Don’t Use Basecamp

Hi, I’m Zacharias Beckman, President of Hyrax International. Managing a multinational team can be really challenging. You have to make sure that each team, around the globe, is coordinating their efforts. That means overcoming the communication problems between them, tracking task dependency from one team to the other, and staying on top of projects — so that one team doesn’t get held up waiting for another one. So, the real challenge is figuring out to stay on top of each team and how do you make sure that all of their activities are coordinated well.

Get The Right Toolbox

Part of the answer is making sure that you have the right tools for the job. A good project management tool is going to help coordinate team activities and tasks around the globe. With the wrong tools in place, project teams suffer. They don’t have good communication, they don’t understand what the other team is doing, and task dependencies — the handoff of activities from one team to the other team — is not coordinated well. You end up with project chaos.

And when you’ve got team members that are separated by 8 or 10 or more hours in a day, this can derail the entire project for more than a day at a time.

We have two “go-to” tools that we use all the time very successfully. And we also have one that is a project nemesis. The one that we don’t like is Basecamp. We tell our customers, “Never use Basecamp.” The thing with Basecamp is, it’s super easy to use. You can sign up and start using it, literally, in a few minutes. People who don’t like process love Basecamp, because there is no process. You just put your tasks in. It’s easy, it’s unstructured, you can attach documents, and it all goes into Basecamp — and it kind of vanishes into Basecamp. That’s the problem, Basecamp doesn’t drive the process. We need tools that drive the process.

Driving The Process

A great project management tool is going to remind people of what they need to be working on, it’s going to track the interdependencies between tasks, and it’s going to make sure that someone doesn’t get hung up waiting on somebody else. This is particularly important for multinational teams where communication is already an issue. We need tools that will fill that gap and work hard to coordinate these teams, because they are already distributed, they are already having a hard time coordinating.

For small companies we recommend Teamwork PM. Teamwork PM is a good step towards an enterprise grade project management tool but it doesn’t have a lot of overhead. Your team can be using it in no time at all. It does coordinate tasks really well between team members, and it tracks dependencies, and it notifies team members of what they need to be working on. Which is one of the key ingredients to success.

For mid-sized and large teams, we recommend Atlassian Jira. It’s an enterprise grade solution. It’s completely customizable workflow system means that you can build out really elaborate, powerful processes to support your team and to support your entire organization. Jira can be customized to go all the way from requirements management and development through to customer support and care.

There are lot of great tools out there, Teamwork PM and Jira are two of them. But the most important thing to remember when selecting your project management tool — make sure it drives the process, make sure that the Project Manager is going to be able to easily get the information they need out of the systems so that they can stay on top of the project — before problems start to crop up.

Be sure to check our website. On this blog post we’ve listed a number of other project management tools that we have used in the past in addition to Atlassian Jira and Teamwork PM.

Our Project Manager’s Toolbox

Here are a few of the project management platforms that we feel are worth taking a look at. We couldn’t recommend Atlassian JIRA (for mid- to large-size organizations) and Teamwork PM (for small-size organizations) more highly, but they clearly aren’t the only solutions on the block. We track close to fifty different project management tools — these are the ones that have risen to the top, in our opinion.

  1. Atlassian — JIRA, Confluence, ServiceDesk for a complete enterprise solution
  2. Genius Project — Traditional, full cycle portfolio and project management platform
  3. Herogami — Agile development with Kanban
  4. Jama Software — Full lifecycle project management
  5. Liquid Planner — Traditional team and project planning
  6. Rally Software — Agile project management platform
  7. Teamwork PM — Full featured, easy to deploy task and project management

This Is Horrible Management Advice

I’ve been seeing a lot of management advice lately — hopefully it’s a sign that the U.S. economy is starting to boom again, and projects are taking off. But the problem is, most of the advice I’m seeing is really horrible — at least, if you’re working anywhere outside of America.

Western Management Is… Western

Western management theory works great if you’re managing a Western team. That means a team of people that are completely and entirely Western in terms of their culture and expectations.

