5 things to consider for project management in Southeast Asia

/ Article by Koen Colmbijn

– An article by Koen Colmbijn, want to be the first next time? Follow Koen on LinkedIn

A few weeks ago, I found myself strolling the streets of Shanghai in search of a taxi, something that has become virtually impossible due to the replacement of Uber. During our rush through traffic I realised that me and my team have gathered a considerable amount of know-how regarding project management in Southeast Asia. Seeing that our insights could be of value to our connections I decided to write this article.

2Some of my personal recommendations of books and documentaries on cultural differences

  1. Research on culture

When you land an overseas assignment, it is a completely natural impulse to get started right away. However, keep in mind Rome wasn’t built in one day. Conducting proper research on culture is essential. Studying the cultural differences between your own culture and the culture you’ll be working with enables you to set up a pragmatic framework for yourself to ensure a successful project. Knowing the possible obstacles of your own culture is also important. For example, the Dutch are infamous for their direct approach that some might even call blunt and this can cause misunderstandings.

Rituals are habits that are deeply incorporated into a culture. It is necessary to strictly abide by its rules. For example, carrying a business card does not have any major significance for us. It is merely a piece of paper with contact information. To the Japanese it is part of their identity and one is expected to keenly investigate the card before carefully putting it away. Not having your own business card in Japan would result in coming across as unprepared or unprofessional. Other rituals to keep in mind are food etiquette, gestures and general rules of behaviour.

Getting the help of a local is essential for a successful project

  1. Get the help of a local

Preparing yourself by reading is important. however, sometimes street knowledge can be as crucial as book knowledge. Familiarising with a person or team that exactly knows the ins and outs of a specific culture is a bare essential for overseas project management. Preferably this should be a person that is both raised in that culture and has worked with people from your own culture, allowing them to have an understanding of the differences between these cultures like no other. This very person will prove to be worth his or her weight in gold over and over again.

The food can be a very adventurous aspect of your stay in Southeast Asia.

  1. Get acquainted

In most of Southeast Asia, patience is key for every face-to-face rendezvous. Their working culture is relationship-based, as opposed to our Western task-based working culture. In short this means it requires time building a personal relationship for efficient collaborations with people from Southeast Asia, rather than barging into the project blindsighted.

During our search for potential business partners for our first assignment in China, I was astonished by the amount of informal dinners, meetings and drinking sessions we had to attend before being able to talk about the project. For them it is a way to ensure you’re genuine about what you say. For you, it provides the perfect opportunity to get to know the people you’ll be working with and those working for you. besides, I must admit it’s an incredibly fun way to start assignments.opportunity to get to know the people you’ll be working with and those working for you. besides, I must admit it’s an incredibly fun way to start assignments.
5The power balance in organizational structures differs from one culture to another

  1. Understanding the power balance

Understanding the power structure and knowing the the mindset of a culture can be extremely helpful. Although every person is evidently unique there are a lot of similarities in mentality between people raised in the same culture. This is all about work ethics, hierarchy, time efficiency, social standards, handling critique or overall communication. These are not rules to follow but things to keep in mind when managing a project. For every step of the way you need to consider how everything you say or do is interpreted by people from another culture.

Egalitarian vs. Hierarchical
In our Dutch working culture we are used to an egalitarian power structure. This means that decisions are often made in consensual ways. Employees have general job descriptions rather than specific ones and they are not afraid to seek out confrontation with executives. In Southeast Asia the power structure is mostly hierarchical. Everyone has a specific job with very clear boundaries on what aspects they have authority over. Therefore, micromanaging is very important and I strongly suggest doing this when you’re in Asia to ensure deadlines are met and quality guaranteed. These differences in power balance can be very challenging at times not because of the difficulties to understand these rules but to actually act upon them when you’re there.


Me during Myth festival Shanghai

  1. Know the rules and laws

It can be very convenient to inform yourself on the legislation. Picture this: Myth Festival, Shanghai. A big crowd and eight million people following the event by live streaming. Artists such as KSHMR and Knife Party. The last act, Diplo, is playing, energizing the crowd, effectively working his way up to the inevitable climax of the performance. Now picture me, standing in the front of house show calling the event. Normally I’m not that nervous, however, next to me there is a police officer holding a pair of gigantic hedge shears ready to cut all the cables if the DJ does not end his performance on time, subsequently ruining the climax of the show.

I hope that illustrates the importance of being aware of the rules and legislation of the country you’re in and the strictness with which the rules are enforced. This also applies to the financial aspects of an overseas assignment. Make sure you discuss everything thoroughly to avoid misunderstandings or major setbacks. Rules may change during projects depending on the contractor as well as the enforcers. You will experience that some rules might be more flexible than expected, for better or worse. Which brings me to my last recommendation for this article.

Being flexible
For now, I would like to finish this article with a general advice for anyone managing projects abroad: ALWAYS BE FLEXIBLE! This can save you from a lot of stress. As Murphy’s law states: “Anything that can happen, will happen. (eventually)”. So make sure to be prepared for unforeseen circumstances to unfold…

Although I could describe more aspects of doing business in Southeast Asia it is my opinion that these are the first and most important things one should consider before doing just that. Therefore, I will refrain from making this article too much of a long read.


Below this article are the links to the different literary recommendations and documentaries to inform anyone on doing business in Southeast Asia.

A Life in Japan DocumentaryBy Petri Stolröpare
Doing Business with JapanBy Kazuo Nishiyama
Etiquette Guide to JapanBy Boye Lafayette De Mente
The Korean Way in BusinessBy Boye Lafayette De Mente
The Chinese Way in BusinessBy Boye Lafayette De Mente
The Culture MapBy Erin Meyer