Project Management Institute

Project teams unstuck! High-performing global teams

Executive Director, True Solutions Inc.; Part-Time Faculty, The University of Texas at Dallas

Abstract

Just as A Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK® Guide) provides a great framework and language for project management, there are cultural frameworks and team models that can be applied to help teams improve their awareness of differences and provide techniques for improving performance. This paper provides a unique combination of two different cultural and team models and discusses the importance of each for building a high-performing, “unstuck!” global and multicultural team.

Introduction

It was 1976, and I was two years out of college and working for Sandia National Laboratories in Albuquerque, New Mexico. We were developing and flight testing a new navigation system that had all sorts of exciting military applications. I was the key programmer and systems analyst for our Nova Data General 800 minicomputer, having coordinated the hardware and software interfaces for our flight test instrumentation.

It was our first test flight. We took off from the Albuquerque airport around 12:00 noon and flew about 40 miles to our destination. Rick was the guy in charge; he was the project manager and coordinator for the flight test. We were flying in a classic C54 aircraft, the same aircraft that airlifted supplies to Berlin, Germany in World War II; it was a battle-worthy plane, but not one designed for comfort. From the first moments of flight, we had to learn to “get our sea legs,” so to speak, and I still remember the musty smell of this old aircraft as we took off over the desert.

As Murphy’s Law would have it, early in the flight, our flight test recorder suddenly ran out of paper. Our fearless leader, Rick, quickly took charge to replace the paper and squatted down to work on the recorder that was on the bottom of the rack holding our equipment. We were flying about 1000 feet off the ground and the warm summer thermals that are native to the desert areas were making our flight feel more like we were all 10 year olds riding the Texas Giant Roller Coaster, rather than competent flight test engineers and scientists.

Suddenly, Rick looked up at me at the console and said “I’m done.” His face was as white as a ghost!

My first reaction was disbelief. My mind raced, trying to comprehend what he had said. “Done?” I thought, or totally done? This can’t be happening!

In a flash, Rick jumped up from his squatting position and dashed to the back of the airplane, where he began a somewhat drawn-out personal relationship with a “airline sickness bag.” From that moment on, Rick, our project manager, our lead man, was decommissioned, not readily available, “no bueno por nada” (Spanish for “not good for anything”). I was immobile, gape mouthed, panic rising in my gut.

The pilot, the co-pilot, and the test instrumentation people all turned and looked at me, the kid behind the instrumentation controls, their faces asking, “What do we do now?”

My first thought was to join Rick at the back of the plane, which didn’t seem like the best thing to do, for a number of reasons, including the putrid smell wafting from the back of the plane, where Rick was continuing to “lose his cookies!”

For many teams, this unforeseen occurrence would have resulted in a disaster; however, because we were a team that I believe was totally “unstuck!” we did not let losing our project manager divert us from our common goal.

We had worked closely as a team to plan the flight test. We knew the basics of each other’s tasks and had communicated about all aspects of the test; therefore, I knew what had to be done to move forward in the team’s assignment.

I stood up tall (although my knees did feel like they would buckle at any moment), turned to the pilot, and gave him the sign to continue. “Let’s roll!” We moved forward and finished this first mission successfully.

Our team was a really great team. We all knew our responsibilities, had rehearsed our roles, understood the overall objectives of the mission, and we were committed. We trusted each other and even though we had not planned on losing our project manager on the first sortie, we were able to push through and finish our mission successfully.

What made this team successful? There were some unique characteristics to this team: We were all white males, and most of us were made up of primarily “silent generation” folks (men about 10 to 15 years my senior) and baby boomers like me. All of us had primarily grown up in the Midwest or southwest regions of America. We were committed to a common goal that related to the defense of our country and the protection of its resources, and we were also having a blast doing what we were doing. (Well, okay, except for Rick on this first mission!)

Today, our project teams are vastly different from the one I was part of in 1976. The male and female team members from the silent generation have retired and the baby boomers are nearing retirement. We have the addition of team members from Generation X and Generation Y, working alongside older generations.

