Tackling the global project problem

Launching a global project presents many problems that are completely foreign to most project leaders and managers. The global community offers an incredibly diverse landscape of culture, language, social interaction, and business preconceptions. In most situations this varying landscape leads to conflict or, at the very least, misunderstandings and miscommunication.

Each project reveals something new, sometimes subtle, sometimes much more obvious. While writing Outsourcing in the BRIC: Being successful in global projects with Brazil, Russia, India and China, understanding each situation and turning it into a tangible, applicable lesson was often a complicated exercise.

In this article, the first of several, I’ll present a few of the lessons learned — not necessarily the most prevalent or the most important, but lessons that I think most teams will run into pretty quickly and could derail you from the start.

Face up to communication problems

By far the most common, most glaring misstep U.S. employers make in foreign markets is to assume that people, by and large, aren’t that much different. It’s a mistake I’ve seen in almost every situation, whether the global team is Russian, Indian, Asian, or South American.

In the U.S. we have become very insular, expecting behavior from our workforce that simply doesn’t exist in other cultures. For example, we take for granted that employees will be outspoken and even downright vocal about anything they aren’t happy with. “The squeaky wheel gets the oil,” as the saying goes. But as it turns out, that saying doesn’t apply to many cultures. In fact, the global project manager needs to recognize that in some cultures, speaking out is not to be expected, in any setting. This has come up with almost every outsourcing effort I’ve managed throughout Asia: People will contribute extensively or not at all, depending on the culture.

One strategy to begin overcoming this problem is to initiate collaboration up-front. This can be a particularly effective tool for establishing peer relationships early in the game. While speaking out is not a given, it’s almost universally true that people open up to their peers before opening up to managers. Initiate your project with a two-day collaborative session to drive interactivity. Be sure to stage the session appropriately. It has to be at one location, the entire team should be present, and the environment should be tailored to create effective, collaborative conversations. Remember, it’s more about building the team than about making real progress on the project.

Be sure to continue facilitating collaboration once the exercise is over. If you don’t work to break down barriers constantly, they’ll crop up again — probably the day after your exercise ends. Make sure the team has the right tools to establish effective communication. Try to arrange team schedules that facilitate frequent communication. Develop an on-going staff rotation plan to make sure the team is constantly getting “refreshed,” and working together on a regular basis.

Beware differences in business fundamentals

Just as varied as individuals are the business environments. Consider, for example, the complexity of developing a product in a foreign market, with most of the team speaking a foreign language, with common business knowledge rooted in a foreign business environment. Many of the assumptions that we take for granted are simply missing, or interpreted differently in other countries.

Often a good starting point is to look for regulatory and risk management profiles that will identify potential differences of understanding. Compliance requirements are often taken for granted in one market and completely missing in another (think of COPPA, the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act, a U.S. law that dictates certain standards for any system storing information related to a minor). Many such standards, laws, and policies exist and are well documented — particularly in Western nations — but are never explicitly communicated to foreign teams where such laws do not exist.

Another common problem: People who understand the technical aspects of a project, but not the application of the product itself, often work “blind” to project quality goals. For example, I once worked with a client developing a legal work product in the United States, but most of the work was performed in India. None of the Indian team members had a solid business or legal background, and even if they had, it would have been based on Indian business law. As a result, most of the team had only a vague idea of what the product would be used for, and none of them understand the target customer.

Be ready to reset perceptions

Depending on your market, your product, and your overall goals, don’t be surprised if there are a few false starts. Engaging a global partner is not something that will succeed or fail in less than 90 days. Having a short-term perspective and focusing on the tactical, rather than the strategic, will doom the effort to failure. Because of the multitude of barriers — from culture, to language, to geography — expect to take time to develop a lasting, successful relationship.

Likewise, when developing a product in the global marketplace, don’t be surprised if it’s necessary to restart the project once your client or partner really begins to articulate what they need. If the project was initiated in the U.S., its inception was probably isolated, initially developed in a silo. Assumptions regarding foreign markets, realistic business objectives, and misconceptions about global performance are likely to be re-examined.

Monitoring a global project is clearly much more complicated than a domestic project or one that runs entirely out of a single building. Make sure the right key performance indicators are being measured, and stay on top of them. Keep a careful eye on communication throughout it all. Once the gaps have been closed and a collaborative environment built, successful, frequent communication will drive creativity and results from foreign markets — while failing to have good communication will create isolated, poorly performing teams. Even though you operate as a global business, try to remember what it felt like when everyone was in the same building, and keep that feeling alive as much as possible.

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