10 Tips For International Business Success

I’m very pleased to announce our 10 Tips For International Business Success booklet is now available for free download. This first book in the series is a concise companion for International executives and managers. It provides 10 absolutely critical lessons when working abroad or with overseas partners and teams.

Tip #1: Time After Time

10 Tips For International Business Success (Zacharias Beckman)
10 Tips For International Business Success (Zacharias Beckman)

Americans associate being late with being unreliable. But in many cultures, timeliness is not expected and can be construed as being rigid and uncompromising.

Unlike some Western cultures, many Asian and Latin cultures have higher cultural priorities than timeliness. For example, in some cultures it would be unthinkable to end a meeting because the allotted time had run out. This would be taken as a direct insult, essentially sending the message that your host is less important than your own time. It’s understood that if someone is late, it’s because they are invest- ing time with another person. In time, your turn will come as well. This difference leads to cultural conflict and misunderstanding…

Read the rest of this tip, including which countries and regions it applies to, strategies for working successfully with these cultures, and how to adjust to different business practices by downloading your copy today!

Get 10 More Tips, Free!

We wanted to make sure you get a fantastic value here, so there are actually 10 more tips in the book, along with quotes from business leaders and luminaries throughout the Global business industry:

Relationships are built between individuals, not between companies. Thus it’s important to keep the same people coming to India so the process doesn’t have to be repeated for each neophyte. When Western companies reassign resources too quickly and put someone new in charge of an India initiative, they program themselves for failure. — Gunjan Bagla, Doing Business in 21st-Century India

Look For More Tips…

Look for our other International guides, as soon as they go to press! Our other guides will be posted here, just like this one… Look for:

  • 10 Tips For International Travel
  • 10 Tips For Managing International Teams
  • 10 Tips For Communicating Globally

We’re delighted to offer them to you completely free, and hope you will enjoy reading them as much as we have enjoyed creating them.

What Is Collectivism?

Americans are motivated by personal choice and gain. But, many Asian cultures are not. Instead, these “collectivist” cultures are motivated by what’s good for the group, what’s going to benefit a person’s family and raise their personal “face” and their standing in the eyes of society. Understanding this fundamental difference is critical.

Hi, I am Zac Beckman, President of Hyrax International, and I want to talk about collectivism. When working with people from around the world, you’ll be quite surprised at how different their habits are and their expectations are. For example, if you’re working with Japanese partners, you may notice how surprised they are at how much free time Americans seem to have. Americans use this time for fitness, for taking time with their kids and family, going to movies. But they do it during the week. In Japan, the week is for the business. Business comes first. Personal time ends up on the weekends.

Indians have a similar cultural orientation. They may go to work kind of late in the morning, work a long afternoon, take a dinner break and then end up going back to work and working late into the evening until 10 or 11; even midnight. And that’s a practical matter because many Indian firms work with so many companies around the world that they need to adjust their schedule. But that again is putting the business first, ahead of family. This is what collectivism is.

Collectivism Is Thinking “We,” Before “I”

Collectivism is thinking about what’s good for the group, what’s good for the business, before thinking about what’s good for the individual. Americans are extremely individualist. This means that they make decisions based on what’s good for them personally. They move out of the house early because they want to be on their own. They make career decisions because it’s what they want to do. It’s really important to understand this difference, because it fundamentally changes how different teams, how people around the world, are motivated.

Americans are motivated by personal advancement and by personal gain. But, many Asian cultures, collectivist culture, are not motivated by those same things. Instead, they are motivated by what’s good for the group, what’s going to benefit their family the most, what’s going to raise their personal face and their standing in the eyes of society. For example, an American might be motivated by career advancement or a career change. But that exact same choice to somebody in Asia could mean loss of face, it could mean a lack of ability to hire friends into a new company, where they are relatively new themselves.

It’s the difference between knowing how to motivate individuals who are primarily concerned with their own career and their own advancement in society, versus knowing how to motivate somebody who is concerned about their social group. They are concerned about the well being of everybody around them and their standing in the eyes of that society.

Improving Multinational Team Collaboration

Power Distance in the Global Context: How business cultural preferences can directly impact your team’s ability to work together and communicate effectively.