For example, in this recent article, Lisa Evans reports that employers are “turning away from the traditional management style of hierarchies.” This is absolutely correct — in the United States. But applying this advice elsewhere in the world could be a huge mistake, especially in the highly organized and role-driven cultures throughout the East. Much of what Ms. Evans writes is sound advice across cultures. She writes that, “Recognizing these basic human needs can create a workforce of employees who are committed to working for their leader because of who they are and how they are treated,” a management principle that is a universal truth. But, as with most Western-oriented management writers, she also adds advice that will fall flat across Asia: “Empowering employees is one of the best ways to get commitment.” Unfortunately, this doesn’t work well in countries and cultures where explicit instruction is expected. In India, for instance, delegating and empowering your team usually backfires. The culture of India, one that produces great technical minds, is still focused on rote training and clear task delegation.

Adapt Your Management To Fit Culture

Don’t be scared of looking for advice online, though. There’s a lot of great advice — but consider the author and their audience. If the article seems to “American,” look for advice from a more International source. One great example is Donna Flynn’s recent article on Managing A Team Across 5 Time Zones. She writes that it’s important to share the burden of communication in a multinational team: “Several months ago we started a rotating meeting schedule.  Every month, each team member now has one evening, one mid-day, and one early morning meeting, and misses one meeting that falls in the middle of their night.  No team member is expected to attend a team meeting between 10 pm and 7 am.”

Ms. Flynn adds, “No tool can replace being together in the same room.  I bring my globally dispersed team together twice a year for workshops,” advice that I heartily agree with. It’s one of the key success strategies that I teach to our clients.

So choose your source. There are even products that focus on overly “Americanized” management techniques. One is The Time Timer. It’s a clock, big, bold, and designed to sit on a conference table and get people to stay focused on the agenda. The product pitch resonates with Americans: “You’re in a meeting, there are only two minutes left, and you’ve been talking around and around without even getting into the most important topic. There was no sense of urgency. And now it’s too late.”

But there’s a problem. This agenda-driven mentality is too Western. It only works in those Western cultures that prize time above all else — such as the U.S., Switzerland, Germany, and a handful of other European countries. But deploy this strategy in South America, and your partners will think you don’t care about getting to know them. Try it in most of Asia, and you’ll be labelled impatient and opportunistic, and they’ll think you don’t want to build a real business relationship. Most cultures around the world do not value time like Americans do. In fact, the most important business cultural preference for them: Relationships. That means taking time to build a relationship, and letting the meeting run long. Long meetings are prized because it’s a sign that everyone is getting to know each other. Short meetings send a different signal: “I don’t value this relationship very highly.”

The most important thing to keep in mind: Be aware of the business culture you are working with. Make sure that the management style you apply is going to be the right style for that culture, and for your team.

How To Go Global

How do you learn to “go global” and take your product, and your company, to an International scale?

Hi, I’m Zacharias Beckman, President of Hyrax International. I founded this company because I believe that American businesses, in particular, are really embracing the global economy. That means learning how to adapt products to different cultures around the world; changing a business’s internal culture in order to be compatible; changing how projects are managed, because the traditional Western management style that most of these American businesses employ, those styles are not going to work in Asia or South America or the Middle East. So, American businesses need to start to adapt.

Adapting To “Global”

A new level of business cultural awareness is needed. We need to understand how to communicate with each other, how to adapt to each other’s way of thinking about time, how to manage people with a different concept of power distance or the separation between a boss and an employee. It’s a complex landscape.

Taking a product into another country means adapting that product so that it fits well with the culture there. For example — lets say you wanted to take a product that was a four pack of golf balls, here in the United States, and sell it in Japan. It’s probably not going to work — because the word for “four” in Japan sounds very much like the word for “death.” So taking that product and simply slapping a new label on it in Japanese and shipping it over there — that’s not going to work.

This is why we created the Global Project Compass (see our six-part article on the Compass). It’s a map that takes 27 different project management verticals, things like quality assurance; time estimation; acceptance testing, and it maps them to business cultural preferences. And we see how, for example, communication is going to change each one of these 27 different project management disciplines.

