Managing projects across the global enterprise

 

Abstract

Global project managers face a unique set of challenges—challenges that their colleagues who manage domestic projects simply do not have to worry about. These planning and implementation challenges, which have the power to derail projects and cost organizations millions in resources, can be broken down into six main categories:

  1. Political/Social
  2. Economic
  3. Natural
  4. Infrastructure and Logistics
  5. Cultural
  6. Legal

This paper will define a “global project” and explore all six of these categories along with the specific risks and complications associated with each. These risks and complications are vast, and could include cultural and language barriers, wars and riots, dramatic currency fluctuations, and unfamiliar and confusing intellectual property laws. Additionally, the paper will suggest ways for projects managers to effectively mitigate risks and will identify the soft skills necessary to manage global projects to success.

Defining a Global Project

In recent years, factors such as market consolidation, new technologies, and the outsourcing of key business functions internationally have effectively shrunk the business world. When before organizations were forced to make proximity a key priority, now they are able to look beyond borders and time zones to locations and potential business partners around the world. This new worldwide focus has made the “global project” a common feature among today's business portfolios. A global project is one whose activities are performed abroad and whose members operate in more than one country.

The risks and challenges associated with these global projects are by no means new. However, as more and more organizations think globally, many professionals are surprised by the sheer complexity of projects without borders. Those project managers who feel they can simply apply the proven best practices from their domestic projects to their global projects run the risk of not only failure but also legitimate danger to people and property.

When developing a global project plan, it is important to note logistical issues, such as time zones and the different communication styles that exist among team members from different countries. For example, a conference call is a fairly straight-forward thing when dealing with team members in the same country. Now, consider a conference call with a global project team. In Singapore, it may be lunchtime, but your colleagues in New York and Paris are either asleep or just waking up. And, even if a time can be identified that works for everyone's schedule, that will make little difference if no one is able to understand the people on the other end of the phone.

In addition, different countries have different holidays, different rules regarding overtime, and different perceptions of time as a general concept. To some, a plan is a very specific thing, set in stone. To others, a plan is fluid, able to change at any given moment. These things should be identified early, in the planning stage, to save everyone involved a great deal of time and frustration down the road.

Implementation: The True Challenge of Global Projects

As confusing and complicated as it can be to develop a global project plan, these complications pale in comparison to those that arise during project implementation. Here's a detailed look at six challenges most commonly associated with global project implementation. Each is particularly important for organizations looking to send their people to locations around the world.

Political/Social Challenges

In the planning stages previously mentioned, there is reference to cultural differences with regard to language and perceptions in the planning stage. During global project implementation, though, these give way to more serious— and often more dangerous—challenges. Many regions around the world, particularly those in oil-producing countries, are currently at war. Those not at war may have unstable governments to contend with, which puts projects at risk from revolutions and frequent overthrows of government.

On an individual level, the citizens of some countries around the world are unwelcoming to outsiders—especially outsiders who could be viewed as destructive to social or religious traditions. This could put visiting professionals at personal risk from crime, vandalism, and even kidnapping. Wherever organizations send personnel—from peaceful, stable countries to those most affected by war and unrest—global project managers must be aware of and take into account the security needs of their team members. This may include outsourcing with third-party security professionals and offering employees incentives such as financial bonuses and hazard pay.

Economic Challenges

As the last few months have proven in earnest, global economies are volatile and can fluctuate dramatically from day to day. For domestic projects, this is less complicated because everyone involved is likely affected by the same economic factors. However, for global projects, one must take into account such complex economic realities as the following:

  • Inflation
  • Shifts in relative prices
  • Exchange and interest rates
  • Tax structures and trade restrictions.

Beyond that, global project managers must also deal with the effects that changing or unstable economies might have on their projects. For example, the availability of labor in certain regions may be greatly impacted by economic booms or downturns. And, in more troubled economies, frequent strikes and unrest among the workforce could cause factories or government institutions such as public transportation to be suddenly shut down for days on end.

