TURNING AROUND A TROUBLED GLOBAL PROJECT CALLS FOR DIFFERENT SKILLS THAN THOSE NECESSARY FOR DOMESTIC AFFAIRS.
BY MALCOLM WHEATLEY ILLUSTRATION BY PJ LOUGHRAN
Almost by definition, global projects are ambitious—not only in terms of their reach, but often in terms of their goals as well. The result is a kind of catch-22. Projects with an ROI big enough to make them worth rolling out globally are rolled out in some of the least hospitable landscape going. And when trouble hits, rallying the team is far more difficult than when people are all together in one project office or even the same country. Different languages, cultures, time zones and geographies invariably conspire to make it more difficult to remotivate people and recover from slippage, either real or potential.
“The complexities of managing a global project should never be underestimated. And it requires experienced project managers who are capable of building solid teams across the various regions,” says Hugh Stafford-Smith, Twickenham, England-based U.K. managing director of Maconomy, a management software provider.
Effective human capital management plays an obvious part in this, he adds. Yet, even with the appropriately skilled and experienced team members in place, there's another challenge to surmount. “Global projects call for global methodologies—but in an era when diversity is celebrated, imposing uniformity can lead to problems,” Mr. Stafford-Smith says. “How do you ensure that these individuals buy in to a global methodology that, by its very definition, seems to downplay their uniqueness? How do you explain to a workforce: You are no longer different?”
It's usually not all that hard to figure out when your project is in trouble. But how do you know when it's on the road to recovery? One obvious sign lies in the metrics, of course. Slippages and overruns no longer continue to mount, but plateau, and then—hopefully—begin to decline, as the project team claws its way back and regains some of the lost ground.
Another good indicator is a decline in remedial activities, tasks that weren't on the original project plan, but which have been spawned by the slippage or overrun itself as managers seek to stop things from getting worse. Less time spent on firefighting and more time devoted to constructive activities is another positive sign.
Don't ignore the people side of things, either, says Pierre Monacelli, Robbins-Gioia. “It's advice that sounds cheesy, but there's a distinct uplift in morale,” he says. “People see that things are going in the right direction, and the morale boost lifts the collective spirit.”
Once things are turning around, look forward to spending less time in meetings. “When things aren't going well, people spend a huge amount of time in meetings, trying to find a way forward,” Mr. Monacelli says. “As things come back on track, that lessens.”
Project managers must communicate both what is happening—and why, he says. Team members must be convinced their individual uniqueness remains and still be persuaded to subsume it for the greater good of the project and the organization.
With greater distances involved, greater challenges arise in managing the details of day-to-day project jobs—not the milestone activities on the project chart, but the 101 individual tasks that build up to them. “Consciously practice ‘priority diversity,’” suggests Rich Bianchi, president of Alexsys Corp., a Stoneham, Mass., USA-based developer of project collaboration tools. “It makes no sense to make all tasks priority one.”
Of course, it makes no sense in a purely domestic project either. But when team members are together, they figure out the right order in which to complete tasks, and project managers provide informal signals that say, “I know everything is important—but this task here is really, really important.” These subtle messages can often get lost in the virtual ether, however.
Likewise, Mr. Bianchi adds, even in turnaround scenarios when everyone is pitching in, task ownership should be clear and reasonable. “Workloads have to be balanced and fair, and it should be easy for people to get the help they need from other team members.” Yet, especially in far-flung global projects, it's not always easy to keep track of which tasks have been assigned to which person. “It's very easy to overload the most competent person,” he warns.
But if distance is an impediment to progress, getting too close can also have its drawbacks. Despite the inadequacies of e-mail and faxes, distance helps soften some of the cultural clashes that can arise when people from very different backgrounds are placed together—and under pressure.
“Don't underestimate the importance of cultural issues,” warns Pierre Monacelli, PMP, senior vice president of products and services at program management company Robbins-Gioia LLC, Alexandria, Va., USA. When project managers are dropped in to turn things round, there are some cultures where taking a tough stance will work—and others where it won't. Different cultures have different emphases. For example, one culture might appreciate a more direct style while another places a premium on consensus building.
OVER AND DONE WITH
SOMETIMES INTERNATIONAL PROJECTS AREN‘T PLAGUED BY PROBLEMS AS MUCH AS THE NAGGING FEELING THAT THINGS COULD HAVE GONE BETTER.
Headquartered in Amsterdam, the Netherlands, Getronics is one of the largest European-owned IT service providers. With more than 24,000 employees and offices in 25 countries, it has a client list that includes such major multinational players as Barclays Bank, Saudi Basic Industries and Vodafone. Given that global diversity—built up through acquisition, as well as organic growth—the company resolved to have a single IT platform on which to deliver customer's applications and services. Looking back, though, there were a few things the company should have done differently.