When we talk about our own culture, it won’t seem like culture at all. It’s just the way things are. For example, if you’re American you believe everyone has a right to free speech and you think any thing else is a human rights violation. You also enjoy about two or three weeks of vacation each year. And you’re very prompt. You feel like your entire day is interrupted if someone’s late.

If you are Turkish, you know about free speech, but you probably don’t dare talk about it much. You are blissfully unaware that you have more official and not so official vacations than anyone else in Europe. And for you, time is fluid. Being half an hour late is fine, you don’t expect anybody else to be on time, so you plan on doing several things at once. These are examples of culture, and businesses have culture too.

Phil, a CEO at a US company, came to me telling me that they had outsourced all of their product development to India. But, they had a problem. They hadn’t met a single deadline in over a year. Product development was stalled. When I asked Phil what was wrong, he said the team in India was terrible at communication. They never raised a red flag if something didn’t make sense.

The problem is Phil was completely wrong. He was ascribing Western expectations to an Eastern team. The real problem was more complex, but the root of it was power distance. Power distance is the degree to which a boss and an employee are separated by society. And in the East power distance is very important. Employees can’t simply tell their boss that they think he is wrong. But Phil’s employees are rewarded for questioning and challenging and thinking outside of the box. He had no idea how unfamiliar this was for his India team.

We worked with Phil to develop a cross cultural training program. A year later, Phil’s company is doing great. Their new product just shipped and Phil told me that the team has hit every milestone perfectly. This is just a small part of how business culture can affect a global business. It’s why we created the business synergy compass; to guide businesses to success in the new global economy.

How Do I Communicate With My Overseas Team?

When it comes to delegating work, how can you communicate tasks to your overseas team, and know those tasks will be handled reliably? Communicating with your overseas partner or your outsourced vendor can be a lot more complicated then you might think.

Communicating with your overseas partner or your outsourced vendor can be a lot more complicated then you would think. Yes, sure, it’s fine to pick up the phone and send an email — and actually you should do that a lot. It’s extremely valuable to build those strong relationships and to maintain a lot of communication with your overseas partner. But, its easy to make mistakes when you assume that they are going to be communicating with you in exactly the same way.

Assumptions And How We Communicate

So, for example, we have had clients that would pick up a phone and call their Chinese or their Indian partner to brainstorm about ideas. But, because of misunderstandings between the two parties and between power distance and saving face, the partner over in China, or in India, might take that brainstorming session to be a directive to get to work on something. And so they throw everything else out and the schedule goes out with it — and they start working on something new. And month’s later, you’re surprised — what the heck happened? Why are they working on that? We were just talking about a fun idea we had.

Communicate Assignments Without Misunderstandings

So, how do you avoid misunderstandings like that? Well, one of the most important things you can do is make sure that you have a procedure or a system in place to manage tasks, and assignments, and responsibilities between your teams. There are a number of systems that we’ve used with our clients. Some of them are pretty simple. Basecamp is very popular. We actually don’t recommend Basecamp. It’s not too hard to get lost in Basecamp and much like sending a phone message or an email, people can start pointing fingers, saying, “Oh, I thought you had that task,” “No I had that task.” Also, base camp doesn’t have a great audit trail. Instead we tend to recommend more advanced systems that provide better audit trails, better assignment tracking, and permission and workflow systems.

Salesforce, if you are in a sales organization, actually does a great job of assigning tasks to different people, keeping track of records, who made a call, who didn’t, where is that customer support ticket. If you’re in a more technical discipline, then tools like Rally and Atlassian’s JIRA products are excellent project management tools. They can also be used for customer service management, ticket management or even call tracking because they are very customizable. Especially JIRA which has a very powerful workflow management system that you can customize to do whatever you want. But the best thing with all of these tools — Salesforce, Rally, JIRA and host of other ones — they work over the world wide web, they work on mobile phones, and they all have excellent audit trails, so you can see what has happened, who was assigned the task, and why did they give it to somebody else… And they also make it very easy to expose all of this information to anybody that wants to see it.

