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.

What you won’t get out of your certification

When it comes to project management certification, there’s no doubt quite a few options available. The real question is, do you know what you’re getting with a shiny new certification (such as PMI’s PMP, or IPMA’s Level A through D)?

Certification programs are more about demonstrating your competency than about learning how to manage. Consider this: PMP and IPMA certification takes you through a process guide and an examination that you can easily enough prepare for in a few weeks. The process guide itself is a valuable reference, a great way to organize all the possible areas of knowledge in a project — but it’s just that. A process guide is largely a checklist, giving you a tool to make sure all the right pieces of a project are in motion.

The other part of the certification process is the exercise of documenting your experience, as a project manager, and having the certifying organization vet your experience (although the vetting process is often cursory). It’s supposed to show the world that you have a certain level of project management competence. It is explicitly not going to teach you that competency. The real theory behind PMP certification is that by achieving it, you have demonstrated relevant competency as a project management professional. There’s a good bit of debate regarding the value of this certification: How well does the PMI do in vetting experience? Is there any qualitative distinction in the evaluation? I’ve seen a few terrible managers get their PMP by documenting their management of projects that were miserable failures.

For the most part, deciding whether a candidate’s PMP or IPMA certification (or lack thereof) is valuable lies with the employer. For the individual, I always recommend learning the bodies of knowledge, so long as you are fully aware of what you’re getting. Here are a few of the things that either program won’t prepare you for:

  1. Project management is more about management, and less about process. Most of the certification programs out there tend to emphasize the latter, the process, and spend little time on the “soft and fuzzy” bits: People. The fact is, this is where you’ll succeed or fail. It often comes down to how good you are at picking up on subtle (and not so subtle) cues between team members, sponsors, and stakeholders. There is no certification program in the world that will teach you how to be a great manager — that requires experience, more than anything else (but if you have a degree from a top management school it’s bound to help).
  2. The rosy project you just inherited is actually completely out of touch with reality. More often than not businesses will commit to a project that can’t be met (often establishing budgets and schedules in the process). Studies by Standish and KPMG bear this out, pointing at 70% of projects failing to meet cost, schedule, and quality goals.
  3. Identifying all the right pieces of a project is just the beginning. For example, knowing who the stakeholders are (an important step in the PMBOK) is the easy part. You’ll spend far more time motivating them, coordinating their schedules, dealing with stakeholders that want your project to fail (or just don’t care about it), responding to impossible demands, and figuring out what everyone’s secret agenda is all about.
  4. You’ll need to be good at managing other people’s anger and frustration. Part of being a strong manager is knowing how to evaluate the project dynamics, and then make the right decision. Most of the time, you won’t find a rosy world where everyone agrees about what has to be done. You’ll be stepping inside someone else’s world, and messing with it. You’ll have to tell people to do things they don’t agree with, or don’t want to do. You’ll have to step in and change everything, and people don’t like change.
  5. Your certification didn’t warn you about some of the important bits. There is no such thing as a comprehensive process guide or methodology that gives you all the answers. Some guides are really good in some areas, and horrible in others. The PMBOK, for example, spends precious little time talking about quality assurance and risk management — so little, in fact, that without turning elsewhere you won’t have any idea what these two things are, how important they are, or what to do about them.
  6. You are actually not ready to manage a large scale project simply because you’ve earned your PMP/IPMA/PRINCE2 certification. These certification programs document your past experience, and your basic knowledge of the relevant process guides. Unfortunately, splashy advertising sells certification, so I’m sure we’ll keep seeing claims such as “everything you need to manage complex projects!” It’s a lie.

Deciding whether obtaining a certification is worthwhile or not is a personal decision. I definitely recommend learning the reference material — and after all, if you learn the PMBOK, it’s not much more work to get a PMP certification. Just be honest with yourself about what it means. Being a good project manager means having the experience to guide an organization toward success, not just recite the process guide. I always recommend starting small and finding out what your personal aptitude for management is.

Your key to success as a project manager is going to hinge on your ability to listen to others, learn from others, and always be open and ready to support your team. You’ll need to turn to other people and other sources of information. Be humble, never let obstacles derail you, and make sure your team knows they can rely on you for support. These are the things you don’t find in the process guides.