We are global project experts. We understand the technical execution and we understand the cultural implication. Our programs will make sure that you succeed taking your products overseas and building a multinational organization.

Power Distance And International Success

If you missed the first part of this six-part series, see: Part 1 of the series, Creating An International Culture Of Success, or see the entire series right here.

I’ve posted in depth on power distance and how it varies from one culture to another. To recap, power distance, or “PDI,” is the degree of inequality in society and the emotional distance that separates subordinates from superiors.

Many Western cultures thrive on very low power distance principles. Since most of today’s modern management theory has come directly from the West, this means these theories work great in Western cultures but tend to have problems in the East.

Most modern management expects employees to think independently, be honest and critical, question the status quo, and openly voice disagreement. Many recent management tools, such as Scrum and Agile methods, empower the employee so much that the line between “boss” and “employee” becomes blurred and — sometimes — almost eradicated.

Across much of the Middle East and Asia, this approach fails miserably. Traditional organizational structures don’t tolerate this approach. Direct criticism and questioning tends to be viewed as dissent. Respect for seniority, wisdom, and age play into it. Decision making happens at higher levels in the company, and decisions flow downward. Employees are expected to act in unison, provide information when requested, and respond like a well-oiled machine to the strategic decisions of their senior management.

The Global Project Compass™ (introduced previously) covers 27 project management disciplines. It identifies the following management disciplines as being most directly affected by power distance:

  1. Goal Setting
  2. Organizational Structure & Policy Setting
  3. Standard Compliance
  4. Business Case Validation
  5. Positive Assurance of Compliance

Goal Setting

As pointed out in the introduction, different cultures have different expectations about where their goals come from. Employees that are used to low power distance will feel slighted if they are not closely involved in setting goals, or if their voice is not heard. On the other end of the spectrum, those accustomed to being told what to do may conclude that their boss doesn’t really know what’s going on if too many questions are asked or if the boss seems to rely on subordinate opinions.

Organizational Structure & Policy Setting

Closely related to goal setting is policy setting, and that includes the hierarchy (or lack of hierarchy) in an organization itself. Employees from high power distance cultures tend to feel far more comfortable in an environment that provides clearly defined roles. That translates into greater hierarchy, and more clearly responsibilities. As Honeywell learned, without adequate training and management programs, their Chinese R&D department really had no idea how to go about inventing truly new products.

Standards Compliance

Compliance is an interesting topic to explore, because it shows off a reversal of competence along the power distance spectrum. Employees accustomed to high power distance and being given clear guidelines tend to flourish when it comes to compliance. Such standards provide a clear set of instructions, set boundaries, and make the job an easy one to follow (at least, when the standards are well documented).

Unfortunately, with poorly defined or conflicting standards, problems occur. Poorly written rote instructions rapidly lead to chaos when those instructions are in conflict — and high power distance cultures also tend to demonstrate little critical thinking or problem solving here.

On the other hand, with a team that is used to low power distance, standards can become a “thorn in the side.” These teams — trained to think critically and voice their opinions — often struggle to see the rationale or validity of standards. They might push back against them, although when the standards themselves are questionable this can be a boon: Those same teams will quickly point out flaws (and perhaps push to have the standards disqualified).

Business Case Validation

Critical thinking, scenario planning, and a talent for seeing the future are traits needed when validating a business case. These skills tend to flourish at the executive level in high power distance cultures, while the critical thinking of low power distance teams can be incredibly valuable to examine every aspect of a business model.

Positive Assurance of Compliance

Making sure that you are complying with standards is often the responsibility of the quality assurance department or a separate standards body. Power distance and organizational structure play a huge role. Assurance of compliance carries with it a need for authority. Failure in compliance means, potentially, putting a stop to project activities, and challenging the organization and the team (at least, in so far as ensuring products conform to agreed standards). Organizational structure is important, but often the standards compliance body is not set up with adequate authority — in some cases, being subordinate to conflicting objectives (such as project management). Ensuring that the right structure exists; that there is a separation of concerns; and there is authority to act, is critical, and very dependent on the cultural biases at play.