To add to the challenge, we have more cross-functional teams (from internal company organizations, such as manufacturing, engineering, sales, marketing, and finance). We have integrated product teams and even integrated product teams within a bigger integrated product team; furthermore, the team makeup is frequently changing

Communication between these diverse teams is seldom effective. There is a breakdown in communicating the overall vision, from the top down to individual teams. There is further breakdown in communication even among members of a single team. Silos and barriers between departments can be huge! Now, to really complicate these team dynamics, add in a mix of cultures not only from different subcultures in our native country, but also from cultures worldwide. These added virtual and multicultural team members think differently because they grew up in completely different environments, with norms and values completely different from other team members. This makes effective teaming highly challenging and at a minimum, quite complex!

This paper is about how to help these disparate teams understand each other, work together better, and be empowered to become a totally “unstuck!” team in spite of the challenges.

What is “stuck!” and how can we wrap our minds around this fairly simple concept? The following chapter will be a review of some really great work that has been done to understand cultures. Those of us who are left-brain thinkers will love this section as it will provide us a framework with which to understand culture.

Using this understanding of culture, we will then present the “unstuck! team model” and describe how it relates to a multicultural team. We will provide some real-life multicultural examples that will help you as a team member not only understand yourself better but also understand your multicultural team member.

The end result will enable you to integrate a multicultural framework with a high-performance team model we call, “the unstuck! team model.” You will be able to implement this model in your own team, stand up tall despite the challenges, and say, “Let’s roll!” as you and your team move successfully forward.

It is imperative that we spend the time to learn and share our own differences within our teams, because the demand for multicultural teams is increasing at an exponential rate! So, buckle up and get ready for a great ride…success is straight ahead!

Stuck

Detriot Lioins

Exhibit 1- Detriot Lioins

Which team is pictured to the right clad in their blue jerseys and silver blue pants? (Exhibit 1) You might recognize the team as the Detroit Lions. Now, if you are a Detroit Lions fan, I would suggest you skip this section. I am only going to quote a few statistics and not really make much of a judgment. I intend no offense, because the facts simply speak for themselves.

The Detroit Lions have not won an NFL championship game since 1957 (when I was in second grade, which is quite a long time ago) and have won only one playoff game since 1957; they were 0-16 in 2008 and 2-14 in 2009. Now, I am not saying they are a bad team; they just seem to be totally “stuck!” Big time! Their recent performance is only somewhat better, but there appears to be little hope for jumping out of this “stuck” condition (don’t tell the team members this because I am sure each and every team member is committed to changing the trend).

So, what does it mean to be “stuck?” How would you describe being “stuck!” to a team, aside from simply looking at the results or metrics?

I came across the Sigmoid Curve (Exhibit 3) several years ago, as some of my colleagues and I studied and taught human performance. The figure below is called the Sigmoid Curve.

Sigmoid Curve

Exhibit 2 Sigmoid Curve

The Sigmoid Curve has been used to describe biological systems growth for decades. For example, when a woman gives birth to a child, we know that the child loses weight during his or her first few days, followed by an upswing in weight. With a normal diet, this weight gain continues up to a certain point in development.

The Sigmoid Curve can also be used to measure human performance or team performance. Individual performance was discussed in the author’s previous book (Sheives, 2009, p 5) “OPPORTUNITY unstuck!” The same principle can be used to represent team performance.

During the initial formation of a disparate team, inevitably, the performance of the team will steadily decline until some of the basic principles of team work are implemented. Once the team starts to gain alignment (more will be discussed about these steps in later sections, the team will start to improve significantly in terms of performance and results.

However, in almost any team or organization, the team will reach what is sometimes referred to as the “glass ceiling,” that point at which the team just doesn’t seem to be able to break through to higher performance. Even companies reach this level in terms of revenue or number of people. If the team is not careful and if new ideas or behaviors are not infused into the team, then the team could actually begin a downward spiral and become “stuck!”

