Managing risk in global projects

I was recently asked what are the most relevant, pressing risks that affect global project management. Many come to mind but one stands out immediately: One of the most significant risks we identify is a globally disparate (geographically separated) team. Teams working in separate regions face tremendous challenges that a co-located team doesn’t have to think about. This is exacerbated when outsourcing, where conflicts in language, time, culture, and business environment all affect the organization.

Organizations facing these environmental issues need to put a considerable investment into mitigating the associated risks. This is essentially why the “promise of outsourcing” has been toned down over the past decade: Gone is the illusion that you can get solid work for 25 cents on the dollar. “Real” outsourcing costs tend to range anywhere from 70 cents on the dollar to $1.20 on the dollar (yes, outsourcing can often lead to higher costs — but sometimes it’s not just about cost, but geographic presence, distribution, foreign market penetration, etc.)

Language barriers pose some of the most difficult issues to work around. Being unable to easily communicate means poor communication becomes a barrier to the entire team. This can lead to misunderstood requirements, misinterpretation of directions, even a complete disconnect on whether a team is in trouble or doing fine. Ideally, open communication, information radiators, and visibility are central to successful projects. Any barriers increase risk, and that means increasing efforts to compensate. Closely related to language barriers are cultural barriers. A pretty obvious example is the straightforward U.S. business culture in regard to the respectful and tradition-rich Japanese culture. Even seemingly similar cultures pose barriers; for example, East Indian cultures and U.S. cultures don’t easily connect until interpersonal barriers have time to break down.

Business environment and common bias also contributes to the risk of disparate teams, especially those separated by business culture. For example, consider a client developing a legal work product solution in the U.S. market while using East Indian resources. The lack of a common business foundation can easily lead to a complete disconnect regarding assumed business objectives (in other words, the legal system is very different in the U.S. versus India, which means a lack of common understanding regarding some pretty basic business goals).

All of these issues can be mitigated with appropriate practices. The necessary measures will vary from one project or organization to another — there are a lot of variables at work, and that means every project has to be treated uniquely. The common thread is communication. Breaking down these barriers by using process, technology and culture is critical. The disparate team needs to become one team, working as a unit — and that usually means a significant investment in tools, strong processes and team-building exercises. I strongly advocate rotating team members across the organization or project as one example. This helps across the board: It breaks down communication and culture barriers, helps team members get to know one another, lets distant teams experience local culture, and helps to build a collaborative “whole team.”

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