The Polish commitment to “just in time”

Two factors which become apparent as soon as you begin planning a cooperative effort with a Polish business are firstly, their talent for improvisation, and secondly, their optimistic belief that any task can be successfully managed. Projects continue to be tinkered with right up until the very last minute, as changes occur constantly. Instead of a constant, unchanging pace of work, you will witness a very full commitment to “just in time”.

In project management, a common source of misunderstandings are targeted milestones, which although you may take for granted as being laid out in a certain order, may pass by barely noticed on the Polish side. You should communicate any concerns before the situation escalates too far and enquire when individual steps have not been followed. Arrange deadlines together.

Above all though, never take every single new change proposed by your Polish partners at face value. During the course of the project you will hear a multitude of ideas and be amazed by the numerous improvement proposals. It is best to be ready to listen to any innovative ideas, but always immediately discuss with your partners what can actually be implemented in reality and what ideas would be too costly.

Flexible approach to rules

The ability of your Polish partners and employees to focus on one thing is rather weak. During meetings they will jump from one subject to another and information will often be provided prefixed with the word “about”.

Do not insist on your proposed structures being implemented one-on-one. In Poland there is flexibility when dealing with a system of rules. An insistence on fixed structures and rules is not seen as professional conduct in the eyes of your Polish project partners, who tend to view this as a rather small-minded approach. In addition, some of these approaches may simply be inconvertible in reality in Poland.

In fact, such methods may provoke a defiant reaction, following the imperative “we know how things are best done here”. Polish members of staff will also rarely admit that they do not understand or know something in relation to the course of the project. It is helpful to try to develop a sense for when it is necessary to explain in more detail, without giving the other side the impression of lecturing them.

The flexible approach to rules has little to do with being irresponsible. It is in fact a survival strategy, anchored in Polish history. Plans for the future were useless during the occupation, because no one knew what the next day would bring. The sceptical attitude towards detailed planning remains prevalent to this day. Ironically, the fast pace of recent change has only served to compound this. The complexity of the modern Polish situation and near-constant change have also contributed to the fact that your Polish project partners will struggle to make any sense of linear, structured course of action, which is perceived as inappropriate for the Polish business environment.A short-term focus is dominant: if the implementation of a plan is taking too long or if it no longer suits the current situation, Poles will find a different way and put a new plan in place.

Ad hoc communication

It is extremely important, especially bearing in mind the historical context, that all your communication is on an equal footing, that you treat your partners as equals and do not make them feel as though it is they that have to adapt. In addition, you need to consider your Polish partner not only as a professional in the work context, but above all as a person, who is appreciated for their individuality. Note though, how “individuality” is understood: in Poland attention is not focused on the specific person, but towards fellow human beings.

For this reason, Polish employees share any issues and ambiguities arising in the course of a project with others, to try and find solutions together. Offering help in this type of situation happens as a matter of course, and Polish staff are accustomed to interruptions during their work and try especially to avoid hurting other people by denying them their support.

It is advisable for you to act immediately in case of questions and requests for assistance, instead of arranging dates for meetings. In this way, you can demonstrate to your project partners that their concerns are a priority, and progressively build more trust.

Once a relationship is established, you can begin to communicate on an interpersonal level just as the Poles do, with a “Can you do it for me, please”. This statement is the best illustration of the personal-emotional level involved in project collaboration in Poland.

Addressing critical issues diplomatically

If you want to address critical issues, you should be aware that there is no distinction between criticism of the thing and the person. The emotions of your Polish partner can rapidly reach boiling point when they feel that their dignity is offended. Their silence “communicates” that the interpersonal interaction has reached breaking point.

Thus, if your Polish business partner is no longer answering your calls or e-mails, you can be sure that the misunderstanding has snowballed considerably. To settle the issue as soon as possible, ask. Remember that in Poland the top priority in people’s jobs is not dealing with urgent tasks but supporting people in their job.

At the most basic level, successful project communication relies on you regularly grabbing the phone and not only discussing the project, but also inquiring about your partner’s welfare, and by doing so, you will achieve far more than long e-mails and attachments ever can.

Flow of information

Information is power. In any joint project it is therefore important to know how the flow of information in Polish companies takes place. First of all, important information is regularly exchanged in informal situations. Thus, if a close inter-personal relationship has not been established, you are automatically excluded from this flow of information.

You should also note that a good deal of information will not be passed on if it is perceived as representing a risk of potential conflict or of compromising a healthy atmosphere. Reading between the lines is important in communication in Poland. Over time you will develop a sense for when you should ask to get the bad news.

Particularities in Polish e-mail culture

One other matter to be considered is e-mail culture: in many Polish companies colleagues are rarely copied in CC. Where a concern is important, you should turn to the specific person, so that they can be made to feel responsible. If the e-mail addresses of several people are put into CC, this can generate a sense of a lack of confidence.

Long e-mails are often taken seriously on the Polish side only if they have been “pre-announced” by a phone-call and after receipt, a further call follows them up. These flanking calls made in addition to an e-mail will not be perceived as a nuisance but seen as a sign that the issue is a top priority and that the matter is important to you.

Remember that when working on a joint project, it is mostly up to you to keep yourself informed and check the state of things. This “come and get it” attitude is part of project management and is associated with supervision. Inquire whether everything was understood correctly before giving an assignment. To support the flow of information, teleconferences and shared internet platforms where everyone has access to the same documents can be very useful.

Last minute appointments

Normally your Polish partners will comply with deadlines and appointments, though they will often deal with things at the last minute. The working approach of many Poles is based on multitasking and improvisation. This lack of structuring of workflows is compensated for by high levels of motivation and flexibility.

You should communicate how important it is to you to meet deadlines. As your Polish partners will very often not have the project milestones at the forefront of their thinking, they will not consider deadlines very seriously. Create the feeling that you are all in the same boat. Sometimes it makes sense to anticipate deadlines for your Polish partners, and then you can be sure that by your desired date everything will in fact be done.

If there is a long period between the project start and finishing dates, you should check periodically, preferably by telephone, on the state of affairs. This way, you can flag up to your business partners that the matter is very important to you. Since the human aspect in Poland plays the biggest role, you should make sure that your project does not disappear from view and is left behind because of supposedly more important things.

However, do not get panicky when things do not seem to be working properly. Remember that many Poles work best and most effectively under time pressure and are accustomed to fixing errors and problems shortly before the deadline. Their understanding of time is spiral: problematic issues recur again and again but are tackled only near the end. This does not mean that the issue has not been considered previously however. The golden rule is to remember that neither the style of work (“flexible” versus “structured”) nor the concept of time management (“last minute” versus “according to plan”) is critical to the success, but the end result.

Try to think less about when and how your Polish colleagues have managed to sort things out, and more of whether the results are to your satisfaction.

Joanna Sell

+49 (0)711 722 468 44
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