Something has to happen to move the team forward out of the “stuck!” cycle. There may be a new infusion of knowledge, a new set of learned behaviors, new leadership, or even the addition of new team members that take the team in a new and positive direction. If this new knowledge or behavior happens, the team typically overcomes this downward spiral and starts to drastically improve performance. However, it must be noted that in order for the team to move forward, there must be an investment that includes some lost performance or down time. This rebuilding time allows the team to move to the “unstuck!” cycle, as depicted by the following curve (Exhibit 3).

With Rebuilding

Exhibit 3: With Rebuilding

The challenge in today’s world is huge not only because of the daunting issues surrounding disparate teams but also because of one other factor that we never seem to have enough of: time.

What if you could do something with your team that would accomplish the behaviour described below, as reflected by the curved, dotted line to the right?

Inarguably, time is a precious commodity. Wouldn’t it be awesome if we could really take our teams to higher levels of performance in less time? For this forward motion to happen, I have to invest significantly in my team from the very beginning of the formation of the team, and I must get early team alignment and improved performance as quickly as possible. Lost time is lost team performance!

Described Behavior

Exhibit 4 – Described Behavior

Some of you reading this article today may feel that your teams are just stuck. They may be stuck because of poor leadership, poor “team-man-ship,” poor processes, or poor behaviors. Your team may be mired in that mode of helplessness, where we look around at our team members and ask ourselves, “Who are these weirdos anyway?”

Wouldn’t it be incredible if we were on a team that was as “unstuck!” as the 2010 Super Bowl XLIV champs, the New Orleans Saints? It took the Saints forty-four years to win the Super Bowl (24 years to win a playoff game); their success was undeniably a great feat for this team and their coach. What a way for a team to come together and accomplish triumphs that few teams can claim—triumphs that were achieved in spite of daunting struggles resulting from the recent and devastating effects of Hurricane Katrina.

After the 6 December 2009 “33-30” overtime win against the Washington Redskins, fans of the opposing teams suggested that the Saints were winning with Louisiana-style voodoo, but as, Drew Brees, winning quarterback of the Saints said, “I don’t know about the voodoo, but I definitely believe in destiny.” The Saints’ destiny was to become totally unstuck!

In the plight of the Mars rover Opportunity, which was tracked from arrival to “stuckness” and then on to the state of becoming totally “unstuck!” What about the other rover, named Spirit? What happened to this rover?

As it turns out, a 26 January 2010 article by “Scientific American” states: “Unfree Spirit: NASA’s Rover Appears Stuck for Good.” After six years of travelling around the surface of Mars, Spirit appears be stuck for good. (This same article reports that Opportunity’s mission continues on with Opportunity travelling halfway around the other side of the planet nearly five years after getting “unstuck!” from a small dune.)

Spirit’s problems began about six years ago, when the rover lost one of its six wheels. Then, early in 2010, another wheel came off, leaving only four wheels intact. Spirit subsequently went into hibernation and seems stuck in a deep seemingly permanent sleep.

Does your team seem to have lost a wheel? Maybe the team has even lost a couple of wheels. It could be that your team has gone into a deep sleep and is totally “stuck!” Perhaps all of the environmental factors, including cultural differences, have just been too big a challenge for your team. Let’s take a thoughtful look at these cultural differences and their effects on teams.

Framing Culture

A quick Internet search on “culture” brings up a myriad of definitions of the term. A common thread appearing in these definitions is that of defining culture as the common set of practices, ways of doing things, beliefs, and values of a group. In terms of business teams, it typically refers to the way business is conducted in a particular setting and includes many dimensions. Success in these settings is strongly tied to both understanding and accommodating differing cultural elements.

According to the literature, (Walker, Walker & Schmitz,., 2009, p 91), there are ten distinct dimensions of culture to consider in terms of business and business teams and they are:

  1. Environment: How individuals view and relate to the people, objects, and issues in their spheres of influence. Is it a philosophical outlook of control, harmony, or constraint?

    Control - “Life is what you make of it!”

    Harmony - “Don’t rock the boat!”

    Constraint – “It’s a matter of luck!”
  2. Time: How do individuals perceive the nature of time and its use? Are they multi-focused or single focused? Is their sense of time fixed or fluid? Do they live in the past, present, or future?