The good (and bad) about Project Management School

I’m frequently asked what I think of certifications such as the Project Management Institute’s PMP, or its other programs. Generally I’ll say that programs such as these (including those offered by IPMA, and the UK’s PRINCE2) are valuable tools to know. They represent bodies of knowledge that any project manager should be aware of. In fact, I’ll go so far as to say that any project manager that is serious about their career should be well versed in more than one body of knowledge, able to recite the encyclopedia of information offered, and above all, be aware that neither will teach you to be a good project manager.

There’s a host of information you won’t get in school (not even from a top tier management school, let alone a certification program you can cram for in less than two weeks). And that leads me to the value of the certification itself. Here I’ll generally weigh in saying “it’s up to you.” If you feel going through the certification process will be a helpful learning experience, then by all means do it. On the other hand, getting the certification will neither teach you to be a good project manager, nor will it have a great impact on your career.

It’s important to realize that the Project Management Institute (or PMI) is not a standards body. PMI is a for-profit company that sells several products, and those products are all essentially based in the PMBOK (for example, you can seek certification as a Project Management Professional, or PMP, through PMI’s certification process). This imposes a couple of limitations on the concept of the PMBOK being a robust standard:

  1. Successful standards bodies are international in nature, and the best of them are completely unbiased — something that usually requires forming a body that is not motivated by profit attached to its own products. PMI is, ultimately, concerned with corporate profitability, and this has led to some debate regarding whether the PMBOK has evolved first-and-foremost as a leading project management standard or as a product that PMI can easily sell.
  2. PMI tends to be very insular in its thinking. By this I mean that it does not extensively rely on third party standards — quite the opposite, in fact. The PMBOK is almost exclusively a self-contained work. It does not reference the 50 years of decision management theory that constitute strong risk management practices. Nor does it reference other standards, such as the ISO’s work on quality management. This, naturally, tends to keep people more involved in the PMI’s products, as opposed to moving into other standards.
  3. The PMBOK standard is unquestionably a solid reference volume with extensive project management knowledge — however, it also has startling weaknesses. For example, it’s coverage of risk management and quality management is largely negligent, and it’s strong focus on technical knowledge completely ignores the human factors addressed by methods such as Kanban.

The PMI’s Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK) represents a strong reference guide, and one that I turn to when appropriate as a process guide — but its very strength as a reference text also makes it a poor companion for someone looking for a comprehensive project management methodology. It lacks the practical, hands-on information needed to apply much of the knowledge it presents.

That tends to mean that novice project managers turn to the PMBOK far too often, hoping that it will solve management problems (it won’t). Experienced project managers recognize that it’s a process guide, and nothing more — which means it’s a provides a great checklist to make sure all the right pieces are being executed, but it does little to tell you how to execute those pieces. That comes from experience. The experience of managing people, learning how teams work together (and often don’t work together), how to motivate and communicate, and how to see problems coming before they hit you.

The bottom line is simply this: No school, and especially not one offering a short certification program, can teach you to be a good manager. That’s what project management is all about — it’s not the technical process, more often than not, but the personal factors and the management skills that make or break a project. So yes, get familiar with all the standards, bodies of knowledge, and process guides you can. Learn what you can from each, and use that knowledge as a reference when deciding how your project will be run. But don’t ever assume that this encyclopedia of knowledge has taught you how to manage successfully. That’s going to take management training and experience — more the latter than the former, in my opinion. A lot of it, most likely.

Training versus development

Mike Myatt, Chief Strategy Officer N2growth, recently posted a very savvy article regarding the difference between training (a typically rote, stale process) and development (more dynamic, needs-based, and effective) in the context of leadership. What I really liked is his point-by-point comparison of the strengths and weakness of training versus development:

  1. Training focuses on the present — Development focuses on the future.
  2. Training focuses on technique — Development focuses on talent.
  3. Training adheres to standards — Development focuses on maximizing potential.
  4. Training focuses on maintenance — Development focuses on growth.
  5. Training focuses on the role — Development focuses on the person.
  6. Training indoctrinates — Development educates.
  7. Training maintains status quo — Development catalyzes innovation.
  8. Training stifles culture — Development enriches culture.
  9. Training encourages compliance — Development emphasizes performance.
  10. Training focuses on efficiency — Development focuses on effectiveness.
  11. Training focuses on problems — Development focuses on solutions.
  12. Training focuses on reporting lines — Development expands influence.
  13. Training is mechanical — Development is intellectual.
  14. Training focuses on the knowns — Development explores the unknowns.
  15. Training is finite — Development is infinite.

