Managing global project teams – the trials and tribulations

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Although we all work hard to make the management of projects as simple and streamlined as possible by following tried and trusted processes and best practice, in reality many projects are complex and difficult to manage well.

Add to the inherent difficulties of a complex project a diverse team in terms of location and culture and any problems risk being magnified. Yet, for mostly commercial reasons, organisations continue to employ diverse teams with the hope of acquiring the best talent in the most cost-effective way; even though this can result in problems with efficiency, administration and reporting.

If, like me, you have worked with global teams you may not be entirely convinced that the cost savings actually stack up when compared with the added complications of running projects with global teams. But whatever my personal opinion it looks like global projects are here to stay so what is the best approach to make them work for your projects and how can you best adapt your reliable processes to accommodate team members in different locations and time zones?

THE PROBLEMS

Time zone constraints

A mini-crisis has occurred and you need someone to tackle it straight away but on the other side of the world your team have just packed up for the day. What do you do?

First of all – before the project even starts, you should ensure that there is some overlap in the working day of all team members wherever they are located. Even if this can only be 1 hour make good use of that time, every day.

But that still doesn't necessarily resolve the problem of there being no one around to deal with a crisis because it might have happened part way through your day when other team members are probably sleeping. Or alternatively a crisis emerges that needs urgent action by the end of the day in the USA, just as you are about to leave the office at the end of your day.

In a global team there will inevitably be delays that wouldn't occur were all of the team in the same location, but you have to accept that fact as one of the disadvantages of a global team and work with it. There is an upside here in that work can be completed and problems fixed overnight. In the interests of team harmony and good productivity levels there is nothing to be gained from being critical of the different working hours – or, as I have known to happen, enforcing a working day that coincides with yours for all teams wherever they are situated around the globe. This can only be counter-productive when it comes to motivating people.

Language barriers

Global teams are more than likely composed of people for whom English is not their first language and since communication is unlikely to be face-to-face any risk of misunderstandings can be compounded.

Clearly, this potential problem can be resolved to some degree by using detailed written instructions using simple language and ensuring that all team members understand what they are required to do – both on the project as a whole but also on day-to-day matters.

Cultural differences

There will be times when cultural differences might affect your project – there may be different holiday patterns in different locations.. But also attitudes vary in different countries regarding, for instance, working over-time or working week-ends, or the approach to reporting problems with a project. Some people prefer to try and sort out a problem first to avoid having to admit there is one. Be aware of these differences but also work towards educating team members about your attitudes and expectations.

In many ways cultural differences are harder to manage well than time zone or language barriers. Cultural differences are not always well-understood or explicitly stated (from both sides) and may require standard project processes and procedures to take account of certain factors. No culture necessarily knows "right" way to manage a project and we can all learn from each other to add value to global projects. It is essential that managers of global projects pay attention to these cultural differences and seek out specific training and guidance so they can be sensitive to cultural differences. In particular, attitudes to trust and risk vary significantly around the world. These differences are rooted deep in the history of organisational cultures and so, as project managers, we need to understand these differences and adapt our approach appropriately.

Lack of "team spirit"

When a project consists of teams in different locations with a different first language and culture it can, not unexpectedly, be hard to create a cohesive team spirit. There may be business rivalries among different groups, especially if everyone does not work for the same company.  Yet, as I have said many times, it is people who deliver projects so a good team spirit is essential for delivering a successful project outcome.

Some authors refer to this as social distance. When teams are co-located, and from the same culture and understanding, then the social distance is small. This is especially true if a team has worked on several projects together. They know each others' strengths and weaknesses and have high levels of trust in the other team members. In global teams the social distance is high. We can minimise this social distance in a number of ways:

  1. Recognising the power balance in the team.

If a global team has a disproportionate power balance, with most of the senior resources from one cultural background or one location, this can disenfranchise some of the team members and increase the social distance within the team. Project managers should seek to address this by normalising the power balance, appointing diverse management teams which reflect the culture of the project team.

  1. Reinforce the sense of purpose and objectives as a matter of habit.

This means establishing a routine, be it a weekly conference call, quarterly site visit, or routine reporting to review objectives, issues and risks. This routine will in time reduce the social distance between team members.

  1. Create space for unstructured conversation.

In all projects this informal social interaction is very important to reduce the social distance between team members. Today we have many social media and on-line tools that mean we can develop informal social interactions between diverse teams without the luxury of face-to-face contact.

  1. Building empathy with team members.

Just because you are a remote project leader it does not mean that you can’t have a personal relationship with team members, it just takes a bit of effort. A personal phone call with a remote worker to discuss an issue will only take a few minutes, but is highly effective at reducing the social distance and building trust.

THE SOLUTIONS

Make communication easy

It goes without saying that clear, effective communication is required on every project but even with co-located teams communication can be problematic and we often find barriers to communication in projects. This is exacerbated when global teams are involved so use every tool at your disposal to find which are most effective in your situation. Telephone, email and video conferencing are all useful for monitoring and controlling the work flow, changes and global risks , as are collaboration apps such as Asana or Basecamp that have current status and other details available for all to see (make sure it is updated).

Defining formal reporting expectations – the format and frequency - should be established at the beginning of the project to also ensure formal communication channels are effective.

One strategy to address this is to identify and develop a relationship with a team leader. Ideally someone with good technical and language skills. Establishing these clear lines of communication is very important for a global project.

Understand cultural differences

Understanding other cultures is a two-way process that helps a project manager anticipate and respond appropriately to issues during the project and ensures that the project manager's behaviour does not offend other parties involved. On the other hand it ensures that all team members understand the expectations of the project leaders. Just watch out for problems arising where global and local project managers have differing expectations and attitudes.

Create team spirit

Try to discover what motivates key team members by having one-to-one discussions to help build good working relationships. You may not be able to talk to every team member but having a good relationship with local project managers can help create cohesive project teams and a sense of trust and loyalty between all involved in the project.

Regular video conferences are a good idea to put "names to faces" and whilst not a perfect substitute for actually meeting face-to-face they are still a useful tool to help build team spirit. They can also help when it comes to motivating teams and individuals, by providing feedback on completed tasks, for instance, which will build good working relationships amongst your multi-cultural team.

It is also important to be open about why certain tasks have been assigned to certain teams or individuals so that everyone understands the reasoning behind such decisions and no ill-feeling can arise between teams or individuals. It's all about that open, honest communication again.

Avoid assumptions

All of this said, my experience has shown that it is dangerous to make assumptions about global teams based on their location, language or culture, yet we all still do so to a certain extent.

Cultural barriers do not only exist between "East" and "West" but can also exist between different countries close to each other geographically and even between countries with the same language. So whatever the makeup of your global teams, introduce strategies to deal with potential misunderstandings at the outset.

There can be just as many problems between teams with a common language but in a different time zone (eg, Australia or the USA) as there can with culturally very different teams. So never assume that the need for a motivated, harmonious team is unnecessary.

 

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Posted by Paul Naybour on 27th Jul 2018

About the Author
Paul Naybour is Business Development Director for Parallel Project Training. He is a well known speaker in the APM Branch Network, a Project Management Training and Consultant, working for Parallel Project Training. He also runs the PM news site Project Accelerator.

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