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.

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 Leadership Differs Around The World

British linguist Richard D. Lewis has explored in depth how leadership style differs across cultures and countries. His diagrams of Leadership Styles, published in When Cultures Collide, offer wonderful insight into why so many multinational efforts run into problems. Anyone doing business across borders needs to understand these differences and adapt their own style accordingly.

Different Culture, Different Leadership

Leadership Styles
Leadership Styles

The variation of styles — from structured individualism of America, to consensus rule of Asia — fit  preconceptions about foreign culture. Even so, it’s important to understand the meaning behind each model, and also be aware of individual variation. The models are not unilaterally true across a country. Every individual will have their own blended style of leadership.

See Lewis’ Leadership Styles diagrams, inset, but also be aware that stereotyping is risky, as Lewis himself warns: “Determining national characteristics is treading a minefield of inaccurate assessment and surprising exception. There is, however, such a thing as a national norm.”

Lewis also argues that these cultural characteristics won’t change anytime soon. He writes, “Deeply rooted attitudes and beliefs will resist a sudden transformation of values when pressured by reformists, governments or multinational conglomerates.” While the “Westernization” of many Eastern countries gets a lot of press, most of these changes are superficial. Cultural preferences are deeply rooted. We learn about our culture from birth. Especially in countries with thousands-years-old history and culture, changes are slow to emerge. Stated more directly: Individuals may jump at the chance to adopt foreign practices, such as capital investment, but this doesn’t mean they are also adopting Western culture.

Management gurus have time and again tried to quantify and distill the secret of successful management into an easily followed formula. Peter Drucker, James Champy, Frederick Taylor, Henri Foyal, Frederick Brooks, and Mike Hammer have all put down their thoughts on the topic. But each has placed a Western emphasis on their particular management magic (and, except for Foyal, a very American emphasis).

As I’ve pointed out many times, cultural conflict is common across multinational organizations. Learning how to avoid the conflict — misunderstandings, misinterpretation, and direct cultural incompatibility — is the first step.

Multinational Leadership Success

There is no single management tool that can work in the global landscape. The cultural intricacies that define how people interact, both in a business setting and a social setting, run far too deep. And, just as management styles depend on environment, so do our relationship-building tools. Creating a successful International business relationship depends so strongly on cross-cultural awareness, in fact, that without extensive exposure to foreign culture most efforts are rife with failure.

Check out this short six-part series that talks about how business cultural preferences affect 27 project management disciplines.

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.

Identity 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.

Identity is how we perceive ourselves in relationship to our family, associates, and friends. The individualist focuses on the personal. Such a typical Westerner might think about how they can “get ahead” of everyone else, “stand out from the crowd,” and show off their individual capabilities.

But the vast majority of cultures don’t prioritize the individual. Where the Westerner might think of “I,” someone from a collectivist culture would often think “We.” The group comes first, and is placed ahead of the individual. There is a core belief in the power of the group, and a corresponding feeling that individuals can only play a useful role in society through group involvement. Rather than stand out, the collectivist wants to be a part of the group and support common group goals. In this case, “standing out” is actually a bad thing.

Understanding this is absolutely essential to healthy team dynamics.

Why Identity Matters

Roy, a project manager in the United States, learned about identity the hard way. He had been overseeing work with a partner firm in Japan. The partner firm, responsible for tailoring Roy’s product to fit into Japanese culture, had done a great job. In particular, Roy felt that Masakuni, one of the product designers, had really done exceptional work. He wanted to reward the team, and he wanted to show everyone what a great job Masakuni had done.

As a reward, Roy called the team together to celebrate. He told everyone that the product redesign was a success, and he asked Masakuni to step forward. He told the team that because of Masakuni’s exceptional efforts, their U.S. employer was particularly happy. He went on to add that everyone would be receiving a bonus, but that Masakuni could expect “something extra” for all of his hard work.

Roy shook everyone’s hand. There were smiles all around and it seemed to Roy that he had done the right thing — until the next day. Masakuni did not come to work. Roy had an unexpected meeting on his calendar with the Japanese firm’s general manager. The general manager — fortunately, someone that was very multicultural, and who understood American culture — explained the problem. Masakuni had resigned because he had failed his coworkers. Roy’s congratulatory speech had in fact singled out Masakuni as someone that had not supported his own team. He had not shown them how to excel, just as he had. And by keeping that knowledge to himself, it was self serving: Masakuni had lost face with his group, and with his employer.

The Global Project Compass identifies the following management disciplines as being most directly affected by identity:

  1. Team & Human Resources Management
  2. Training Needs Assessment
  3. Independent Verification & Validation
  4. Assessing Outcomes

Team & Human Resources Management

As Roy learned in the story above, team dynamics is complicated in a multicultural situation. How we motivate team members, how we communicate with them, and how we expect them to communicate with us is essential to good management. Without understanding the more subtle aspects of business culture, managing a team becomes impossible.

Training Needs Assessment

All employees expect to have opportunities for growth. But people in different cultures anticipate receiving these opportunities in varied ways. For example, in many collectivist cultures the boss is expected to look out for employees, and provide guidance regarding a career path. But individualists expect to take action on their own, let their boss know what they would like, and push for what they want. If you don’t understand the right approach, team members will soon be left wondering if there is a future for them at the firm.

Independent Verification & Validation

Independent expertise can be highly valued. But, trusting a third party to ensure the success of a product or service is rife with cultural implications. The individualist approach tends to favor unbiased service providers with a strong track record, and no connection to the firm. The collectivist approach tends to favor trusted, well-known partners with strong connections within the group. It’s a different point of view that can lead to internal conflict in multinational organizations.