    Single Focused – Step by step

    Multi-focused – Multiple tasks and multiple relationships simultaneously

    Fixed Time – Deadlines are serious

    Past – Long history of Civilization view

    Present – “Don’t look back!”

    Future – Long-term gains
  3. Action: How do individuals view actions and interactions? Are they focused on the “being” or the “doing?”

    Doing – “Get ‘er done”

    Being – “Who you are”
  4. Communication: How do individuals express themselves? Are they high or low context? Direct or indirect? Expressive or instrumental? Formal or informal?

    High Context - Understood without saying – implicit

    Low Context - Information from words – literal – explicit

    Direct - “Say what you mean, mean what you say”

    Indirect - Conflict avoidance – avoid “loss of face”

    Expressive - High emotion

    Instrumental - Pragmatic, practical, cognitive

    Formal - Etiquette, protocol, “proper”

    Informal - Interpersonal authenticity, being oneself
  5. Space: How do individuals demarcate their physical and psychological spaces? Are they private or public?

    Private - Maintain interpersonal distance

    Public - Close physical proximity, relationship centered
  6. Power: How do individuals view differential power relationships? Is power viewed hierarchically or do they have a sense of equality?

    Hierarchy - “Whatever the boss says”

    Equality- Collaborative, disagreeing with boss is okay
  7. Individualism: How do individuals define their identity? Are people individualistic or collectivists? Are they universalistic or particularistic?

    Individualistic - “It’s everyone for him or herself”

    Collectivistic - Group is more important than individuals, group decisions

    Universalistic – Rules, processes, laws – important

    Particularistic - Difference, uniqueness, exception
  8. Competitiveness: How are individuals motivated? Are they competitive or cooperative?

    Competitive – “Win at all cost”

    Cooperative - “Work to live”– quality of life balance, nurturing
  9. Structure: How do individuals approach change, risk, ambiguity, and uncertainty? Do people prefer a sense of order or flexibility?

    Order – Reduce uncertainty, value security

    Flexibility - Tolerant of unknown, deviation from procedure is okay
  10. Thinking: How do individuals conceptualize? Are they inductive or deductive thinkers? Do they think in a linear or systemic fashion?

    Deductive- Abstract thinking, values, theories, “whys”

    Inductive- Data, facts, statistics, surveys

A quick scan of the ten dimensions of culture is like viewing a looming iceberg. Imagine for a moment that you were driving down your favorite local freeway during rush hour. Now imagine that you could only see about 10% of what was going on! Does the word “terrifying” or “frightening” come to mind? For some of you, probably not, because you are still accustomed to driving while on your cell phone! It is bad enough if you can see everything, but imagine trying to navigate through the rush hour maze with this 90% handicap?

The same principle applies to cultures. So much of what we experience is not easily recognized. The potential for a dangerous turn of events is apparent. But what lies underneath many of these dimensions, at the core, presents the true potential for total disaster in our business dealings. To say that culture is a complex issue is an understatement. Nonetheless, barriers can be broken down and success can be achieved.

Successful teams prepare and educate themselves about important cultural dimensions before pushing forward. They “steer clear” of the hazardous icebergs in the business path ahead.

According to the literature (Brett, Behfar & Kern., November, 2006, p 6), “Multicultural teams offer distinct advantages to international firms, including an extensive working knowledge of local markets, culture conscious customer service, and maximized 24-hour scheduling across global time zones. But those advantages may be outweighed by problems stemming from cultural differences, which can seriously impair the effectiveness of a team or have it fail altogether.” To fail to plan for differences in cultures is a risky path, which will likely lead to failure.

On the other hand, the probability of team success is greatly enhanced by cultural education and forethought about how to proceed in the sea of different cultures present within our virtual, multicultural teams. The business world needs navigational skills. The next section will explore how to navigate successfully through each of the ten cultural dimensions.

High-Performing Global Team Model

There are five key components to our model for an “unstuck!” project team. In my view, the model below extends to all cultures and all global team behaviors. These five key areas must be addressed in order to have a totally “unstuck!” project team: (Exhibit 5)

Five Components

Exhibit 5- Five Components

The first aspect of this model is TRUST. Have you ever been a part of team that the leader or even the team members did not value your opinion or just didn’t seem to have any use for your contribution? One of the fundamental requirements in building trust in an organization is showing respect for each other. The idea of building a common esteem and admiration is critical to building a totally unstuck project team.