So, our number one recommendation, when we are talking about how do you get a hold of your team whose overseas, you can get a hold of them on the phone and with email. But you shouldn’t use those methods to communicate tasks or assignments or new requirements. Those things, if its official, it needs to go into a system. And everybody needs to understand that the system is what dictates who is working on what. That way when your team in China receives a call from the CEO saying, “Hey, what about this great idea?” — well, they’ll understand that if it wasn’t assigned to them in the system, they’re not supposed to start working on it.

Should I Outsource?

Should I Outsource? The pros and cons of outsourcing are significant, as are the potential gains for companies that are successful. This short video introduces some of the ways outsourcing can be a boon to growth and efficiency, but also points out how important it is to make the right strategic decisions about sourcing.

With outsourcing, we can speed up our operations, lower our costs, and even open up entire new markets. But we don’t want to become one of the nightmare stories you hear about.

Outsource For The Right Reasons

Apple could never have become one of the world’s richest companies if it had not expanded outside the United States. With outsourcing we can automate our business processes, so that we don’t need a large internal staff, or we can turn to China for incredible manufacturing capacity. We can put offices around the world and have 24 hour operations by following the sun. We can even bring on board an entire new department overnight, if we need to.

But, it’s easy to make mistakes. Business culture is very important, and incompatible business culture leads to problems. For example, Audi recently had to recall thousands of cars because their Chinese manufacturer had substituted a substandard material, and gas pedals started snapping off.

It’s important to realize that different cultures and different markets are better suited to particular needs. Cost, quality and skill varies around the world. Technology is strong in China, but intellectual property protection is not. Apple gained huge advances by engaging with Foxconn in China but, 24 hours later, there were clone iPhones popping up on the market.

Multiple cultures bring complexity. And it’s important to remember that America is pretty isolated. Most of the world focuses on building very strong long term relationships. It’s those relationships that protect your business. Trusted relationships are key, and in most of the world, it’s more important to have experience and a trusted relationship than to have a written contract.

Is Culture Shock Ruining Your Chances Overseas?

Traveling to a foreign country, living there, meeting new people, and facing success or failure abroad can trigger fear in all of us. To some, it’s a mild fear of the unknown. To others, it can be a stress-inducing, unpleasant experience. It’s rooted deep in our psyche: Differences in beliefs, race, color, religion, culture, and even language have led to innumerable acts of war and violence throughout human history. Believing that globalism has put it all behind us is naive at best. Those that think trivially of the differences between cultures, and the deep-rooted permanence of those differences, should think again.

Experiencing Culture Shock In The U.S.

Most willing expatriates will approach the prospect of an International sojourn with trepidation. Fortunately for most such feelings are usually manageable. Yet, intercultural issues absolutely cause stress. The stress of travel, of the unknown, being away from home and family, of making a mistake that leads to failure. Stress causes anxiety, and as humans we react to anxiety in much the same way we react to fear.

This exact situation happened to Venkat, after relocating his family to the United States. Venkat had been working for his employer a few years when he was invited to move to the U.S. office. It was an excellent opportunity and one that Venkat embraced wholeheartedly.

But, soon after arrival, Venkat started to have difficulty. Being from India, he was accustomed to a strong social network at work and home. Both he and his wife felt cut out of society because Americans just don’t connect like Indians do. Neighbors typically don’t become close friends, and co-workers rarely create strong after-work bonds. Venkat was unprepared for this. He felt excluded when his social invitations to neighbors and coworkers weren’t enthusiastically reciprocated. Soon, he came to feel the promises of “getting together after work” where well-meaning but insincere pleasantries — even the few times his efforts were successful the get together was stiff, brief, and conversation revolved around work.

Eventually, Venkat came to realize that Americans only get together rarely after work and when they do, it’s more an obligation than genuine camaraderie. He and his wife felt isolated, and decided to end their stay in America after about a year. The socially distant culture of America was never something they could get used to.

Understanding Culture Shock

Misunderstandings, embarrassments, and misinterpretations occur today, on a regular basis, between tourists and professionals alike. The accelerating pace of technology is speeding up communication — it’s becoming cheap and nearly ubiquitous. Where we relied on couriers that would take months to deliver a message, now we connect with people globally in seconds. The expanding pace of International business adds to the rapidly expanding, global reach of companies — and as it does, so our need to interact across cultures increases with it.