Cover graphic attribution: The artist and visual designer Yang Liu was born in China and lives in Germany since she was 14. By growing up in two very different places with very different traditions she was able to experience the differences between the two cultures first-hand.

What Is Power Distance?

Power distance is about how employees relate to their boss. Think of it this way: How much distance do you feel between yourself and your employees? Low power distance cultures typically empower their employees to be critical and to make decisions on their own; but, this independent relationship is just the opposite of what many Eastern business cultures expect.

Power distance is about how employees relate to their boss. Think of it this way, how much distance do you feel between yourself and your employees?

John was a CEO of a company here in California that had outsourced product development to India. The problem was the Indian team kept taking all of John’s brainstorming and ideas as if they were directives. But, the Indian team didn’t want to criticize John. So, a the same time, John is feeling, “Where is all the criticism and critique of my ideas that I’m expecting? Why isn’t my team asking real questions about what we’re doing?”

Many western cultures have very low power distance. Employees are empowered to be critical and to make decisions on their own. They are independent, and western companies value that and delegate a great deal to their employees.

High power distance cultures, on the other hand, operate very differently. In a high power distance culture, the boss is respected for this wisdom and his position in the company. Employees don’t criticize their boss, it’s just not done. And decisions are made at the top of the company and they trickle down to the employees. Feedback is only given when very directly and clearly elicited.

So, power distance is the degree to which culture and society has separated the superior and the subordinate in a company. Asia and the Middle East have many very high power distance cultures, and South America as well as Europe have quite a few cultures that are also higher power distance than many Westernized cultures.

4 Tips For Avoiding Problems With Your Overseas Partner

Have you ever set a goal with your overseas partner, just to watch that goal go whooshing past with no apparent warning? I hear this far too often from Western companies doing business with Eastern partners. It’s become commonplace. What companies in the West don’t realize is that there’s a very different approach to doing business in the East. Most of the time, the problem gets put down to “poor communication,” but that’s a mistaken assumption. In the East, what they’re thinking is “why haven’t we been given the right information to act?” Looking deeper, the root of the problem is actually power distance.

Understanding Power Distance

Power distance is the strength of social hierarchy, or simply the imposed psychological distance between a boss and employee.

You can think of power distance as the distance separating a boss from an employee socially.

In the East, high power distance cultures rely on structure and employees stay within their defined role and authority. Western management relies on low power distance and empowered communication, neither of which apply in the East. These two management approaches, the Eastern high power distance and Western low power distance, are directly at odds with each other.

The Eastern Perspective (High Power Distance)

Most Eastern (or “BRIC”) cultures are very hierarchical and structured. Direction comes from the top, and employees expect management to make decisions. Employees expect to work within their role in the organization. Stepping outside of one’s role or job function is rare, because it implies that someone else doesn’t know how to do their job. Directly telling your boss that you have a differing opinion, or that he or she is wrong, is unacceptable and would be a terrible loss of face. Instead, subtle and appropriate cues are often exchanged to communicate information to the boss, so that ultimately a new decision is handed down.

Kevin, the project manager at one of our clients, continually complained that his India-based team was “blindly doing what they were told, without thinking about it first.” He expected his team to look critically at their instructions, think about whether it made sense, and make creative improvements to the product. But at the same time, the criticism we heard in India was very different. “We keep telling Kevin we need more information, but we don’t get an answer. If we stop working, the project will be late, so we just do the best we can,” the team lead in India told us. He added, “Once they see it, we’ll get better direction.”

The culturally rich, high-context communication of the East is lost on Western partners, who are so focused on direct, simple communication. From a Western perspective, all this formality can seem to slow things down and is therefore by-passed or disregarded. Remember that the rich, high-context communication channel your partner normally relies on is missing. In its place is a vacuum, and quite often you’ll feel like your Eastern partner isn’t communicating with you. That’s probably not the case, so you need to compensate. Here are a few tips to get you started.

