International training--managing a large scale project with an international project team

Abstract

This paper reviews the specific challenges involved in managing a successful project with an international project team. Specifically it examines each of the stages of the project and the unique challenges for the project manager in these phases. The project initiation focuses on establishing a foundation which can set the project up for success in future phases. The key area of focus during the project planning phase is communication and especially the challenges around collaboration between remote team members. Once into project execution the project manager needs to look into team building and motivation in order to create a high performing team. One of the biggest benefits of having an international team is that on conclusion of the project there is the opportunity for dispersal of information throughout the organisation by creating a knowledge sharing network. This paper concludes that when a project is successfully resourced internationally there are also unique project benefits which can be capitalised upon such as the opportunity for global exposure and the increased creativity brought about by a diverse team. Therefore in today's climate of globalisation the prospect of using an international team should be grasped whenever possible as the associated opportunities outweigh the issues and risks.

Overview

Working for a large global software solutions company means that experts are spread all over the globe and are not always available locally to support large projects. This has necessitated a move to a global resourcing model where resources, who are recruited from around the globe, are required to work seamlessly remotely or flown in to the project location and quickly integrated into a high performing team. Managing large-scale projects in this environment involves a unique set of challenges. This paper is based on a number of projects with international teaming requirements and looks at the issues, which require specific attention in this situation.

Project Initiation – Establishing a Foundation

Project initiation is about setting down the foundation for the ongoing project; getting this foundation right is key to leveraging ongoing success. It is believed that the approach to project initiation is so important that doing it correctly can maximize wins and minimize challenges in subsequent phases (Project Connections, 2000-2005). The primary focus of this phase is investigation, negotiation, and planning, and is quite frequently completed by a different team than the team who will be engaged to deliver the project. In addition, it is likely that during the project initiation phase, one of the key needs is for negotiation and dynamic agreement across diverse functional groups involved in the project. These upfront agreements become a basis of expectation and needs to be incorporated into the goals and deliverables of the project.

Two primary factors, therefore, drive the need for clarity and detailed, concise documentation during the Initiation Phase, namely, the inconsistency in core team between the Initiation Phase and subsequent project phases as well as, the complexity of the interactions.

Knowing that a project needs to be sourced with geographically diverse resources requires a specific proactive approach to the Initiation Phase to meet the challenges highlighted above, to maximize the potential for seamless transition and to ultimately ensure that the project is set up for success. The appropriate way for a project in this predicament to respond to the challenge would be by firstly ensuring that clear detailed documentation was produced, by ensuring that there was an overlap of key resources into the subsequent phases, and by providing information sessions for team members arriving on the project.

Detailed Documentation

The project charter produced during this stage should be far more rigorous than would generally be called for and endeavour to capture the key agreements reached during the project initiation phase. This charter needs to contain a lot of detail in the area of assumptions and solution boundaries in an effort to incorporate as many of the agreements and highlight expectations. This document, correctly constructed, can form the basis of scope management, with subsequent phases of the project referring back to the scope content produced in the project charter.

Resource Overlapping

In order to provide continuity between different phases the project manager needs to get agreement that key resources, who had been involved in the project initiation, can be utilized throughout the project. For example, one of the key resources, such as a solution architect, could be retained in a part time quality assurance capacity. This will ensure that on a regular basis the architect can review the progress to date and assess its level of conformance to initial expectations. Secondly a resource such as the presales technical consultant can be retained during the first phase of the project execution to assist with the detailed analysis work and to provide guidance to other consulting resources.

Information Sharing Sessions

Information Sharing Sessions should be planned for before the project kick off session and attended by as many of the project delivery team as possible. These sessions are ideally run by the team who had concluded the project initiation and the session agenda should cover both hard facts (such as a review of the project charter contents) as well as soft content (such as the personalities involved and areas of conflict).

In summary, additional emphasis and up front investment during the project initiation phase can ensure a smoother transition into subsequent phases and can influence the overall project success.