When a family, or husband and wife, are sent abroad, it’s often the partner who stays at home who experiences the worst culture shock. The professional in the family is embroiled in work, kept busy with professional obligations. The business network forms a sort of insulation from the cultural impact. This insulating effect can be stronger when an expatriate is positioned as an expert, visiting a foreign culture to lead a team, share important knowledge, or otherwise perform a critical function. At the same time, the one staying at home — possibly looking after children or a household — is not so insulated. There may be no support group to turn to. Learning to get around, picking up the local language, facing contractors or repair personnel, dealing with school officials, and learning local customs is often harder without the support of an eager team of coworkers.

Acculturation Curve

Culture shock is a normal situation. It affects nearly everyone that relocates abroad for any period of time. It may not set in immediately — in fact, early on, an opposite effect of euphoria often masks the anxiety most people experience. People living in foreign environments typically report a transition in their feelings that follow an “acculturation curve,” shown in the above figure and first introduced in Cultures And Organizations.1 Positive and negative feelings are shown on the vertical axis, while time progresses forward from left to right. The initial euphoric phase is typically short; it represents the initial feelings of adventure, seeing new lands, travel, and meeting new people. Culture shock sets in during Phase 2 in the diagram, as the euphoria begins to wear off and the realities of life in a foreign society set in. Acculturation, or adjustment to local culture, takes place during Phase 3. This is when the foreign national begins to acclimatize to differences in culture, learns to adopt and function within local customs, and establishes connections with a new social network. Finally, self-confidence and comfort with the local environment is established. This “stable state” of mind can settle as negative or positive when compared with home, depending on the individual and their circumstances. Those that are lucky enough to experience a relatively more positive stable state (4c) are ideal candidates for long-term repatriation, and quite likely are well suited to cross-cultural business relationships. This is when the visitor has “gone native.” On the other hand, a negative steady state (4a) can mean that the individual never becomes fully acclimatized. Instead they continue to feel out of place, discriminated against, or an outsider.

The feelings instigated by culture shock often lead to feelings of distress, of being out of place, longing for home, helplessness, and in some cases hostility toward the new environment (as pointed out in Managing People Across Cultures).2 Expatriates often experience higher incidence of medical problems soon after relocation, as opposed to later. These illnesses are linked to the mental state brought on by culture shock. Symptoms can be the same as those of mild neuroses, and can extend to skins rashes, appetite loss, depression, sleeplessness, swellings, palpitations, and more.

Getting Used To It

The time period for acculturation varies dramatically. Both temperament and situation factor into acculturation. The most significant common factor seems to be the time period of the foreign visit itself. People on short term assignments, say a few months, have reported experiencing all phases of the acculturation curve in the same short time. On the other hand, people on long term assignments stretching over several years indicate acculturation takes longer, as much as a year or more.

Culture shock can be so severe that assignments may need to be cut short. In extreme cases, anxiety, depression, or homesickness will directly affect work. Such cases can lead to significantly reduced performance, and even inability to function. In at least one situation I’m aware of, a family relocating to Europe experienced long-term problems with social integration. The stay-at-home partner, responsible for raising the couple’s child, developed a strong aversion to leaving the house and continually avoided learning the local language. This left the working partner saddled with most responsibilities for both business and household care, at least when it came to running errands, arranging services, and working with the local school or health care system. The anxiety of the cultural transition became exacerbated, leading to a strain on the couple’s relationship. After several years, there was little improvement. The “steady state” was clearly a negative one. Even though the husband wanted to stay abroad, the couple frequently discussed plans for returning to the United States.

In part two of this article, I’ll discuss how to prepare for and deal with culture shock, from both a management and individual perspective.

1 Cultures and Organizations: Software for the Mind, Geert Hoftstede, Gert Jan Hoftstede, and Michael Minkov, McGraw Hill.
2 Managing People Across Cultures, Fons Trompenaars, Charles Hampden-Turner, Capstone.