Assessing Outcomes

When assessing outcomes, a skilled multicultural manager needs to understand the dynamics of the team. A manager accustomed to individualist teams will naturally look to identify high performers. The individualist team, while working to succeed as a group, will ultimately be motivated to achieving individual goals (such as career advancement). But the collectivist manager will instead assess the team as a whole, understanding that individual performance (whether strong or weak) is, in many regards, left to the group to manage.

Identity is core to a person’s view of self image. The strong individualist employee will look for validation of their abilities, performance, and self worth. The collectivist employee will instead perceive their value in terms of how their work benefits the social “in group,” including family and associates. Benefits and rewards must be appropriate. For example, offering a great opportunity at a new company may not be exciting to a group-oriented person. Such a change means leaving their “in group” behind. It might be viewed as a loss of face — whereas the individualist is more likely to see it a chance to excel.

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.

Time Orientation 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.

How we think of time is a tricky subject, and one that varies from one culture to another, as I’ve talked about before. Does your culture view time as more fluid, a resource that is infinite? Or is timeliness and meeting deadlines of critical importance?

Time, Projects, And Business

In the project context, time becomes very meaningful. To the business, meeting a product delivery date can be the difference between success and failure — but, at the same time, different cultures will view the importance of meeting that date relative to other priorities. In strongly relationship-driven cultures, for example, the date is subordinated to relationship building. Customer happiness may be more important than shipping before the Christmas buying season. It can also imply an expectation of tolerance and understanding when dates slip.

Time can have a dramatic impact on our business relationships as well. When Japan and Australia entered into a sugarcane export agreement, conditions where beneficial for both parties. As time changed market conditions, Japan ended up with the “dirty end of the stick.” But the relationship-centered business model of Japan led to a huge misunderstanding when Australia refused to renegotiate business terms — in essence, Australia felt the timing of the deal was good fortune for them, while Japan expected that business terms would adjust as time went on. A very fixed versus fluid perspective (and one that resulted in a long and nasty dispute).

The American phrase “time is money” indicates how the typical American prioritizes time, but this approach never works in a culture that prioritizes the relationship (meaning, most of the Middle East, South America, and Asia). To these cultures, it’s more important to get to know each other, to build a trusting relationship, and then begin talking about business. There will always be time to make money together — in the future. Anyone that rushes the process is probably going to be viewed as impetuous, unreliable, or even untrustworthy.

The Global Project Compass™ identifies the following management disciplines as being most directly affected by time orientation:

  1. Project Time Estimation
  2. Quality Assurance Plan
  3. Requirements Management
  4. Testing Plan
  5. Acceptance Plan
  6. Performance Measurement

Project Time Estimation

Probably one of the most obvious consequences of viewing time differently is how we estimate time. Is that estimate a “drop dead” date that we absolutely will meet, no matter what? Or is it an average of where we’ll end up if all goes reasonably according to plan? Might it merely be a hopeful guess at what could be possible?

Depending on your culture, any of these options will be true. Understanding how your partner’s culture views time is crucial to knowing what a project estimate means.

Quality Assurance Plan

Planning the successful — and problem free — launch of any product demands forethought. It demands awareness and convergence of many different plans: Research, development, supply, construction, testing, marketing, customer support, distribution, and more. In a multinational situation, supply chain logistics and regional conditions ranging from weather, product availability, and local holidays play into it.

Assuming a quality assurance organization that is timely and schedule driven, it’s not hard to imagine how difficult their job must be. Consider a global team, where different offices have different notions about the priority and meaning of “time.”

And finally, ask yourself: How does our quality assurance organization, itself, think about time? Is being on time important? Is it one of the quality metrics they are watching out for?

Requirements Management

Are the requirements known at the outset of your project? Or are they vague and fuzzy, with new features “popping up” here and there? Scope creep, or the unending addition of new requirements, is one of the most dramatic influencers on a project.

If your business cares about setting a clear end-point for a project, the team needs to understand that. In cultures where time is fluid, the idea that a product is set in stone and cannot change will seem irrationally rigid and short-sighted. At the same time, projects that seem to shift like a sand dune under someone’s feet will drive a sequential, time-oriented person crazy.

Setting the right expectations is part of the solution, but also knowing how to leverage the strengths of each perspective is key.

Testing And Acceptance

Different products take different approaches to testing. Software can begin testing early in the product life cycle, while manufactured goods need to be tested once they come off the production line. In all cases, though, testing and acceptance is critical and needs to happen at the right time, and in the most effective way.

Both are “critical paths,” too. This means that someone, somewhere, is waiting on the results of testing or acceptance.

Will your testing team be ready to go at the right time? Will the right urgency be applied to the process — or will testing be run like like a fluid project, adding new requirements on the fly?

Time Orientation: Fixed Or Fluid?

Understanding time orientation means knowing how to build a healthy organization — one that supports the time orientation of its employees, without sacrificing necessary business goals. It’s a tough topic to master, because how we think about time is so deeply ingrained in our subconscious. It’s a part of who we are, and changing that doesn’t come naturally.

Think about how you feel, when kept waiting in the conference room for the other team. Are they late, rudely wasting your time — or are they instead thoughtfully giving you a few extra minutes to prepare, while they respectfully and unhurriedly wrap up another meeting?

Think about how hard it will be to change that initial, first reaction, the next time someone is “late,” or seems offended that you are not “prompt.”

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.