Organizing Overseas Teams

Hi, I’m Zacharias Beckman, president of Hyrax International. When it comes to coordinating international projects, one of biggest challenges we hear about is staying on top of the project.

As an international project manager, you have to know how to stay organized, and you need to know what your team is doing. When you have several different teams, all spread around the world, that’s not always easy. You also need to make sure that one of your teams isn’t being held up, waiting on another team.

This is what Tanya ran into, at one of our clients. She had been managing a U.S.-based team. Her company had just bought a smaller firm in India, intending to set up a “follow the sun” strategy. With teams in the U.S. and India, they could move faster because one team would hand off work, at the end of the day, to their overseas counterparts.

But there was a problem. After a few months efficiency was falling, not improving. Tanya found that the teams were poorly coordinated, and more often than not one would end up waiting on the other one. Tanya needed to change her strategy to accommodate a global team. She had to refocus, and figure out how to get these teams collaborating smoothly despite a separation of over 10 hours.

She made two major changes, both of which focused on improving coordination.

She took a critical look at their project management system, and decided that it wasn’t up to the job. It had worked great when everyone was in one office. But now it had to deliver a new level of coordination. She needed something that could better drive the process, improve visibility to her management team, and show dependencies between team members. It was absolutely critical that everyone know, at any time, who was waiting on them. They also needed better requirements management, and better collaboration tools. Her new system gave them the tools, but it couldn’t solve the communication issues on its own.

Tanya also changed the team schedule, setting up short, collective meetings every day. To avoid burdening one team, she set a rotating schedule: meetings where held at 9am in the US twice a week, and 7pm twice a week, with no meeting on Friday. Team members had to join at least two meetings each week, but it was up to them to pick which ones.

Tanya’s changes showed almost immediate results. The teams became more coordinated, and situations where one team was held up waiting for another pretty much vanished.

In a multinational organization, it’s important to remember that remote teams can feel like they are in a vacuum, lacking communication or cut off. To compensate, a good manager has to be extra vigilant and put in good processes, and good tools, and also make sure that no one team becomes the favorite. Tanya spread the meetings out to share the burden of after hours meetings. By doing so, she also sent the message that both teams are equally important.

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.

How Business Culture Affects Your Business

Hi, I’m Zacharias Beckman, President of Hyrax International. We get a lot of questions about how business culture affects business on a day to day basis.

Sarah, a project manager here in America, is very successful at what she does. She’s got a lot of successful projects under her belt. But right now she’s having problems. It looks like the project that she is working on is going to ship late. There are lot of quality problems with it.  It’s over budget, it’s behind schedule, and Sarah is very frustrated. All of the techniques that she’s been using in the past aren’t working for her now. She feels like she is  not getting the feedback from her team that she’s used to getting. For example, she proposed some changes to quality assurance system and instead of getting feedbacks, there’re silence, delays and  then finally the team agreed to implement what she had proposed.

In a typical Western style, she is expecting very clear communication from her team.  Direct, critical feedback on the project and on the proposed changes that she is making. The problem is, her team is in Asia and they don’t think  that she knows she is doing. She asks too many questions. She doesn’t demonstrate the authority and the wisdom necessary for the team to feel like she’s in charge of the project.  They are not accustomed to this kind of management.

Sarah’s run into a couple of business cultural preferences. She’s experiencing power distance, which is the separation between a boss  and a subordinate, and how they ‘re allowed to communicate because of cultural constraints. And she’s also experiencing differences in communication style — the low context, direct communication of the West versus the very high context, rich and subtle communication of the East.

Sarah’s solution in this case is to get business cultural training and understand how her management style differs from what her team is used to and then adapt  her management program, her project management technique, to work well with her team is Asia.

Check our website for more information on both of these business cultural preferences. I’ve blogged about them quite a bit in the past.

And if you are managing an International multicultural team, it’s really important to understand how much business cultural preferences will affect your project and your management style. You need to be sure that the project management methods you’re putting into play, are going to work with your multinational team.

What Is “Saving Face” In Other Cultures?

What does “saving face” really mean? Westerners tend to think “face” means preserving one’s reputation… but that’s not right. It’s particularly important in high-context cultures, including most of Asia and the Middle East, where tradition is highly valued and the interests of the group outweigh the interests of the individual.

Hi, I’m Zacharias Beckman, President of Hyrax International and I wanted to speak briefly about “what is saving face.” Face is a collectivist notion. It’s something that applies in many Eastern cultures and as such it’s an extremely foreign idea to Western culture.