Good Management In Asia Is Hard To Find

There’s a stark scarcity of qualified management throughout much of Asia. According to the European Chamber of Commerce in China, the scarcity of qualified workers is the number one human resource challenge in China. This is causing two growing problems. First, creating effective, reliable teams, the kind that Western partners expect, is proving to be a serious challenge. Another is cost: With so few qualified workers, those few can command very high paychecks. Mercer recently reported that the median salary for an upper-middle manager in Beijing has risen to over $105,000, which is more than two-thirds the salary in the U.S.

That cost is translating directly into a changing Global landscape. Today, an upper-middle manager in India makes well less than $60,000, compared with $105,000 in China. The cost of labor in China has been sky rocketing, leading Boston Consulting Group to advise that manufacturing costs in China will roughly equal that of the U.S. by 2015 (taking into account rising wages, labor productivity and other factors).

Two Cases: Management in Asia

According to Bob Boyce, CEO of Shanghai-based Blue Horizon Hospitality Group, the scarcity of capable managers “is the biggest thing holding our business back.” Boyce has had to train his managers from scratch. None of his 800 employees had the management experience he needed, so instead he developed a training program that immersed trainees in different aspects of the business. He weeded out the ones that couldn’t cut it, and promoted those that proved to have management skills. Even so, the managers coming out of the program aren’t like Western managers. He’s had to put a lot of oversight and redundancy in place that wouldn’t be needed in the U.S. Responsibilities are narrowly defined, with individual managers given clear, well-defined roles. Boyce had to create detailed procedures and checklists on everything from how waiters interact with customers, to hygiene procedures, to how food is prepared in his restaurants. And everything is double-checked by a general manager. Boyce estimates that, to compensate for the lack of mature management skills, he employs about 30% more people than in the U.S.

Similar challenges face companies seeking to do business in (or with) India. Richard, CEO of a technology firm in Southern California, outsourced his project development to India. He soon learned that the quality of his product wasn’t meeting expectations. To compensate he set up an elaborate oversight program. Rather than having a single project team, development work was given to one vendor while quality assurance was handled by another. A third, independent firm, provided general management over the other two and kept everything running smoothly. “We had to make sure there was a segregation of responsibilities. And we had redundancy. This way, the management firm had one job to do: Cry foul if things weren’t going perfectly.” Richard estimates the entire workforce was probably about twice the size a U.S. team would have been. Even so, he adds, “it probably cost us half as much as doing it in the U.S.”

Taking Western Management East

Ascribing Western expectations to Eastern business managers is part of the problem. Many firms are just starting to understand that the best practices of Western management theory are, in fact, only useful in “the West.” Taking those theories East just doesn’t work, and changing that fact won’t be easy.

Many Asian cultures — including China and India — emphasize exam-based, fact driven education. This approach excels at grilling students on rote memorization and recall of facts. But while this style of learning creates strong skills, both countries have frequently been lambasted for failing to develop creative thinking and critical analysis. According to a recent article in Time Magazine, Premier Wen Jaibao complained that “students don’t only need knowledge; they have to learn how to act, to use their brains.” (Nov. 2013)

Another reason Westerners have a disconnect with Eastern management style is business culture. The best thinking in Western management theory relies heavily on empowering workers — both to think critically, and to express ideas and criticisms freely. Neither of these approaches fit well with Asian culture. Challenging the status quo is a foreign, Western idea. Most Asian countries have rich, long-lived histories, embedded with ideas about respect, hierarchy, and an individual’s role in society. A strong sense of “place” within that society includes the notion that decisions are better made by elders, and challenging those decisions is rarely acceptable. Telling your boss his ideas aren’t suitable is an affront to “face.” Your boss could lose face in front of the team, and consequently you lose face for breaking from a socially acceptable role.

[quote]The new iPhone 5s is assembled in China. Very little of the phone’s innovation comes from China, though. It was designed in the U.S. and three-fourths of the production cost is from imported components. — Time Magazine, Nov. 18[/quote]

These traditions and ideas are firmly rooted, often in literally thousands of years of rich cultural heritage. Changing how people are raised and educated, and how society functions, won’t happen overnight.