  1. If you are in a management role, understand the differences in power distance. Employees of your partner’s firm will rarely, if ever, disagree with you or offer their own opinion. “Over confirmation” is a possible sign that something isn’t right. (This is one reason that India has a reputation for superb execution of detailed tasks, but a poor reputation when it comes to creativity and autonomy.)
  2. Slow down communication. Your partner may need more time to socialize a problem and come up with a solution. Employees will act to inform the boss, and the boss will circle back with you.
  3. Don’t interrupt silence. Silence is a form of communication, and many Eastern cultures will use that silence. Pushing forward with an agenda too quickly will just rush your partner.
  4. Make sure that decisions are made at the right level. Just because you talk about something with your partner, don’t assume that person has the authority, or even the role, to make a decision.

The Western Perspective (Low Power Distance)

In stark contrast to high power distance cultures prevalent in the East, the West’s low power distance culture fosters flat organizations. Individuals are empowered to make decisions on their own. Pointing out problems is expected and rewarded — even when that means telling a supervisor they made a mistake. Western management style relies on this in order to work correctly. For example, Scrum and Management By Objective (MBO) both challenge employees to find creative solutions, be vocal, and be direct about problems. Individuals are expected to take charge and make things happen on their own; they are rewarded for discovering problems, and even more so for discovering solutions.

For many Easterners, this almost feels like everyone is the boss. It can be very disconcerting. Here are a few strategies to keep in mind when working with your Western partner.

  1. Westerner’s will value you “at your word,” which means it’s important to do exactly what you say you will do. Remember that you are empowered to make decisions, but that also means you must actually do what you say. They probably won’t pick up on subtle cues, so be sure to say exactly what you mean.
  2. Remember that most Western cultures tend to be strongly agenda driven. It’s best to prepare for meetings ahead of time, and don’t expect to socialize or build relationships during meetings. This is usually done after business hours.
  3. If you feel rushed or out of time, it’s acceptable to ask for more time. Tell your partner you are still discussing the topic and require more time to reach a decision.
  4. Don’t forget that you are expected to question what you and your team are doing. Your Western boss will value opinions, especially if you catch a problem or mistake before it turns into a bigger one.

Probably the toughest change for someone from a high power distance culture to understand is that everyone is expected to provide critical feedback, challenge assumptions, and question what is going on. In business cultures such as America, Germany, and the United Kingdom, these are distinguishing characteristics.

The Best Strategy

Western businesses assume they should put their latest management theory into practice, not realizing that Management By Objective, Agile, Scrum, and other Western “best practices” don’t work in Asia. Managing a global team only works if everyone understands business cultural preferences. Management style needs to be appropriate within the team’s own culture. Also, make sure your project manager has ample experience in the culture at hand. Managing a team in China doesn’t qualify someone to manage a team in India.

Surviving The Asian Dinner Ritual

Westerners frequently miss the importance of the Asian dinner ritual. In fact, some Western business cultures, like the United States, keep personal relationships and business relationships so completely separate that the idea of one influencing the other is taboo. In Asia, the lines between business and personal relationships are very different. Misunderstanding this important cultural shift can lead to unrecoverable missteps.

Tips To Survive The Asian Dinner Ritual

Most Asian cultures place tremendous importance on building a strong relationship before entering into business together – or even before discussing business. Relationship building is an important precursor to developing a business relationship, and one of the best ways Asian business people get to know each other is over dinner and drinks.

Unlike in the West, the dinner ritual is not a celebration of a “done deal.” It’s part of the relationship-building in which Chinese, Japanese, and other Asian cultures invest so much importance. This is an opportunity to get to know your hosts, and vice-versa, but it’s definitely not about talking business. Expect to discuss everything except business, from the weather, to your family, to kids and hobbies. If your partners love American baseball or golf, the conversation will definitely go there. Women will often find themselves being faced with topics that are inappropriate in countries such as the United States, like what their plans for raising children are. The more open, honest, and genuine you are, the better to cement trust. This is where personal relationships are built, and business in Asia doesn’t happen without a strong relationship as a foundation.