Misunderstanding “Saving Face”

So, here’s an example of how not understanding face can go wrong with Western and Eastern interaction. Let’s say you are a Western Manager, applying western management theory. So, if one person does a particularly good job, the natural thing to do is to reward that person, to call them out and tell them they did a better job, possibly give them a raise or some kind of a reward within the firm.

But, in Asian society, this actually sends the wrong message. What you’re doing is saying that the individual failed in their responsibility, to their group, to their fellow employees, because that person did not show those individuals how to perform well. So, the net result is you tell one person that they didn’t do a good job, and you tell the entire group that they also failed to do a good job, in this respect. It backfires terribly when Western managers do that with Eastern cultures. And this is a great example on why it is so important to really understand what face is whenever you are doing business with the East or the Middle East.

What is Face?

It was first defined by David Ho, a social scientist working in Hong Kong. He basically defines saving face as saying that face is lost when an individual, or someone who is closely related or connected to that individual, act in a way that fails to meet the social obligations that are set up for that person. In other words, if they don’t meet their social responsibility with family, with work, with their friends, then they loose face.

In Asia and the Middle East, having face is a very bankable notion. It is a literal translation, or a literal representation, of your status in society, of your reputation and your abilities to fulfill your obligation within that social network. Because collectivist societies are so tightly integrated and tightly social, there is only one face. Social, work, family, it’s all integrated into a single representation of who that person is. That means that your face at work and your face at home can be damaged in the same way.

If you’d like to see another take on saving face, check out this short video (the bit on saving face is in the latter half of the video).

Managing Time In Different Cultures

Meeting deadlines and managing project workflows when working with people from different nationalities can be one of the most challenging aspects of managing intercultural business relationships. Different cultures have very different perspectives when it comes to the importance and flow of time.

Hi, I’m Zacharias Beckman, President of Hyrax International. Somebody asked me recently how different cultures think about time, and I thought the best way to explain that would be with a short story.

Recently, I moderated a panel, here in the United States. In order to prepare for the panel I put together about seven slides that introduced the topic, which was the global economy, and each of the panel members. But, when I ran those slides by the panel coordinator, she was really concerned that I would take too much time. I had seven slides, she told me I had only four minutes, to go through the entire introduction.

So we start the panel presentation, everything goes great. We get through the introduction, less than four minutes, and we start the panelist’s portion. Now, during the panelist’s presentation, she is sitting right up in front, where I can see her, holding up cards to show us how much time is left. 30 minutes, 20 minutes, 10 minutes, 5… 2… and the last card, a big zero on it, to show that we are done. You have to stop now. So we end up wrapping up the panel at exactly 60 minutes, when the panel coordinator comes up to the podium and makes it clear that we’re done, even though there were still a lot of people raising their hands and wanting to ask questions. This is typical in the United States, and few other Western cultures where time is so important — it rules all.

Now lets compare this to my very first experience teaching, offering  a presentation, in Asia. I went there with all of these preconceptions about how important time is. As I was preparing for the presentation, I asked the Project Manager, how much time should I take and he said, “ohh… you know, about an hour. That’s fine. You do whatever you think is right.” Well, being American, I planned exactly for one hour.

Now, the next day, when the presentation starts, I’m really stressed out. Because it’s 10 o’clock, we are supposed to be starting, and people are just starting to show up. I hurriedly asked the Project Manager, “Do you want me to shrink the presentation, because we are late, I could pull it down to 45 minutes or so.” And he says, “Oh, you know, if you think that’s right, you do whatever you think is best. 45 minutes would be fine.” So, on the fly, I cut pieces out and we wrap it up in 45 minutes.

The presentation went well, but afterwards when I am talking with the Project Manager, he asked me, “Why did you finish so soon? Everybody was loving it! They had so many questions! We could have gone for another hour, or another two.” So it turns out that I had sent the wrong message. I had said that my time was more important than spending time with the group, answering their questions.

It’s important when we are working in a multinational context to be flexible and to be observant. To ask somebody, what does the local culture expect and to look for hints. I would have been better served to have paused the presentation and ask the Project Manager, “Do we need to finish up now? Does the team need to get back to work? Or should we keep going?” Remember that particularly in Asia, the focus won’t be on time, it’s going to be on developing a relationship… the focus is going be on you.

Should I Translate My Business Card?