Solving the Management in Asia Conundrum

Many Asian cultures are going to be intensely task oriented, and that means looking for innovation elsewhere. Critical thinking and a willingness to challenge assumptions will be hard to instill in a team raised and educated to believe it’s not socially acceptable. Conversely, these same teams will be excellent at executing well-explained plans and carefully thought out procedures.

Creating high standards of output and quality will mean having more oversight. Separating verification into a completely independent role is important, too. While many Western teams are used to the idea of looking at their own ideas critically, this won’t typically work well in some Asian cultures.

[quote]Without proper managers, everything has to be over-engineered. — Bob Boyd, CEO, Blue Horizon Hospitality Group[/quote]

Another way of looking at it is simply this: Everything will have to be over-engineered to avoid mistakes.

It’s also important to keep in mind, the landscape is changing. As the cost of labor in China rises, we’re starting to see the workforce of China evolve. At the same time, China is starting to outsource its own work to less expensive countries, and American firms are starting to look for alternatives as well.

Developing a business partnership with any overseas firm needs careful forethought and planning. Most important, you’ve also got to have real experience on your team. That means having someone familiar with your target culture, who understands the business economy and business preferences of the region.

Compensating for business culture and communication differences

By far the most common, most glaring misstep U.S. employers make in foreign markets is to assume that people, by and large, act more or less the same in a business setting. It’s a mistake I’ve seen in almost every International project, whether the global team is Russian, Indian, Asian, or South American. Business in a foreign country is not like business at home.

Business culture and communication

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 it turns out, that saying doesn’t apply in very many cultures. In fact, the global project manager needs to recognize that in some cultures, speaking out is an anathema, in any setting. This has come up with almost every outsourcing effort I’ve managed throughout Asia: People will seem to contribute extensively or not at all, depending on the culture.

While this looks like a communication issue, it’s actually power distance. Power distance is the degree to which a supervisor and a subordinate are separated by culture and society. Throughout most of the world (especially Asia), power distance is very important. It introduces a formality into the business relationship that doesn’t exist in many Westernized countries.

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 (and this is especially true in Asia, where group orientation is predominant). Initiating a project with an on-site collaborative session kickstarts the drive for interactivity. We’ve found that it’s critical 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.

Successful projects — and therefore successful project management methodologies — recognize that communication is a common point of failure, and put measures in place to compensate. That means taking steps to create strong team communication, and continuing to facilitate collaboration throughout the project, and using methods that encourage rich, complex communication (like frequent, short video calls). It’s very important that the team has the right tools to establish effective communication, so don’t skimp on them.

Solving cultural and logistic International project problems

Sometime in 2001, a New England firm that later became a client decided to outsource all of its software development to India. It seemed like an excellent idea at the time, as Indian intellectual property wage rates were roughly one-tenth of their U. S. counterparts. But the project went poorly: U.S.-based employees struggled to manage programmers located halfway around the world, and much of the work coming back from India didn’t meet the standards of quality expected by the U. S. firm. While the industry has improved, this is still a common problem today. How can a team located in a different culture, a different business environment, and surrounded by completely different ideas regarding acceptable customer service, adequately meet the quality demands of a foreign customer?

There’s a solution?

Before exploring a solution that solves the complex cultural and logistic issues of International projects, let’s take a quick look at the elements of a typical project. We can start by using a guide such as the Project Management Institute’s PMBOK®, or Project Management Body of Knowledge. The PMBOK quite effectively lays out much of the scope a project manager needs to be prepared to handle.

According to the PMBOK, every project has five phases in common:

  1. Initiating.
  2. Planning.
  3. Executing.
  4. Monitoring and Controlling.
  5. Closing.

During each of these phases, the project manager’s objective is to balance the competing constraints of scope, quality, schedule, budget, resources, and risk.

These constraints are, in and of themselves, often daunting. Add in the human element and often inevitable business politics, and projects can become difficult exercises in communication, motivation, and human psychology. In fact, the PMBOK spends a good bit of time discussing key areas where these factors play a major role. Stakeholder involvement, communication plans, getting an unbiased statement of work or progress, managing risks, and managing subcontracts — just to get the list started — are critical to achieving success on any project.

