BY TOM SULLIVAN // ILLUSTRATION BY MATT KENYON
It's tough enough getting teams to collaborate when they're right down the hall from each other. Now just imagine what happens when you've got one team member in Argentina, another one in France, a couple in Canada and a whole bunch scattered across India. They come from different cultures, work in different time zones and rarely, if ever, meet.
That's not necessarily a bad thing, though.
A global team's diverse perspectives can help avoid groupthink and stimulate true innovation—that out-of-the-box thinking that team leaders always talk about. And with operations around the world, companies can follow the sun, running projects 24 hours a day.
Yet project managers leading international teams can't ignore the temporal and cultural factors that can throw projects off track. Issues resolved relatively easily with onsite teams can often spark a meltdown when people are halfway around the world.
“Generally in U.S and European culture, if you commit to a date for something, it's taken for granted that you will deliver on that date,” explains Venkata Ramam Atmakuri, PMP, vice president of Invensys Development Centre Pvt. Ltd., a multinational IT company in Hyderabad, India.
There is always a challenge involved in accepting that people from different cultures act differently. People tend to see “different” as some-how worse—that is a factor that erodes trust from the outset.
—Jean Binder, PMP, author, Lausanne, Switzerland
“Whereas in Asian culture we tend to allow concessions here and there regarding commitments—it's part of daily life,” he says. “We have to push very hard with new, young team members to address this so that they don't commit to unrealistic deadlines or raise the red flag too late.”
It's those kinds of cultural conflicts and miscues that can destroy or at least damage team spirit.
“There is always a challenge involved in accepting that people from different cultures act differently,” says Jean Binder PMP, Lausanne, Switzerland-based author of Global Project Management— Communication, Collaboration and Management Across Borders [Gower, 2007]. “People tend to see ‘different’ as somehow worse—that is a factor that erodes trust from the outset.”
VIVA LA DIFERENCE
To foster collaboration, project managers may need to do some digging.
“It's worth having informal one-to-one discussions with some team members prior to meetings so that you do not say anything to contradict them in front of the team,” Mr. Binder says. “In some cultures people really don't like being asked questions they have not had time to think about, so it's good to send questions out in advance.”
All of that information then needs to be factored into meeting preparations— right down to how data are presented.
“When people have different mother tongues, then you need to use visual information wherever possible,” he explains. “It's easier to relate to charts and diagrams than bullet points in a foreign language.”
Better understanding of team members’ cultures can also help defuse conflicts before they become obstacles to project progress.
TIMING IS EVERYTHING
Time is money, but it can also be an annoyance—especially for global teams trying to collaborate.
One area ripe for conflict? Deciding which global team member has to get up at the crack of dawn or sacrifice their evenings to participate in a conference call.
“Time zones can be a problem. When we developed our common product creation process, we had a lot of meetings involving our U.S. and Japanese sites. We only had a small slot in the afternoon that was suitable for everyone— but it was 6 a.m. in the United States and 9 p.m. in Japan,” says Dan Ericsson, Husqvarna Group.
“When we drive regular projects, we break meetings into mornings and afternoons and that suits everyone much better.”
Sometimes team members will just have to deal with the inconvenience, but it doesn't hurt to address it right from the start.
“It's worth consulting team members early on about the most suitable common meeting times,” says Jean Binder, PMP. “And when it's not possible to stick to office hours, it can be better to rotate meeting times among office hours in the different time zones.”
“I once managed a project team with two groups located in different countries. Problems kept appearing because one group's activities were often unexpected and high-impact,” says Mike Sanders, PMP, office manager of IT and business intelligence solution delivery at electric utilities company Southern California Edison, Tustin, California, USA.
“It turned out that they were anticipating problems well in advance but didn't tell anyone. This incensed the other part of the team and a bitter conflict developed,” says Mr. Sanders, who is also president of the PMI California Inland Empire Chapter.
Finally, Mr. Sanders met with the group's lead face-to-face and discovered that, culturally, it was considered disrespectful to bring problems to the global team—the group's perceived customer.
“We changed this misconception and collaboration from the group improved immediately—the project ran much better,” he says.
Although cultural barriers can impede communication and collaboration, there are ways to allieviate the problem. Ensuring teams are all reporting the same way across locations can help, says Mr. Atmakuri.
“The best way to avoid confusion caused by oral communications is to have carefully standardized templates,” he says. “It can go a long way to reducing ambiguity.”