Chinese Dim Sum in bamboo steamer
Chinese Dim Sum in bamboo steamer

Most of my clients ask about gifts. They are appropriate, usually after signing a business deal or finishing a tough negotiation or project together. As your relationship grows, it’s likely the gift giving will become more expensive. Start with rice wine (bai jiu), a good red wine (from your home region, if you live in a wine producing state), or expensive Chinese or U.S. brand cigarettes (most Chinese professionals drink and smoke). Remember the importance of “face.” If no one else brings a gift, give yours to the host privately so that you don’t embarrass the other dinner guests.

Heavy drinking is very common, but don’t overdo it. I recall one situation where an American employee got a little bit too drunk, and ended up being too straight-forward in his opinions about the project the team was working on. What he said was not complimentary to the team, and the next day I received a formal request to remove him from the project. While dinner parties can be a lot of fun, remember you are still building a relationship. Your host will be finding out who you really are, and decisions about your future business relationship will be based on the personal connection made, or not made. Let your host lead the toasts, and don’t think you’re in a drinking competition. Saying “I’ve had enough” helps your host gain face.

When it comes time to pay the bill, if you’ve been invited your host will pay. Your thanks will be welcome and appreciated. If you do feel the urge to pay, let your host know well ahead of time and avoid fighting over it at the table.

Also, if you have any special dietary requirements, let your host’s assistant know ahead of time. Your host will be very happy to accommodate your requirements, but keep in mind that events are usually planned days in advance, and you may be meeting new faces at dinner. Be considerate, and allow plenty of time to prepare.

Speaking of new faces, be sure to bring plenty of business cards. Exchange of business cards is an important ritual throughout Asia, and not having cards can be construed as disrespectful. When receiving or presenting a card, do it with two hands, thumb and forefinger grasping the corners of the card, and orient the card toward the person receiving it. A bow will often accompany receipt of a card, and you should always take time to read the card. This demonstrates respect for the person presenting it, and gives you the opportunity to find out who at the table is due the most respect.

Above all, be genuine and forthcoming, and get to know your host. By building a strong personal bond, you can look forward to a long and successful business relationship.

Risk Mitigation In Global Projects

I was recently asked what are the most relevant, pressing risks that affect global project management, and if I had any ideas regarding risk mitigation. Many come to mind but one stands out immediately: The most significant risk we routinely identify is a globally distanced team. This means geographic separation as well as cultural separation. 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 orientation, power distance, culture, and business environment all affect the organization.

The Top Risk: “Globally Distanced Teams”

Organizations facing these work environment risks need to put a considerable investment into risk mitigation — specifically, developing an early strategy to avoid serious long term problems stemming from a distanced team. It turns out that the risks of a distanced team are a principle reason that 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 the investment, 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. Open communication, information radiators, and visibility are central to successful projects, but these ideas will not solve the problem of communication alone. Closely related to language barriers are cultural barriers. Any barriers increase risk, and that means increasing efforts to compensate. The best performing teams create tightly integrated work environments, attend cross-cultural coaching, and set up an active program to educate everyone about the business cultural preferences of each organization.

Local business environment, cultural bias, and common assumption will contribute to the risk of global projects too, especially those separated by business culture. I once had a U.S. client developing a legal work product solution using East Indian resources. The lack of a common business foundation quickly lead to a serious disconnect regarding business objectives. Not only is the legal system in India much different from that of the U.S., but a pervasive lack of trust in the local legal system put a pall on the entire project. Only by tackling the problem of the disconnected team could the problem be solved. Our risk mitigation include extensive “cross pollination  between the teams, such as bringing all team leaders to the U.S. for extended work periods. This not only improved their understanding of the U.S. legal system, but also changed their perception of what a legal work product could, and should, do.

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. One common thread is communication. Every global project has to deal with this particular issue at some level. Breaking down these barriers by using process, technology and cultural integration is the key to success. The disconnected 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.”

[quote style=”boxed”]The globalPMguy blog is all about tackling the challenges of international projects. If you’re working with an international partner, in any way, be sure to keep reading![/quote]