All of these factors combine to create a web of constraints that push and pull at the fabric of a project, often so much that the fabric doesn’t survive intact. For example, stakeholders may not have the project’s best interests at heart or may simply be uninterested in their day-to-day responsibilities. Budget constraints may require the project manager to make difficult decisions that affect the team, or the objectives of the project. Subcontracts are, by the very nature of business, first and foremost motivated by their own fiscal health and profit, not necessarily your best interests.

This is the landscape a project manager steps into on a daily basis. The larger an endeavor, the more significant these challenges become — even when the entire project is still in a single building.

International project problems… Solved

Now, expand the dynamics of the project to a global effort, involving International team members, foreign partners, and vendors that you seldom meet in a face to face setting. In fact, many global projects are “communications deprived,” due to geographic challenges. A global organization can often have project members spread across as many as 15 time zones. While advances in technology have led to tremendous strides in delivering reliable communication, teleconferencing or video conferencing a few times a week, in the early or late hours of day, doesn’t compare to frequent, in-person communication. Teams operate in a vacuum much of their day, making decisions they would otherwise not make on their own.

Think back to the New England based firm: All of these factors contributed to quality problems, as the team in India tried to deliver what they believed the client wanted, but failed. Lack of communication, cultural misunderstands, and business context that we take for granted was missing — and the project failed.

This is the vacuum into which Rational Scrum was created. Project management methodologies today don’t address the complex issues imposed by multicultural teams, working in widely distributed, International contexts. That’s what Rational Scrum is all about: Finding solutions for International project problems. Fuel for this blog comes from a few different sources, including my book Successfully Managing International Projects. I hope you’ll find the contents interesting!

For more information on Successfully Managing International Projects, sign up for our mailing list. You’ll get occasional, relevant updates and announcements as the publishing date grows near.

Tackling The Global Project Management Problem (Part 2)

In my last article on preparing for global project challenges, I addressed a few of the soft skills, addressing cultural differences and basic mismatches in business environments. For this second installment, I thought I’d share a few concrete ideas for tackling some of these issues — things that can make a real difference, and aren’t that hard to put into play. To keep on a theme, I’ll focus on strategies to tackle the common, core issue raised in my first article: communication and execution.

Recap: Face Up To Communication Problems

Last month I pointed out that we have to deal with a lot more than language barriers with global projects. For example, in some cultures, speaking openly is not to be expected, in any setting. Furthermore, communication is often strongly augmented with non-verbal cues that simply don’t come across the telephone or email channels. The very method someone uses to communicate often carries an important message in and of itself — “reading between the lines” and picking up on the myriad of non-English, non-verbal hints is critical. It takes time and often a great deal of experience on an individual level.

Doing everything we can to remove ambiguity from project communications can be a huge help. One of the first things I generally want to take a close look at are the techniques and processes used to manage a project. Most of the time, they are not adequate for one reason: They weren’t designed to support a global, multi-cultural organization.

Tools Do Help

Let’s consider some of the common problems stemming from communications issues:

  1. Assignments don’t get handled correctly
  2. Nobody seems to know what’s going on
  3. There is no single place to go to find out how well (or how poorly) things are going
  4. Sometimes people don’t seem to be working effectively
  5. Things that aren’t important get attention, while things that are, don’t

These are problems that almost every organization has dealt with at some stage in its life. The typical global project almost always faces them, and often, fails to address the root cause, and then keeps right on stumbling over the problem. Making a few strategic changes to your process, and your tool set, can help dramatically.

Use The Right Tools For The Job

Many organizations use email inappropriately. Email is easy to fall back on as the main communication avenue when everyone isn’t in the same office building. For example, I’ve seen engineers jump in response to a new product idea from the CEO. This leads to circumventing the project management effort, often misdirects the lead engineer, and easily puts a project off-track. After all, what’s an engineer going to do — tell the CEO to go through channels and keep working on today’s mundane task, or jump on a new, exciting idea straight from the top?

Equally damaging is responding to every customer “fire drill” that comes up. Email invariably leads to rapid-fire emergency drills, often at a very high cost. Customer service sends an email to engineering, and engineering jumps to respond — in the process, putting current tasks on hold and upsetting schedules (not to mention the engineers themselves).