“We made the mistake of thinking that migrating customers onto the new platform was just a technology issue, when in reality it was more complex,” says Kris van Daele, Getronics’ Brussels, Belgium-based director of remote management services and technology transformation. “Even though the technology was superior, we needed to put more emphasis on the business case—stressing the positive impact of improved application uptime on their own business performance, for example.”
There were also some issues of dealing with the increased complexity of migrating the existing customer base onto the new platform at the same time as bringing on board new customers. “In retrospect,” he says, “we could have managed the timetabling and resource provisioning in different ways.”
Some global giants understand this very well and institute cultural sensitivity training, he adds. “General Motors, for example, is very good at making sure that the employees being deployed abroad are familiar with the nuances of the culture into which they are being sent,” Mr. Monacelli says.
Also beware the dangers of micromanagement—however tempting it may appear. “It creates frustration and more bottlenecks and ultimately generates a lot of resentment within the team,” he advises. “Think of micromanagement as the flipside of empowerment—and empowerment generally delivers better results. Take time out to fully assess the situation, rather than rushing in and overreacting.”
That was the tactic used by regional operations manager Michael Whelan when he was parachuted into Richmond, Va., USA, by Melbourne, Australia-headquartered Transurban Ltd. The infrastructure operator was tackling its first project in the United States: the $611 million Pocahontas Parkway. The goal was to transition the state-owned and -operated road into Transurban's portfolio of commercially managed operations—and in the process turn around the financial fortunes of the troubled tollroad.
Traffic on the roadway was not living up to the state's expectations. Indeed, it was 40 percent to 50 percent under projections. So by 2006, the state was only too glad to offload the nearly nine-mile, four-lane toll road to Transurban on a 99 year lease. The move not only allowed Virginia to recover the $27 million in public funds invested in the project, but it also relieved the state of an estimated $225 million in maintenance and operation costs over the life of the lease.
But Mr. Whelan had to convince team members his company valued them—and that the project was on track.
ESPECIALLY IN FAR-FLUNG GLOBAL PROJECTS, IT‘S NOT ALWAYS EASY TO KEEP TRACK OF WHICH TASKS HAVE BEEN ASSIGNED TO WHICH PERSON.
“I deliberately didn't make a lot of changes to begin with,” Mr. Whelan recalls. “And the ones I did make were ones that the people on the ground had themselves suggested. People were quite nervous about losing their jobs, and I concentrated on explaining who Transurban was, how we approached things and explaining that we took a long-term view of our assets.”
Some changes virtually cried out to be made, he says. For example, procedures for making small purchases such as stationery were cumbersome, absorbing large amounts of time and sapping morale. So Mr. Whelan suggested they head to the local office supply store, get the goods and head back to “get on with more important work,” he recalls.
Another change was to the cash-counting procedures at the end of the shift. Under the process in place at the time, people had to break off from the day-to-day work to help out. Simplifying the procedures and hiring a couple of part-time workers to count the tolls quickly improved efficiency.
GLOBAL PROJECTS CALL FOR GLOBAL METHODOLOGIES—BUT IN AN ERA WHEN DIVERSITY IS CELEBRATED, IMPOSING UNIFORMITY CAN LEAD TO PROBLEMS.
—HUGH STAFFORD-SMITH, MACONOMY, TWICKENHAM, ENGLAND
Go the Distance
Not all project managers can be around all the time. How best, then, to manage troubled projects when team members aren't in the same country or time zone?
Technology is certainly making the challenge easier. Stephen Kersch, PMP, corporate systems business development at Mustang Engineering LP in Houston, Texas, USA, uses collaboration software. The technology allows him to virtually share documents—around the globe—on the 150,000 man-hour, $2 billion to $5 billion projects that the company undertakes for the major oil giants.
“We can see every version of every document—so if there's a problem, we can sometimes say, ‘Wait a minute, that wasn't what we were originally aiming for,’ and see how the issue has arisen,” he explains.
The history facility comes in handy, too. “We can see who has accessed a document, what if any changes they made—and when,” he explains.
High-tech tools are also helping sort out global project problems at Los Angeles, Calif., USA-based software development company CoreObjects. Gopalakrishnan Ramanujam, vice president of product engineering, uses software that automatically collects metrics from developers at the company's India facilities in Bangalore, Pune and Noida to quantify how projects are progressing—or stalling.
A former project manager with Microsoft, Mr. Ramanujam sees the tool specifically helping to address two particular characteristics of project turnarounds. First, when projects run into difficulty, developers inevitably focus on the turnaround, putting in long hours working on the task required, rather than filling in paperwork to say how they're getting on with their assigned tasks. Secondly, when a company is bringing a project back from the brink, optimizing resources is paramount. But traditional systems tend to only flag potential inefficiencies after the event, when it's much too late.
You have to know what the problem is—even if it's halfway around the world—to solve it. PM
Malcolm Wheatley is a U.K.-based freelance writer who writes for CIO, CSO and Manufacturing Business Technology magazines.
PM NETWORK | MAY 2007 | WWW.PMI.ORG