Exchanging business cards (or “name cards” as they are called in China) is an important ritual throughout the business world. The business card is part of your introduction and, in many cultures, it’s unforgivable if you don’t have a professional card. But in an increasingly Global business world, there are linguistic and cultural considerations too… So should you translate your card, and if so, how many times?

Hi, I am Zacharias Beckman, President of Hyrax International. I recently had a client ask me if they should translate their business card into another language, for the clients they are working with around the world. This really depends on what kind of a business you are in, for one thing. Let’s say, for example, you are a U.S. based importer bringing products into the U.S. from around the world. You probably wouldn’t need to translate your card in this case because for one thing, your suppliers are going to expect to doing business with you in English. But, on the other hand, translating your card into many different languages, for every country you do business with, would probably be impractical.

Now, another possibility is, let’s say you are a language translation company and it’s important that you demonstrate competence and ability in certain languages. In this case you probably would want to translate your card, or at least some part of your card, to indicate that you support all these different languages in your translation service.

Reputation also matters. Having a U.S. based business does bring a certain degree of credibility to you. So, translating in English card into other languages isn’t always necessary. Sometimes leaving it in English is actually the right choice. We actually have had our clients tell us that we should just leave our card in English, because it provides a certain amount of credibility.

But probably the most important deciding factor is going to be whether or not language is a barrier. For example, if you’re doing a lot of business in China, with people who predominantly speak Mandarin, you should definitely translate the back side of your card into Mandarin. On the other hand, if you’re working in India, this strategy is unnecessary. Almost every professional is going to speak English and they are probably going to give you an English card, anyhow. Different countries have different rules. In Africa, for instance, you’ll be fine with English cards. But, if you’re going into South America, most likely you should have a Spanish translation because Spanish is widely used in business throughout South America.

Whatever you decide, be practical. I recently met somebody who had not less than five different business cards stuffed into his wallet, and it took him about thirty seconds to find the right one to give me. And it was a very awkward moment. If you work predominantly with one country, then consider translating your card so that you have your native language on the front and a foreign language at the back and leave it at that. On the other hand, if you work with many different countries, then you might want to consider translating your tagline or perhaps your company slogan, and you can do that with a couple of different languages. That will indicate your support of different languages without having five different cards stuffed into your wallet.

Overseas Vendor Versus Partner

While doing business overseas, the very term “outsourcing” implies a certain detachment and distance, ripping it out of your own company and leaving it for another to do. This is usually justified by the argument that the partner/vendor can get the job done more effectively and quickly. That may be true, but will they do it on their own, just because they have signed a contract to do so? Or should you build a closer, more trusted relationship?

Hi, I’m Zacharias Beckman, President of Hyrax International, and I want to talk briefly about working with vendors versus working with partners, in your overseas adventure. Choosing the right kind of relationship is really critical. Sometimes a vendor relationship is a right way to go. Vendors are going to be easy to find. You can search the internet and quite likely come up with a number of vendors that’ll fulfill your need. They are going to be turnkey. They are going to be ready to business. Vendors are easy to engage, but, at the same time, they are not going to be looking out your best interests. They’re going to be making a profit, looking at their bottom line.

In an international setting you are throwing a lot more complexity into the mix. For example, legal agreements are going to have different meanings in different cultures. They’re also going to be much harder to enforce if you do need to enforce the agreement. And then, finally, you’ve got to deal with different country law and international law. So, the bottom line is many times when you engage a overseas vendor, if there is a problem, it’s just not practical to actually enforce a legal agreement.

When you engage with a partner, you are looking for somebody who is vested in your own well being. This is going to be a long term relationship and mutual success is what’s going to drive it. The advantage with a partner is that they are going to understand the local market better than you do. They are also going to understand local business culture and business law. So, they are going to guide you in your efforts overseas.  They will give you strategic advice that is better than your typical vendor relationship will deliver. They are more vested in mutual well being.

But, that said, finding a partner can be lot more difficult. Getting a partnership off the ground in the East or Middle East or South America is not going to be a simple numbers driven equation. Most cultures are going to want to build a strong relationship before they start talking about their partnership. It’s going to take time. It will take months in many cases and it requires a personal presence. Going to the other country, meeting with your prospective partners, socializing, developing the personal relationship, getting to know each other, and then opening up the door to a long term, very successful business relationship. Most business relationships around the world take time to build. The cultures of Brazil, Russia, India, China, most of Asia — these are relationship driven cultures. They are not going to just jump into business.