Project Planning – Communication

Project Planning is predominantly about communication. As per Standish (2001) good communication can be regarded as the cornerstone of successful projects. Systems Transformations group concurs that ineffectual communications lead to project issues, maintaining that “delays and cancellations can typically be linked to project team communication and coordination problems.” (System Transformation, 2004)

During the Project Planning Phase the need for two way communication is critical to achieving the required outcomes. The planning phase is about disseminating the requirements and producing an achievable project plan. Strategic thoughts need to be translated into technical details, business deadlines translated into project delivery dates and concrete resource planning completed. Communication is central to this. David Berlo, one of the key individuals in the development of Communication research, draws our attention to the unpredictability of communication and highlights some of the factors which make it challenging such as the interpretative nature of messages and the limitations of language. (Underwood, 2003) In summary some of the major factors which inhibit communication and should be taken into account in areas of critical communication are muddled messages, stereotyping, using the wrong channel, language, lack of feedback, poor listening skills, interruptions and physical distractions. In addition to the factors inhibiting communication, Berlo highlights the importance of relationship between the communicating parties and the impact that this relationship can have on the success of communication (Underwood, 2003)

Being aware of the issues, which inhibit communication and the importance of relationship in ensuring effective interactions, a project manager can take a proactive approach during the project planning phase to facilitate optimum interactions.

If, during the project planning phase in a project, the majority of the team are geographically dispersed a creative approach to communication is required. The smart use of technology and clear communication channels is required to allow for collaboration between team members in diverse locations who are required to work together to develop the scope of work, plans and schedules.

Technology for remote communications

Ideally a video conference kick off is required for individuals to link up with the benefits of both visual and vocal communication. Video conferences can help to start the relationship building process by providing an insight into individual behaviours, characteristics and personality traits. It can't replace face to face communication, but it can go a long way to assisting with the tyranny of distance. Phone conferences are the third choice behind face to face and video conferences. If you are forced to use phone conferences a suggested approach would be to get a specialist facilitator to manage the conference. This person would be experienced in drawing out each individual, ensuring that their contribution is appropriate. Prior to running a meeting of this nature, the facilitator would need to have one on one discussions with each person who is participating to ensure that they are aware of their preferred style of communication, etc. It is suggested that the facilitator also phones in remotely rather than being in a room with some of the other participants as this ensures that they are experiencing the discussion as closely aligned with the remote participants as possible. The meeting needs to be opened by establishing the agreed rules for communication for example, how does someone indicate that they have something to add, how to ensure that someone has completed their sentence before responding.

Online collaboration tools, such as Placeware, need to be used extensively during the project planning for remote communication. This enables the project team to create and share ideas visually as well as verbally. It is particularly good when reviewing the schedule online and requiring a shared view of the information while it was being discussed and updated.

Email and one to one telephone discussions can be used to supplement the other formal communications but email should be used to confirm discussions and understandings rather than the first choice for discussing ideas.

Project Executing and Controlling – Team Building and Motivation

Key to successful project execution and controlling is the formation of a high performing team. Most people agree that a team is somehow more than just a group of people thrown together for a reason. The additional component is the relationship between the people - the "glue" of the team and the team spirit which develops together with the team. The old adage that the whole is greater than the sum of the parts has been proven time and time again once a team is “glued” together. Without team formation, time available during the planning phase, getting the team to gel and present a united front before exposure to the client is a high priority issue. Special attention has to be given to cultural differences and an empathetic approach adopted to the team members who may be experiencing away from home stress. The project management focus during this phase needs to be firmly in the area of human resource management, and specifically, team development.

Characteristics of high performing teams

Thomsett (2002) refers to Carl Larson and Frank LaFasto in their landmark study of excellent teams, who identified eight clear characteristics of high-performing teams:

  1. A clear, elevating goal;
  2. Results-driven structure;
  3. Competent team members;
  4. Unified commitment;
  5. Collaborative climate;
  6. Standards of excellence;
  7. External support and recognition; and
  8. Principled leadership.

These characteristics have stood the test of time and are still found to be relevant in the team environment presented today. In particular a clear goal translated into a team purpose can ensure that members are aligned behind a single focus.

Team Roles

Firstly, in selection of the team, each individual needs to be evaluated for fit into the team structure paying specific attention the coverage of the roles as identified by Belbin (Thomsett, 2002). These roles are the Co-ordinator, shaper, monitor-evaluator, resource instigator, implementer, team worker, plant, specialist, and completer. Experience supports Belbin’s idea that these roles are not primarily resident in one person, but rather needs to be covered by the team members. Each member of the team probably displays a preference for a particular primary and some secondary roles and depending on the situation will set into these roles as required. This spread of roles through the team creates a healthy balance of power within the team and encourages individual motivation.

Teaming

Without excess time available for team formation, before having to present a united front onsite, the group teaming needs to be accelerated and the team needs to move through forming, storming, norming, and into performing as quickly as possible. The project manager can create an environment which supports this requirement. Firstly, attention needs to be given to the hygiene factors for commuting staff members to set up a comfortable environment conducive to achieving project outcomes. Arranging appropriate accommodation based on individual requirements (hotel or furnished apartment), arranging team tabs at restaurants, dry cleaning facilities, telephone call cards, public transport tickets as well as information about the city and the environment should be provided. Team members communing on a weekly or biweekly basis should be given some leeway to work additional hours and leave early to catch planes, etc. With basic living conditions taken care of, the team members can focus energy on the important factor of forming a team.