Dan Ericsson, general research and development manager at Husqvarna Group, Huskvarna, Sweden, agrees.
When the outdoor power tools company began integrating newly acquired Japanese and Chinese companies into its existing U.S. and European operations, it became clear that common processes were needed for global team members to understand one another.
“In a global organization, you need to speak the same language as regards project management,” he explains. “At first, a simple thing like defining what we mean by a ‘prototype’ took about two days. We had totally different opinions.”
TIP Stay tuned. When things go wrong on global teams, it may not be as obvious as two people oozing tension as they stare each other down across a conference table. Snappy, faster-than-usual e-mail replies and sarcastic jibes in conference calls should send alarm bells ringing, says Juergen Oschadleus, PMP, Valense Ltd., Sydney, Australia.
“As a project manager, you need to spend a lot of time reading between the lines and detecting the vibes that show people are getting disconnected or unhappy with the project,” he says. “And the moment you spot that, you need to step in and not just hope it will blow over.”
Language barriers were also increasing the workload because meetings were often held using interpreters, so the company made some changes.
“We've found it's far more important to have face-to-face meetings in a global environment to bridge background differences and to get to know each other properly,” Mr. Ericsson says. “Video conferencing is also useful when we need to discuss test results. For example, you can just hold a cracked component up to the camera and point to the crack and say, ‘Here's the problem.’ An image says more than a thousand words.”
But the company didn't just stop at communication tools as it tried to improve understanding.
“We also created a project office that ensures reporting is done correctly and that all teams are kept up to date,” he says.
MAKING THE VIRTUAL ROUNDS
Global teams are usually out of sight, which can also mean out of mind—and that tends to spell trouble. In the absence of clear communication, global teams can disintegrate, dramatically affecting collaboration.
“People can misunderstand instructions when you meet face-to-face. But if you're working remotely the body language is gone and it's even easier to get things wrong,” says Juergen Oschadleus, PMP, Sydney, Australia-based managing partner of Valense Ltd., an organizational consultancy.
“What frequently happens is that we fail to build sufficient feedback loops into our communications. When people can't see you, it's important to give other cues by calling them, or sending e-mails outside of formal phone and video conferences. You need to walk the virtual floor.”
Making the virtual rounds can also help project managers spot any conflicts brewing. Cultural differences and time-zone strains certainly can foster discord in global teams, but distance adds another potent factor into the mix.
“When you can't see a person face to face, it becomes easy to assume the worst about their intentions,” says Mr. Oschadleus.
“Usually it boils down to trust. If you trust people you're working with, then misunderstandings can be fairly easily resolved,” he says. “On the other hand, if people haven't built up trust, they assume the worst and make the situation more negative than it really is.”
It can help to agree on communication ground rules during a project's planning phase.
“It's useful to have norms such as how long you normally wait before replying to e-mails, or that telephone communication is the first choice in the event of any confusion or disagreement and so on,” says Mr. Oschadleus.
In some situations project managers may prefer to encourage conflicts and critical discussions—up to a certain point, says Mr. Sanders.
“Conflict, coupled with diversity, is key to a team's performance,” he says. “To manage conflict you can ask team members to restate the issues at hand in their own words or even in writing, and focus on the process not the people.”
GO TEAM GO
Project managers set the standard for how effectively a team collaborates and communicates. When informal conversations can't take place in the hallway or over lunch, having a virtual space for people to call their own can help build team spirit.
“The project manager needs to take the lead in setting up a virtual ‘coffee shop’ such as a wiki or a blog, where team members can drop by and write about how they are getting on and what they want to get out of the project,” says Mr. Oschadleus.
Nonetheless, no amount of electronic communication can match a face-to-face meeting, he adds.
“If at all possible, you need to get the team together for the kick-off or at the very least you need to meet as many of them as possible, even if it means a lot of travel. Once you've looked a person in the eye you relate differently to them.”
And if the emphasis on communication seems overstated, think again.
“We often say that 80 percent to 90 percent of a project manager's time is spent on communications. In reality it is 100 percent because everything you do is communicating a message—your presence, walking the floor, body language, even being available to take a call,” says Mr. Oschadleus. “Even though people in a global team often can't see you, all of that is still important.”
Otherwise, they may never join forces and come up with that really, really good idea. PM
PM NETWORK OCTOBER 2009 WWW.PMI.ORG