Natural Risks

The world also holds many risk factors that exist outside of governments or even people. Many global projects— even those that have been planned and executed beautifully—can be upended by unforeseen natural disasters, such as hurricanes and tsunamis, floods and droughts, or earthquakes and diseases. Confounding these challenges are the many varying levels of development that exist around the world.

For example, a flash flood in one country may affect little more than one's lunch plans. However, that same flash flood in a less developed part of the world might lead to a mudslide that destroys buildings and injures scores of people. A similar example could be made of illnesses. In one country, a flu outbreak is a minor complication. In another, it could be devastating. Global projects should be filled with contingency plans for almost every conceivable issue.

Infrastructure and Logistical Challenges

Technology may have successfully shrunk the business world; however, technological capabilities are far from equal across regions. The technology—especially with regard to communication—that some professionals take for granted may simply be unavailable for those in other places. As people become more depended on their preferred technology and more helpless without it, these disparities have the potential to cause logistical problems throughout global projects.

The same can be said for infrastructure-related issues as well, such as transportation, housing, shopping, and medical facilities. The fact is: professionals who travel to other parts of the world for lengthy periods of time on global projects may find that their biggest challenges are not their security or how they pay their taxes, but where they buy food or how they get to work. Imagine a business analyst from California trying to manage the complex street traffic of Dubai or a project manager from Belgium trying to read food labels at a market in Hong Kong.

These inconveniences can take on a more serious tone when it comes to medical care. Medicine and its capabilities vary widely across regions, as do prescriptions, costs, and health insurance rules and regulations. Organizations must work hard to make their employees’ lives manageable in the face of day-to-day complications.

Cultural Challenges

Now for perhaps the most obvious stumbling block associated with global projects: cultural differences. For domestic projects, it is not even an issue because everyone is on the same cultural page. However, when a board room is filled with professionals from all over the world, things become decidedly more complicated. The way someone dresses, the tone of his or her voice, and even the inflection one places on a certain syllable can mean very specific things. Furthermore, gender roles, ethnicity, and class take on different levels of significance across regions. A project manager could quite unwittingly damage a key relationship or misunderstand an important directive if he or she has not taken the time to study the traditions and norms of his or her global business partners.

Legal Challenges

With few exceptions, every country has its own business laws, and some countries, frankly, are more business-friendly than others. Notable business laws that affect global project managers include the following:

  • Intellectual property rights
  • Contract issues
  • Marketing and advertising regulations
  • Environmental standards
  • Local hiring practices.

When operating in less-developed counties, project managers may also find themselves dealing with a different legal issue: lawlessness. Regions with less political stability may endure frequent changes of leadership, meaning that the tried-and-true laws that many professionals consider a given may no longer be a factor or able to be relied upon. In these cases, the risks increase, as do the chances for corruption and even danger. Whichever climate a project operates within, the global project manager's ability to navigate the complicated web of regulations may very well determine the ultimate success or failure of the project.

Leadership Strategies for Global Projects

Because the myriad challenges previously listed will remain a constant in the global marketplace going forward, global project managers need to take each into account when developing their project plans and leadership strategies. This means project managers should look to their cross-cultural colleagues at all times for guidance and learn to rely on some essential “soft skills.” Soft skills—which are the opposite of “hard” or technical skills—leverage effective listening, communication, and leadership techniques to acknowledge the human side of all business initiatives.

These soft skills, which one can develop through training and study, will help global project managers raise their cultural IQs and help to mitigate some of the difficult issues that have derailed so many global projects in the past.

Thanks to consolidation, advances in technology, and outsourcing, the world has become a very small place. However, with some work—and strict adherence to overcoming the these challenges—today's global project managers can make it even smaller.

© 2009, Ravi Sahi
Originally published as a part of 2009 PMI Global Congress Proceedings – Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia

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