Virtually international

managing globalized project teams


Think of managing divergent concepts of “face,” punctuality and egalitarianism across a dozen time zones and the true nature of global project management becomes clear: it's the human factor that makes or breaks the project.

by William R. Dodson


TECHNOLOGY HAS SHATTERED the paradigm of the project team located under a single roof in a single country couched in the values of a single nationality. The automotive industry provides a well-known example of a globalized team effort: a company may have a project team comprised of chassis designers in Italy, engineers in the United States and computer programmers in Taiwan. This team composition demands coordination around the clock, with close attention paid to the personal, professional and cultural needs of the individual team members. Such an effort requires a project leader who is sensitive to the values of other cultures, technologically savvy, with excellent negotiation skills.

Cultural Differences. Cultural differences can be as overt as Taiwanese working alongside West Africans or as subtle as Americans and Canadians trading information during a telephone conversation. Still, even subtle cultural differences can have an impact on how problems are approached, solutions discussed and answers negotiated. Project leaders need to understand the cultural bases of their team members, the areas of intersection with other cultures represented on the team, and the areas in which values are wildly divergent.

Work Styles. The project leader needs to factor the varied work styles of the team into his or her equation for project success. Managers need to be sure they can inspire team members from other cultures to complete work on a timely basis. If there are disparities in work styles, the project leader needs to balance perceptions on the team so that no resentment builds between individuals who get the feeling they do a disproportionate amount of the work.

These diverging perceptions are further complicated by a culture's sense of time. Latin Americans tend to be more luxurious in how they meet appointments—a 1 P.M. meeting can really mean it will start at 1:30, or perhaps not at all—whereas it could be an insult to a Japanese host to be even a few minutes late to a meeting.

Problem-Solving Approaches. The project leader of an effort that spans countries must take into account the diverging approaches to analyzing and solving problems that various cultures have.

In general, North Americans and Europeans tend to attack problems head on. Asians and Indians tend to approach problems more indirectly, searching out the similarities of points of view and downplaying contentious issues.

The project leader must then become very much like an orchestra conductor of sorts, blending, refining, and at times isolating views of the team to create solutions more effective than any individual on the team could have arrived at alone. The project leader must be an active facilitator and an acute negotiator in order to help each party feel it has made a contribution to something greater than the sum of the parts of the team.

Accountability. Even in projects that reside under a single roof, ensuring the accountability of project stakeholders can sometimes seem an impossible feat. Add to that the reality of “face” and the project leader will have a major challenge to overcome. “Face,” in most cultures around the world, save those of North America, is of greater importance than accountability. Indeed, the prelude to business encounters in many countries really serves two basic needs: the need to develop a personal rapport with the individuals with whom one will be doing business; and the need to determine the degree to which one's business counterpart will be dependable on a personal basis—that is, divining the extent to which a business associate will protect one's reputation in the event of a business transaction gone wrong.

The Global Project Manager's Toolkit

Cultural Sensitivity. Every project leader will ultimately be ethnocentric. It's important, then, that he or she perform the proper amount and kind of research to determine the large and the small issues that could cause offense to individuals on the team who have different cultural backgrounds.

For instance, American project leaders have to be very conscious of etiquette as they deal with their counterparts around the world. Something as seemingly innocuous as informality, handshakes, or even the use of first names—those shows of American-style egalitarianism—doesn't play well in Asia, Latin America or Germany. Some cultures consider this approach to dealing with individuals disrespectful and insincere.

Listening. An Arab proverb says, “If I listen, I have the advantage; if I speak, others have it.” In most cultures outside North America and Europe, listening is a highly regarded capacity. The two most important tools the project leader must have in his or her relationship kit are reflective listening and active listening skills. Reflective listening is the simple act of rephrasing or even parroting what one's counterpart has said. This confirms to the speaker that the listener actually heard what was said and assures the listener he heard correctly. Active listening involves a more proactive approach to assuring the speaker and the listener that one has not only heard what has been said but wants to know more about a subject in a way that is not invasive. No matter the culture with which the project leader is dealing, listening skills go a long way toward normalizing business dealings and engendering a sense of commitment from team members.