Stop using email for project communications, requirements, design and, above all, assignment of work. Email is a fantastic communication tool — but it’s not the right job for communicating work items on a project. It has a poor audit trail, as you never know who did or did not read it, emailed tasks cannot be prioritized or captured in a work management system, and at the end of the day, they’re just unreliable.

Instead of trying to stay on top of a dynamic, changing organization with email, use an appropriate work management system. There’s great news here: In today’s market there are fantastic systems available to handle requirements management, task management, project planning, customer communications, resources and more. In fact, probably the most daunting challenge is simply getting enough information to make an informed decision and choose the right tool. Cost is always a concern, but make sure adequate due diligence goes into analysis of the tools. Picking the wrong product can easily create problems. For instance, some tools may work well with your project management process, whereas others may not fit smoothly. In this latter case, people end up working outside the system — and that usually means sending emails to each other.

Use The Right Estimation Tools

Also critically important in a global project context is taking a long, hard look at the techniques you follow for project estimation. Make sure that your estimation methods take into account the complexities of a global team — this means accounting for inefficient communication and dramatically variant resource cost.

Be wary of estimation methods that focus only on the short term. “Burndown” estimates that provide visibility into the next thirty days are a leading source of project overrun and schedule slippage. An appropriately planned global project needs to communicate the goals of the project throughout the team. This includes setting very real objectives and milestones. If the milestones are variable and tend only to establish goals in the short term these become the only measures of success for the team — in other words, hitting the thirty day goal means success, because other yardsticks have not been established.

Wildly variant resource costs must also be accounted for. It’s one thing when every engineer gets paid more-or-less the same salary. When facing a dynamic, global team where costs can vary by a factor of ten, cost overruns become a very real threat. Simple estimation methods such as burndown estimates neglect these issues on two fronts. First, they don’t establish an adequate project baseline, and second, they don’t measure resource cost and progress against the baseline.

Make sure that the estimation methodology you use is adequate to the project at hand. Keep “burndown” estimates confined to projects that are either free of cost constraints, or at least operating on reasonably small budgets — so that cost overruns won’t hurt the organization.

Pay Close Attention To Metrics

Metrics tend to be a sore point with many teams. Mostly, at least in my experience, this comes from the assumption that measuring and keeping on top of project status requires a lot of work, and requires capturing a lot of data that nobody wants to capture. This is just plain wrong.

The fact is, almost every organization I’ve worked with is already capturing the data they need. It just isn’t being used right. The basic information needed to estimate tasks and monitor progress of the project as a whole is usually already in the system — it’s just a matter of getting at the data and building the right kind of reports. For example, most popular project management tools that tout themselves as being “agile” tend not to bundle reports for EVM metrics, baseline comparison, and project cost overruns. This is certainly the case with Atlassian’s JIRA, an excellent product that I’ve frequently put to use on large scale projects. Fortunately, the data recorded by systems such as JIRA gives us everything we need to perform more advanced metrics analysis. We know the original task goals, it’s planned schedule and it’s actual schedule, and can derive planned cost. That’s all we need.

Staying on top of the metrics and measuring against original project baselines translates into a very tangible return: You know your project health at any point in time. You know if you are slipping the schedule, if project cost is increasing, if too many changes are being made, or if too many defects are being discovered. If you can’t answer these questions you aren’t on top of your project.

Prioritize And Balance Dynamically

Finally a note about traditional, static project planning. Project plans are out of date before the ink is dry. Make sure that your project management process and your tools take this into account. Whatever tool you are using, it needs to generate the supporting project artifacts for you — not the other way around. In other words, if you find yourself wondering “how can I keep this Microsoft Project file in-sync with the project,” you’re looking at the wrong end of the equation. Instead, your project tools should be constantly in-sync with the actual state of the project — and if you’re favorite view of the project happens to be a Gantt chart, then your project tool should spit out an accurate one at the click of a button. Let the computer do the number crunching and formatting. You need to concentrate on managing the project, the people, and the global organization challenges that your team faces on a daily basis.

Creating a truly collaborative, communicating team cannot be accomplished with tools alone. While the tips I’ve offered above are sure to help, they won’t address all of the challenges a global project team faces — but they will give you a starting point.