Creating the foundation for a strong team is assisted by a structured team kick off which needs to include at least one team building activity.

A suggested team kick off session would include the following: communication of the project vision, definition of the team mission, individual definition of project roles, development of agreed team principals and a team building exercise. Most project teams in this situation can come up with a strong set of project principals which can be put up in the team area as a reminder to all team members about the agreed rules of engagement. These typically include things such as showing respect for fellow team members, encouraging questioning, communicating clearly with team members, keeping focused on the end goal, and even having fun. These need to be a set of accepted base norms that each team member feels they can live by for the duration of the project. This is the first stage of creating the team “glue”.

When the majority of the team is from out of town and find they are out of their normal routine, it is recommended that new team routines are established as quickly as possible to ground the individuals and to begin the process of establishing the team. These routines need to take into account the individuals preferences and to be flexible and fun. Morning coffee sessions, movies one night of the week, a team drinks at the end of the week, lunch time trips to the local places of interest, etc. are examples of norms that can be established to assist team members to mix with the rest of the team and to provide a sense of routine. A successful session to kick off some team routine which has been used in the past is a surprise team drink session at the end of the first week, with snacks and champagne being provided. The purpose of the meeting is to review the first week, but the clear message is that we intend to finish as we have started – celebrating! This type of positive projection of intent can increase group motivation and begin to develop a “can do” attitude.

Team Motivation

Motivation continues to be one of the most complex areas for project managers to address when leading a project team. Kreitner (1995) defines motivation as a psychological process that gives behaviour purpose and direction. Motivation can be simplistically viewed as the force within an individual, which directs their behaviour towards the achievement of a specific goal. From a project perspective, a team needs to be motivated to collectively act towards the achievement of the project goals. In the case of an international project team it can be a complicated process to align individual motivation with project goals, as the individual motivation factors are usually different to their normal motivation factors. In a particular instance, there was an individual who, when working from home, ranked the challenge of the work and the ability to learn new things as the top motivating factors. Leaving behind a young family to work away from home, the top motivator shifted to being able to complete the job as soon as possible.

Understanding individual motivation factors, not taking them for granted, or assuming that they are consistent is the first step in looking at how a project team can be aligned towards the overarching goals. In the situation of motivation outcome and project goal mismatch, it is suggested that the project manager will have to take active steps to ensure that these become aligned. The primary challenge with raising team motivation is around paying sufficient attention to both internal and external motivational factors. A good leader can motivate the team by addressing factors such as the working environment, team relations, and physical rewards system. However it is up to individuals to control their own high performance motivational needs. As a result, a project manager needs to set up an environment which allows for the individual to extend their own motivation.

Recent research Thomsett (2002) suggests that in order to motivate project teams the focus should be placed on the following factors:

  • Share the client;
  • Share the project vision;
  • Share the skills and knowledge;
  • Share the success;
  • Deliver early and often;
  • Raise the profile of the team.

Extending and maintaining motivation when people roll off the project, and keeping momentum when key people leave, is a major challenge with international project teaming where a dynamic team is expected. Establishing team routines and planning special events are two of the techniques the project manager can employ to facilitate team stability and individual's sense of continuity when team changes occur. Team management as well as individual coaching and mentoring is crucial to maintaining a healthy team throughout the project. Maintaining a strong team can reduce the psychological impact of events such as a team member rolling off the project earlier than others or schedule changes which change the timeframes that team members will be working away from home

In the words of John Irvin, with regard to motivation "You've got to get obsessed and stay obsessed, and keep passing the open windows" (Irvin, 1981)

Project Closing – Knowledge Sharing

It is expected that by the closing phase project team members will have disbanded and will be back in their home locations. This situation provides a unique opportunity to share the project lessons learnt throughout the organisation with each team member responsible for contributing to the project closure session and local knowledge sharing. McMaster provides a succinct definition of organizational learning being the “phenomenon that occurs when any new information is added to the available memory of the organization (whether an individual or a system), thereby making it accessible for future use by the system." (McMaster ,1996).

Knowledge sharing is one of the core values within SAS and as such each project member is encouraged to ensure that lessons learnt on the project are translated into a useful format for other projects going forward.