Negotiation. Project management is ultimately expectation management. Effective management of expectations requires negotiation skills that eclipse more quantitative, “metrical” skills. Projects are only as successful as the degree to which the project leader is an effective negotiator. Negotiation ultimately involves the “art” of stepping into the shoes of another, of understanding the what's-in-it-for-me factor of the other side and then making decisions based on that alternate perspective.

For at least three-quarters of the world's population, relationship comes above all else: above time, above budget, above specification. The savvy project manager knows this and knows that he or she will always be balancing, for instance, the needs of the Japanese for meeting deadlines against the Latin American tendency toward a more relaxed approach to dealing with others.

Developing Communications Infrastructures

The Conference Call. One of the most effective vehicles for building and maintaining geographically dispersed teams is the institution of the weekly (at least) conference call. Conference calls are typically high-level project status meetings in which managers of subprojects call in to update their colleagues on their progress and their needs. In the project plan, the project leader needs to place a high value on conference calls so that individuals develop the habit of communicating with their counterparts.

Without a vehicle like the conference call to transmit voice and emotion, team members can easily be overwhelmed with a sense of isolation and anomie, which quickly snowballs into the perception that what the individual is doing is meaningless. Project leaders need to be especially sensitive to this reality for team members who come from highly socialized cultures, like those of Central and South America and the Orient.

Videoconferencing. A more expensive but yet highly motivating forum for globalized team meetings is videoconferencing. Videoconferencing is an excellent vehicle for individuals to make the acquaintance of one another for the first time. For human beings, being the tactile animals we are, this is the next best thing to actually being on-site shaking hands with a new teammate.

However, for weekly conferencing in which the object of the meeting is the normalization of the relationships between team members who are already acquainted with one another, video conferencing is not at present a cost-effective medium.

Cyberspace and the Globalized Project. “Electronic bulletin board” is a catchall phrase that includes the support of e-mail, discussion threads, file transfer and database repositories of project information. Products like Lotus Notes support this sort of need well if all on the globalized team work for the same organization. In the event of team members working for companies that do not support the same sort of networking infrastructure, the Internet and World Wide Web can be used.

These services are key to communicating project status, tasks, standards and controls to team members in disparate locations and in different time zones. E-mail especially has become a prized means of maintaining contact and even of making decisions across borders. Databases can communicate the status of projects. They can also disseminate project standards that will provide a common platform for focused discussion, consistency of work and clear documentation.

Technology Is Not Enough

Technology is only an enabler for the kind and quality of communications and negotiation that must occur between a project leader and his or her team. It is a pale substitute for what must ultimately happen for people in one part of the world to trust people in another part enough to lay their professional lives on the line.

The Project Kick-Off. Project kick-off should be face-to-face. If that means flying the teams from Bangalore, India, Mexico City and London, England, into the New Jersey headquarters, then that needs to be done. The expense will be paid back many times over in the reduction of miscommunication and obfuscation.

Even the most technologically savvy project infrastructure will not change the basic need of human beings to see and be seen, touch or be touched, bow or even kiss to establish a bond of trust. Without trust there can be no commitment to present one's best self to another.

The Stress and the Promise of Globalized Teams. Ultimately, the greatest stresses that occur in geographically and culturally dispersed teams are a sense of isolation from the happenings of other team members and from any center from which decisions are made and communicated; a sense of personal isolation if one is working in a country different from his or her own; and fractures in team relationships that occur because individuals on the team do not respect the cultural differences between one another.

BOTH THE PROMISE and the Achilles heel of globalized teams lay in the degree to which the project leader ably manages the dynamic tension generated by the differences between individual team members. Culture, religion, locale, and even time zones are key factors that the project leader must facilitate to ensure project success. When the project manager uses negotiation techniques as old as civilization itself and mobilizes 21st-century communications technologies to blend a unique mix of project assets, the probability of delivering a successful international project increases dramatically. ■

William R. Dodson is a managing consultant for an international accountancy and consulting firm. He specializes in the assessment and application of project management and quality assurance best-practices in the development and delivery of enterprisewide information systems for multinational corporations.

Reader Service Number 5020

PM Network • April 1998



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