I couldn’t agree more. When it comes to leadership development, you can’t “train the leader.” Training on technical, procedural topics is of course highly effective, but leadership requires too much contextual differentiation, too much innovation, and frankly relies much more on innate skills that can only be developed over time, not absorbed from a short training course.

Dealing with negativity in the team

You are leading a star project team working on a challenging project when you noticed a particular team member spreading negativity, rumors among peers. You are afraid this negative behavior will bring whole team’s morale down. What would you do in this situation?

Every individual is different, and every situation is going to require a different response. Temper tantrums, sexist remarks, chronic lateness, information hoarding, playing favourites … people don’t always behave themselves at work. An adept manager needs to understand the individual nuances of the situation and act accordingly. You need finesse, insight into your team, an understanding of psychology, and often, incredible patience. Here are a few strategies that I always like to try.

1. Engage the malcontent

Quite often, the negative attitude comes from feelings of being disengaged from the team or the project. Perhaps the individual thinks he could do the job better; perhaps he isn’t working on what he wants to work on; or, just feels the project is heading in the wrong direction. Most often negativity stemming from these problems will surface in a team setting, such as passive aggressive behavior, grumbling, openly showing dislike for decisions. I like to engage this individual in finding a solution. Hand accountability to that individual and, in essence, give full reign to fix the problem. With accountability often comes responsibility — and the need to realize that decisions are not always quite as simple as they appear on the surface. Of course, sometimes the individual makes a mistake — but in this case, the lesson is still learned. They “get their way,” but also find out that “their way” wasn’t, afterall, the right way. Of course you’ve got to strive for a better outcome — assign responsibility, and then back them up. Make sure they’ve got resources and help in the decision making process. Hopefully it becomes a learning experience for everyone.

2. Reach consensus

Sometimes it’s not practical to let an individual run with their own ideas. Yet, still you have someone that feels “things” are heading in the wrong direction. I like to try to reach consensus or, failing that, at least agreement that we’ve made the right choices given what we know. One approach is to schedule a round table with the malcontent and his peers, perhaps 3-4 people. Discuss the problem, and try to reach agreement on direction. In the best case, his peers will sway his opinion. More often, the complexities, choices and decisions that have led to the current situation will be discussed — and the “black and white” situation fades in favor of many choices, and trying to make “the best one.” With a little luck, the malcontent employee walks out of the round table with two things: 1) a sense of having been engaged in the decision making process and 2) a new appreciation for the complexity at hand, and the decisions that have been made.

3. Make it clear that it’s a team effort

A one-on-one discussion goes a long way. Spend some time with the individual and really try to listen, and understand what the problem is. Come up with some mutual objectives — some things for the individual to work on (these might be soft skills, such as being less negative) as well as some things for you to work on (these will be things to help ameliorate the bad attitude, such as making sure his opinion is part of the decision process). Make sure it’s mutual, and show some real effort here — there’s tremendous value in demonstrating how much you value each individual’s contribution. Work with the individual to address the problems and find solutions.

4. If all else fails…

If you still have a problem employee on your hand after making a sincere effort to fix the problem, you’ve got to make it clear that continued negative behavior will not be tolerated. You also need to be prepared, so document the problems. Keep a record. After some time, it will become a matter of reprimanding and giving specific, required objectives. This is the worst case scenario and more often that not, the first step toward losing an employee. Sometimes it’s a “wake up call” to the individual, but often this kind of heavy-handed approach just feeds the negativity. Be prepared for either outcome.

Wayne McHale was a senior manufacturing executive when he heard reports that one of his branch offices was getting fed up with the arrogant, condescending attitude of a new manager. He decided to pay a personal visit to the office and put an end to the situation right away. “I made it absolutely clear that while we were delighted to have him on the team, certain behaviours could not be tolerated in a team environment,” says Mr. McHale. “He was taken aback, initially, because I think the behaviours were somewhat ingrained. He was a star and had been told for too long that he was wonderful.”

Whatever the case, make sure you have a good documented history. You can use it when talking about the problem with the employee, making sure you have concrete references to poor behavior. In the worst case situation, you can also use it to back up termination papers.

