Life is a Project

Enabling Life Skills in Cross-Cultural Transitions


By Neil Robinson

London, United Kingdom



This paper introduces the concept of project management as an enabling skill for individuals in the process of cross-cultural transition. It explores theoretical models of cultural adaptation, research into psychological and socio-cultural impacts of cross-cultural transitions, the challenges of being a non-native English language speaker, the concept of “skills for life” training and studies on the impact of project-based learning in education. The paper provides observations from an experimental exercise in teaching project management skills to a group of non-native English language speakers. It concludes with a view on the merit of project management skills in a cross-cultural context and thoughts on further development of the concept.

Key words: cross-cultural, acculturation, project management, cultural transition, skills for life

JEL codes: J150, L310, M140



“To awaken quite alone in a strange town is one of the pleasantest sensations in the world. You are surrounded by adventure” (Stark, 2011, p.11). Individuals make cross-cultural transitions to new locations for many reasons. Like British travel writer, Freya Stark, they may be motivated by a desire for adventure and discovery. Others undertake these transitions as longer-term sojourns or migration for a variety of economic, political, social and environmental motivations (Dontsov & Zotova, 2013).

These transitions present the newcomer with practical and social challenges which can significantly constrain their well-being and productivity. This conceptual paper provides an introductory exploration of the extent to which the acquisition of basic project management skills, methods and tools may enhance the capabilities of individuals to articulate, analyse, plan and manage “life” projects such as cross-cultural transitions. It explores the extent to which such skills acquisition might serve to release or develop latent capability in “at risk” individuals or groups, and seeks to identify the potential for realising measurable personal, social and economic benefits for the individual and society as a direct result of such capability activation. Academic research on the concept and quantifiable benefits of project management as a “life” skill is limited.

Project management methodologies are mostly commercial-focused. There is great scope for further research to explore the feasibility of this concept, potential social or “life” applications, benefits quantification methods, and the applicability of leading project management frameworks to these “life” projects. This paper presents a novel and introductory exploration of the feasibility and potential benefits of providing adapted project management skills training to assist individuals with one specific example of everyday life, the cross-cultural transition.

Research results and discussion

The challenge of cross-cultural transition

Individuals decide to relocate to foreign countries for many and varied reasons depending on their personal circumstances. The study of Dontsov and Zotova (2013, p.78) identifies standard of living, financial stability, future opportunities, wealth creation, the chance to start a new life, education, employment, security and family reunion as major drivers for undertaking these transitions. In the United Kingdom (House of Commons, 2016, p.14) the primary reasons for migration inflow between 2005 and 2015 have been work, study and family reunion.

The practical challenges of relocation to a new country include the fundamental needs such as finding accommodation, employment, healthcare, transport and financial services. The social challenges include making new friends, developing a support network and adapting to cultural differences. The success of the transition depends on the individual’s ability to overcome these challenges in a process of adaptation and establishment of independence.

Studies have identified that the process of cross-cultural transition can pose significant threats to the psychological well-being of individuals as they attempt to overcome feelings of homesickness, prejudice, loss of self-esteem, anxiety, helplessness, depression, loneliness, stress and sleeplessness (Brown & Holloway, 2008; Ward & Kennedy, 2001). Brown and Holloway (2008, pp. 33-45) describe the international transition process as “one of the most traumatic events in a person’s life”, concluding that almost all of the 13 subjects in their study suffered symptoms of “mental ill health” as a direct result of their relocation. The study of Ramos, Cassidy, Reicher and Haslam (2015) identifies the failure of post-migration experiences to meet pre-migration expectations as a primary cause of “acculturative stress” leading to mental illness. They cite social rejection, prejudice, language difficulties, and cultural differences as the major inhibitors to expectations being met and achievement of well-being in the new location.


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Editor’s note: Second Editions are previously published papers that have continued relevance in today’s project management world, or which were originally published in conference proceedings or in a language other than English. Original publication acknowledged; authors retain copyright. This paper was originally presented at the 6th Scientific Conference on Project Management in the Baltic States, University of Latvia, April 2017. It is republished here with the permission of the author and conference organizers


About the Author

Neil C. Robinson

London, United Kingdom


Neil C. Robinson
is an experienced Business and Technology Project Manager, consultant and trainer with global experience delivering complex projects, transformation programmes, and business solutions in diverse geographic locations. His experience as a practitioner includes Senior Programme/Project Management, IT Services, and Operational roles in the private and public sectors. His domain experience includes IT Management and Project Delivery roles in the Aviation, Technology, Oil & Energy, Health, Government, Insurance, and Education sectors. His regional Project Management experience includes on-ground delivery in 20+ countries across the UK, Europe, the Middle East, Australasia, the Americas and Asia. Neil is PMP and PRINCE2 accredited and is currently undertaking research and academic studies in a Masters (Project Management) programme at Salford Business School. He has a special interest in social project management and initiated the “Life is a Project” concept in London, teaching project management life skills to ‘at-risk’ community groups. His further research interests include the roles of motivation and cultural intelligence in international project success.

Neil can be contacted at [email protected] and welcomes global collaboration from practitioners, academics and students in his field of interest.