Bridging the Distance: Strategies for Managing International Project Teams

When the Robs (Kelly and Prinzo) asked if I was interested in speaking about International Project Management, I had to pause for a moment. What’s so different about the way I approach “international” projects versus those that are “local”? After thinking about it, I realized that the answer is… nothing, and everything.

My book “The Project Whisperer” shares my overall philosophy of project management which is: people first. Projects are about people. A project is a group of people trying to get something done. In order to succeed, there must be three basic conditions. Members of a successful project team must:

    1. Be motivated and engaged
    2. Cooperate and coordinate
    3. Communicate

These basic conditions don’t change for an International Project team, but the methods of fulfilling them will. What’s more, the methods available to a Project Manager will be influenced by the four variables of cultural power hierarchies, language, time-zone, and technology.

Let’s look at a matrix of the “Conditions” against the “Methods” to focus specifically on considerations for International teams.

International Variables

Success Conditions

Cultural Power Hierarchies

Language

Time-Zone

Technology

Motivation and engagement Social protocols for recruiting team members; “level” consciousness Basic language barriers making it difficult to communicate and therefore cooperate; talented people may be unable or reluctant to participate; misunderstandings due to fluency/translation issues Meetings at “off hours” causing reluctance or inability to participate; one time zone always being “penalized” with late meetings; travel burdens on individuals Available communication tools and internet bandwidth varies across countries; need asynchronous means of communicating (e.g. SharePoint or eRooms); available technologies may be tied to local language 
Cooperation and Coordination Comfort level with formal vs. informal meeting structures; “level” issues causing hidden conflicts Working hours offsets can be a bonus or a hindrance
Communication Formal vs. informal communication styles & modes; protocols for cascading communications Real-time communication usually not practical across different time zones—need asynchronous strategies

 

Having worked most of my career in the U.S. headquarters of multi-national corporations, I see too often the following “Top 10” mistakes or oversights that create sub-optimal team conditions:

  1. Meetings always scheduled for the Americas working hours, which generally can accommodate Europe, but leaves Asia Pacific always taking calls late in the evening. (I even see meetings scheduled for U.S. Fridays which means some team members take calls on Saturdays!)
  2. Knee-jerk decisions to “co-locate” a team, meaning that anyone ex-U.S. travels and stays here for weeks to months at a time.
  3. Lack of sensitivity for cultural differences in power hierarchies when communicating or escalating issues.
  4. Poor understanding of cultural communication nuances, leading to mistakes in interpretation of gestures and even decisions. (e.g. a “yes” does not always mean “yes”, depending on the culture and circumstances.)
  5. Assumptions made about the tools, technology, and bandwidth available to team members in other countries. That 10Mb PowerPoint file might never get through… and trying to open a U.S.-based SharePoint can be an exercise in futility for some.
  6. A general rule that “English” is the common language across operating units, when in reality the level of fluency varies greatly and leads to miscommunication or exclusion of talent.
  7. Failure to fully leverage available technologies such as shared internet workspaces and videoconferencing to reduce travel burdens and address asynchronous communications.
  8. Lack of understanding of cultural differences across the dimensions of time-sensitivity, importance of relationships, and personal standing.
  9. Using a rigid agenda-based approach to running meetings, which may discourage people of some cultures to participate.
  10. Holding meetings as the primary means of communication, versus one-on-one conversations which may be more effective for certain cultures.

 

In a nutshell, it is critical for a Project Manager to address all of these considerations when managing an international team. Think first at a human level, second at a cultural level, and finally at project team level. “Share the burden” of time zone differences by rotating the meeting schedules so that everyone has to do late night calls at some point. Find ways to reduce travel and long stays for team members—unless they really want to do it. Challenge the need for team co-location. Remind team members to speak slowly and plainly, without cultural jargon, so that others who must translate have time to absorb and participate.

A Project Manager who addresses these issues proactively will create the best conditions for team members to participate productively. Ultimately, when a team is motivated and engaged, cooperates and coordinates, and communicates well, it is positioned to deliver on the value proposition of a project. And that’s what it’s all about!

 

 

PAM STANTON BIO

Pam Stanton is an author, speaker, coach, and consultant with 20+ years of project leadership experience. She specializes in the impact of emotional intelligence and group dynamics on project outcomes– or as she puts it, “The Human Part of the Gantt Chart.” Her recent book The Project Whisperer chronicles two decades of insight into the importance of balancing methodology with soft skills to deliver successful projects.

Pam hosts the webTV show “PDU For Lunch” which features special guests from the world of leadership and project management.

Born and raised in New Jersey, USA, Pam graduated from Yale University with a Bachelor’s degree in Psychobiology. Her career includes staff leadership roles at Johnson & Johnson, Integrated Computer Management, MARC Inc., Prudential Insurance, and United Way. As a consultant, she has also worked in dozens of other business environments.

For more information and helpful resources, visit http://www.PamStanton.com or email her directly at pam@pamstanton.com.

 

 

 


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One comment

  1. Pam,
    This topic is near and dear to my heart as I’ve spent most of my career navigating international efforts. One thing I find is the need to educate and initiate project sponsors that there are real issues to overcome related to managing across cultures, time zones, etc. At a cursory level, there can often be the belief that if everyone speaks English and has an internet connection then what could possibly be the problem???

    Some time and attention has to be given to the topics you mention above if a team is going to be successful. In my opinion, it is well worth the effort, and ultimately pays dividends in all projects (international or not). There isn’t a project around that couldn’t benefit from better and clearer communication, and ‘cultural differences’ exist in all shapes and sizes – corporate cultures, generational differences, gender differences, etc. Honing one’s sensitive to such differences as a Project Manager can only help to move the whole process forward.

    Thanks for the great article!

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