Above all else, don’t be an enabler

Some organizations actually nurture bad behaviour, according to Lew Bayer, president and CEO of Civility Experts Worldwide. For example, an all-star employee with a primadonna attitude may be tolerated because a manager decides it’s too costly or too much hassle to seek a replacement. Or perhaps certain rules may not apply to someone who has formed a friendship with a senior manager. In situations like this, it’s often the boss that’s the problem.

You can’t avoid dealing with workplace performance issues — it will come back to haunt you in the long term. Perhaps other employees will get fed up and quit. The problem employee might have a temper tantrum in front of a client. It’s hard to predict but one thing is almost certain: It’s going to happen at the worst time, when stress is high and a lot is on the line. Ignoring the issue won’t make it go away; it will just get worse.

Don’t wait until the problem becomes a problem for everyone. Be proactive, and recognize that the workplace is above all a place for professionalism. If your star performer is worth keeping, coaching can help. If your disaffected team member needs to feel involved, a few changes can make that happen. But, only if he’s open to the idea. If not, it may be time to take more direct action in order to preserve the integrity of your team.

Boomers at the exit gates

Organizations across the globe are trying to come to grips with a new corporate  challenge; one created by millions of employees who make up the boomer generation, who are poised to leave the working world, for golf, sailing, gardening or playing with the grandkids.

In some cases the departure of these senior employees will allow younger managers to step up to the plate to fill the void, but not everyone is ready, or even wants the next rung on the corporate ladder. So the question becomes:  After all you’ve gone through during this recession, can your organization survive the holes these departures will create? Do you have a well developed Succession Plan with Knowledge Transfer processes in place?

Many managers faced with a looming shortage of employees have reconsidered their business model; to find alternative ways to serve the client, build their products, distribute the materials, but a reinvention of their strategy simply brings new challenges to the fore.

Take the case of one of our clients who decided to outsource some aspects of their work to deal with looming labour shortages. They were in for a nasty surprise. A few months ago we conducted a risk assessment and  they found to their horror that not only were their boomers poised to flee, so were some of their specialists — the “go to” people others rely upon to do their work.  The newly outsourced work was what these ‘specialists’ enjoyed, so instead of taking on new responsibilities, which were less appealing, they were seriously considering offers of work at the outsourcing company! Clearly a game plan was required to stall a potentially disastrous situation.

Traditional succession planning identifies high potential employees and implements long range plans to develop those people so they are well equipped to lead in the future. The focus is on core competencies, business knowledge, technical skills and sound judgement that will lead to solid business decisions. Mentors are enlisted from the senior ranks to pass on savvy business knowledge to new incumbents. Short term overlaps are permitted so a veteran of the job can coach a neophyte.

But what can a company do when the mentor has retired or the specialist now works elsewhere?

How can crucial knowledge be retained for organizational health and continuity?

Knowledge Transfer has become the latest ‘buzz’ as leaders, faced with the loss of people and corporate knowledge, struggle to retain information that is vital and which has contributed to their present success.

New people to the company don’t know what they don’t know, so important questions are not asked. The soon-to-retire employees who have been operating smoothly for years; often don’t know what is vital — what to keep or toss — and the clock is ticking ever closer to their departure. Some, on the other hand, know exactly what to hang on to for that lucrative consulting job they envisage after their retirement and guard it jealously from their colleagues for fear of losing their distinct advantage.

So, getting vital knowledge from individuals and passing it to the right people, in a way that can be understood and assimilated quickly and accurately, is the challenge that will be facing most business leaders for the next two to three years.

We suggest you implement a few simple things to protect your company from a major risk.

  1. Pinpoint how many people will be leaving within the next three years and develop a strategy to capture their knowledge now before it’s too late.
  2. Identify who your Subject Matter Experts (SME’s) are and determine their unique advantage — what makes them so valuable to your organization?
  3. Consider doing some serious cross training to reduce your vulnerability, build capacity and engage employees in building a better workplace.
  4. Develop a data base with SME’s, lesson’s learned and past practices so people can source information as and when they need it.
  5. Start a community of practice so people are encouraged and supported to share information freely with colleagues.
  6. Reward people for building your internal capacity when they mentor, coach or lead information sessions.

If you pondered for a minute when you might get around to this — stop thinking — start taking action now, the days, months and years are slipping past very, very quickly. Is your organization going to be a risk?

Heather Hughes, CMC is a Certified Management Consultant with a 30 year international track record. She specializes in building vibrant organizations through Leadership Coaching, Succession Planning, Knowledge Transfer and Employee Engagement.