The second aspect of a totally unstuck project team is COLLABORATION. This word is nearly synonymous with teamwork. In our context it is primarily used to show how we are going to relate and cooperate together on our team in spite of difficulties and challenges that arise. A totally unstuck project team must have some built in mechanisms that ensure that we will effectively address and resolve challenges and differences in opinions. It is probably the broadest of any of the 5 characteristics relative to having a totally unstuck project team!

The third aspect of a totally unstuck project team is DECISIONS. I am sure we have all been a part of a team that just couldn’t make a decision and move forward. Many of our virtual team members remind us repeatedly of this by stating “can’t we just make a decision?” The process by which a team and its leader make decisions is huge! We must have a process whereby we understand the importance of buy-in and the importance of commitment. However, the behavior and process we use to make decisions will be critical to becoming a totally unstuck project team. This process is so important on a global team where cultures will approach decision making from very different perspectives.

The 4th aspect of a totally unstuck project team is ACCOUNTABILITY. If we are to collaborate effectively with a great decision making process, we will inevitably be confronted with accountability. Can we get our peers and can we as team leaders expect certain behaviors and results from team members? YES! We not only can, we must. Doing what we say even reinforces the behavior of respect. We must be willing of Building Trust, Establishing Collaboration, Making Decisions, Embracing Accountability, and Focusing on Outcomes. If you are familiar with Patrick Lencioni’s model (Lencioni, 2002, p. 188), from his New York Best Seller, you will see some real similarities. There are also some significant differences that he has in overcoming the barriers that keep us for instance in building trust. Let me give you an example.

The main point of overcoming the lack of trust in Lencioni’s model is by becoming vulnerable. He claims that lack of vulnerability shows up by us not admitting our mistakes, we don’t acknowledge our weaknesses, and for sure, we don’t really like honest feedback. This vulnerability based trust that he wants to build, is a noble goal in a Western based culture, but far from building trust in an Eastern culture where saving face is HUGE. This approach of vulnerability just doesn’t make sense. It is just too culturally averse for them to take this on. Our East Asian friends (Japan for instance) will go to great lengths to not lose face and wouldn’t want in public or even in private with another to admit their mistakes.

On the other hand, building trust in an Eastern culture will center largely about showing respect. Understanding the DIMENSION of Action is very important in dealing with this culture. The US culture is definitely an Action oriented culture. Get er done! Type of mentality. We will party afterwards and get to know each other. An Eastern culture, specifically Chinese culture and even more so a Japanese culture, is more towards the “being” side. So in a new meeting with a Chinese person the initial show of respect for them is very important. It might be due to the age of the person. Acknowledging the cultural differences, mannerisms like presenting the business card. Take for instance, how we exchange business cards today, even how we act. It is considered impolite to look people straight in the eye when exchanging cards, but more customary to look down, as lowering of the eyes is a matter of respect.

References

Brett J., Behfar, K., & Kern, M. (2006, November). Managing multicultural teams. Harvard Business Review, p 6.

Katz, L. (2008) Principles of Negotiating International Business: Success Strategies for Global Negotiators, www.negintbiz.com.

Lencioni, P. (2002). The five dysfunctions of a team. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Lencioni, P. (2005). A field guide: Five dysfunctions of a team. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Sheives, T. (2009). OPPORTUNITY unstuck! Arlington, Texas: Golden Keys Publishing.

Storti, C. (1994). Cross-cultural dialogues. Boston: Intercultural Press

Walker, D., Walker, T., & Schmitz, J. (2003). Doing business internationally. New York: McGraw Hill.

This material has been reproduced with the permission of the copyright owner. Unauthorized reproduction of this material is strictly prohibited. For permission to reproduce this material, please contact PMI or any listed author.

© 2010 Tom Sheives
Originally published as a part of 2010 PMI Global Congress Proceedings – Washington, DC

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