Internal Wrap Up Session

At the time of wrapping up the project there was access to a number of the key team members even thought many of them had already been deployed to other projects, to participate in an internal wrap up session. Those who were not available to attend the internal session in person were asked to submit their feedback, prior to the session, to the facilitator in order for this feedback to be woven into the session at the appropriate time. The format of the session was a voice conference with the core team, including the project director and the project manager attending in a private meeting room in Wellington and additional attendees dialling in from remote locations. The session was initiated with a review of the mission of the project and a message from the CEO about the successes achieved by the project as well as a word of congratulation to team members. This started the session on a positive note and encouraged people to participate, especially in the area of challenges and key issues. The key objectives were revisited to ensure that these had been achieved and any variation on these objectives was noted for future project planning purposes. The project success was measured according to five identified measures, which had been set out in the project definition document. These measures were:

  • Quality;
  • Budget;
  • Timelines;
  • Customer Satisfaction;
  • Team Satisfaction.

As part of the review these measures were revisited to confirm that they were met, and in some cases exceeded, as part of the execution of the project. Any deviation was noted for future project management purposes. In particular each team member was asked to rate their level of satisfaction on a scale of 1 (did not achieve satisfaction) through to 5 (highly satisfied). Team members were asked to substantiate their rating with examples. Project successes were discussed at length to allow the team to reflect on the things that worked well in the project and to therefore encourage the continuation of these activities on future projects. Following on from successes, challenges and key issues were discussed. This can be a negative discussion and, in order to increase its usefulness, team members are asked to supply a lesson learnt for each issue. This provides a positive outcome for the team from negative issues and also provides valuable suggestions for other projects.

External Wrap up Session

As important to the knowledge sharing as the internal wrap up session was an external session which included the client resources. The format of the review session was a workshop attended by key project resources. To set the scene the deliverables and success measures which were agreed in the project kick off meeting were revisited. During the workshop attendees were divided into groups and asked to review the project from three distinct perspectives, namely management, technology, and user. The feedback from each group was then presented back to the broader group and discussed to ensure a broader understanding was obtained. The reason for dividing the group into 3 subgroups was twofold. Firstly, there was a large group of attendees and running a single session would possibly not be the most effective way of getting information from people. The reason for dividing the group into 3 subgroups was twofold. Firstly, there was a large group of attendees and running a single session would possibly not be the most effective way of getting information from people. Secondly, the three different groups provided completely different perspectives and thereby creating a more holistic review based on different view points.

In conclusion there were numerous challenges faced by the project in the meeting of deliverables, however these were met and mitigated by the cross organisational project team and overall project success was achieved. During the wrap session awards for exceptional commitment beyond the call of duty were presented.

Disseminating Information and Sharing Knowledge

One of the greatest benefits of having a distributed project team is that when these members return to their home office locations they have a number of lessons learnt that they can share with colleagues and if these discussions are supported by structured documentation this information is more easily absorbed into the organisation. Providing valuable lessons learnt and completing the knowledge circle. (Exhibit 1)

Learning Loop

Figure 1 - Learning Loop

Conclusion

Ensuring success on a large project with an international project team requires a focus change for the project manager. A strong emphasis on human resources, project teaming and the soft issues is necessary to mitigate the project risks introduced by team diversity, cultural differences and an away from home project team. In conclusion when a project is successfully resourced internationally there are also unique project benefits which can be capitalised upon such as the opportunity for global exposure and the increased creativity brought about by a diverse team. Therefore in today's climate of globalisation the prospect of using an international team should be grasped whenever possible as the associated opportunities outweigh the issues and risks.

Irwin J, (1981) The Hotel New Hampshire, New York: E.P. Dutton

Kreitner, R (1995) Management (6th edition) Boston, Houghton Mifflin Company

Lindner JR, (June 1998) Understanding Employee Motivation, Journal of Extension, Vol 36, Number 3

McMaster M D, (April 1, 1996), The Intelligence Advantage, Boston, Butterworth-Heinemann

Project Connections, ©Copyright (2000-2005) Emprend, Inc., http://www.projectconnections.com/

System Transformation, (22/03/2004), Project Team Building, http://www.systemtransformation.com/TSproject.htm

The Standish Group International, 2001, Extreme Chaos, www.standishgroup.com

Thomsett, (2002), The Team is Dead Long Live the Virtual Team, www.thomsett.com/main/articles/team/virtual_team2.htm

Underwood M, 06/22/2003, Communication, CCMF Info Base, http://www.cultsock.ndirect.co.uk/MUHome/cshtml

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.

© 2005, Heather Round
Originally published as a part of 2005 PMI Global Congress Proceedings – Singapore

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