Have you ever worked on a project with your team being spread across multiple locations? Have you ever encountered problems in communication in between the teams based in different countries? Have you ever thought about what you can do to make this type of cooperation more efficient? I recently have and here’s a couple of thoughts on what you can do to make things easier.
The below will only focus on the soft side of managing a project.
People and their roles
The first thing to note on the ‘soft side’ with any type of project really, whether it’s with cross-cultural or local teams, is who are the people involved and what their roles are in the project.
Let’s assume you’re a project manager in a global FMCG company. The request is to create a new database for European HR teams that would be unique to your company’s structure and needs (so it can’t be a generic software that you can buy) but also reflect the local needs of each office. Think about the following:
- What teams will be involved in the project?
- What will these particular teams will be involved in?
- Which parts of the project certain teams do not need to be involved in?
- Who will lead on certain parts of the project?
- What are the moments in the timeline of the project where certain teams (don’t) need to cooperate?
The above is just a typical assigning of roles which you would probably do with any timeline and any project plan. The difference with managing international projects is that you need to take into consideration the work values and ways of working of the teams that are supposed to cooperate on given tasks. As much as it might for some seem like negative stereotyping, I consider it just a good use of the intercultural psychology research for a successful planning of the project.
With the above example, the set up of the team will be as follows:
- Based in Germany – project manager and a team of two conceptual leads, who lead on the content of the database software, functionalities, UX and front-end.
- Based in France – there are two people who support the conceptual development as well to be in line with specific French office’s needs.
- Based in Italy – the Italian office wants to use this opportunity to connect the new HR system with their existing recruiting database and so they need to develop an additional function that will allow them to do that. There is one person in Italy leading this effort.
- Based in India – there is a team of 6 software developers, 1 of them is a team leader and main point of contact for the leads from Germany, France and Italy. They will be the core team developing the database and working on the additional functionality requested by the Italian office.
Now this might look like a complicated process to manage, with a team of 12 people, based in various different locations and having slightly differing needs. When planning for this international cooperation you need to also plan for the potential conflicts that might appear, deriving from cultural differences in ways of working. If we would think about a potential SWOT analysis, cultural differences in an international team could often be the threat that is being forgotten and reappears in the least expected moments. If it is carefully managed though, it might actually become a great opportunity.
Agree on a contract
When I speak about a contract in this context I don’t mean any formal legal paperwork. I mean a psychological contract. The psychological contract would simply be a set of rules and agreements on the ways of working, cooperation, timelines that all team member agree to follow for the duration of this given project. “For the duration of this given project” is a very important part of the sentence here. It’s important to understand that different rules might be set for different teams and this flexibility in adjusting to various working styles is a competency that is nowadays desired by many employers.
Contract should be a part of the kick-off meeting, in which the whole team should participate. Given that the team is based around the world it will not be possible to meet in person, but a videoconference in that case would still be better than just a call or an email. As a hilarious illustration of my hated conference calls I like to show this YouTube video. Have a look! If you know the pain of conference calls you will end up laughing. But please come back – there is more in this article still to come 🙂
During the kick-off it is important that everyone is clear on the parts of the project they own and the ways various parties will be involved in certain aspects of it. It is good to have the clarity of the steps, timeline and the rules.
Plan ahead for challenges
Now, with this particular set of teams what you might think of in advance is the cultural dimensions where the countries involved may show significantly different preferences. To think about that you may use Erin Meyer’s Culture Map as your point of reference, for example.
When comparing India, France, Italy and Germany on the scheduling scale you will see that the attitude towards time and deadlines is much more flexible in India, France and Italy than in Germany. As it might be a potential conflict trigger between you and the other three teams and there is a space for misunderstandings it is good to think about it in advance when planning the kick-off meeting. You can for example schedule weekly calls with the development team to check on the progress and clarify any questions about the content and requirements. You might agree that there is no room for pushing the deadlines back in this project as you are working on a tight budget and timeline. If the working rules are set up clearly upfront, there will be less room for potential conflict and saying things like ‘Oh, you know here the deadline is more like a suggestion rather than a fixed date, there are always things that come up unexpectedly…’ etc. Factor in some time for the unexpected in advance too.
When you think of a leading scale on the other hand, both France and India would be closer to the hierarchical end of the spectrum than Germany. You, being a German manager, need to factor in space for setting the rules for how you will communicate about any issues that might arise or new ideas that team member would want to share. You might expect the team in India to be less willing to share their inputs and more likely to follow the exact instructions you’ve given them. If people keep the problems just to themselves and have troubles fixing them, these may arise to big issues and incur huge costs, instead of being managed earlier on. To avoid that and to ensure that you will get input from the specialists you work with and make them at ease that they all have the right to speak up, that you are willing to listen and act on their feedback.
To be able to establish the above relationship though you will need to probably put more effort than you would normally do working with your German team to build the trust. In all France, Italy and India trust is more relationship-based whilst in Germany it seems to be very task-based – you do your job well and therefore I can trust you. If you as a German manager won’t invest time in building the relationships with your team, you might find it challenging to manage this project. You want to lead to the situation where the team would say ‘We know him, he cares about us and takes time to speak to us about not work-related things as well, therefore we can trust him’.
Working in international teams, especially on a project-basis where you tend to change the teams you work with relatively often, requires a lot of flexibility. As more and more companies now encourage international cooperation, intercultural skills are one of the most desired ones in today’s employees. It is worth taking the best out of globalisation and thinking about diversity as an opportunity to grow, learn and share ideas, rather than considering it another pain point in project managers’ lives. As much as it can be a great opportunity it might also cause some problems and this is why being prepared for them and having the awareness around intercultural differences is so important.
What do you think is most important in managing intercultural projects, either from a perspective of a manager or a team member? What would you add to the above list to make the project work more successful?