver. People were asked to cover for him and tasks were moved to other resources. He was however the best person available and is excellent at his job.

The reason for the delay – his mother had just died! The client did not know this and therefore was unforgiving. The problem was more of a British ‘stiff upper lip’ approach where we declined to tell the client the reason for the delay, as it was a personal family matter and we would cover it anyway. The biggest irony of all – if we had told the client they would have been the most understanding of companies as in the Arabic world FAMILY IS EVERYTHING! They would have understood the issue immediately and compensated accordingly.

Lesson 3
Local versus Global. There are some aspects of projects and project management in the Middle East which are very ‘local’ and you must adjust accordingly. In summertime any of our projects involving outside work were severely affected and night time working became the norm.  Adjustment for Ramadan is a necessity and something that has to be planned for, for everyone. Communication through at least 3 languages became the norm and project communication became a key core skill for all managers – use pictures and diagrams wherever possible!

However, the developing Middle East, and here I refer mainly to the UAE, is a very ‘globally-aware’ place and knowledge of best practice tools and techniques, the latest standards and a very keen knowledge of negotiation and pricing stem from being in touch with everywhere and anywhere. The days of thinking that certain countries are ‘a soft touch’ and marking up margins because they have all the oil and money are long, long gone my friend!

However, just catching up on the news today, things may change again in the Middle East!

Author Bio: Simon Derry is a partner at Project Leaders International (PLI) Ltd. a consulting, software and training firm involved in projects and innovations worldwide. He is also a published author and his book “Fast Track to Success – Project Management” was shortlisted for the Chartered Management Institute’s (CMI) Book of the Year.