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.

Engagement Style 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.

Engagement Style

Do we get right down to business, without knowing much about the other person — or, do we build a strong and trusting relationship, only talking about business after we know each other well?

Sending a delegate to represent an American company must be well thought out before departure. This delegate must have authority as well as longevity in the organization. Replacing delegates during the relationship should be done with care and planning. The new contact will need to be brought in slowly to transition the relationship. It is wise for American firms to engage more than one delegate to a relationship with the BRIC or they risk the business leaving with a delegate who departs. — Moore, Brandi, The Little BRIC Book.

Most cultures throughout the world choose the latter path: A relationship-driven engagement style. Conducting business outside of the “in group,” the trusted circle of family, associates, and professional contacts that you know well, is unheard of. It is far better to go into business with someone that you know well, even if the price or product isn’t the best. You know what you’ll be getting. Furthermore, the combined influence of your in group means everyone will do their best for you — and if they don’t, there are always solutions to improve the situation.

The Western, venture-driven style is very different. It’s found in relatively few cultures — probably less than 10% or so of the world. America is perhaps the most dramatic example of a culture that believes in doing business first. It’s a message driven culture, promoting products, uniformity, and a “best product and best price gets the business” ideal. Some of this ideal is beginning to leak into other cultures, but culture doesn’t change quickly.

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

  1. Accounting Policy & Costing
  2. Risk Management
  3. Procedure & Outsourcing Management
  4. Business Continuity & Recovery
  5. Information Assurance & Security

Accounting Policy & Costing

Policies regarding accounting and cost management are deeply affected by engagement style. Strongly relationship driven cultures tend to support more relaxed, flexible policies when it comes to managing the flow of money. This flexibility affords hiring family members, awarding favored contracts to close allies, and giving favors such as gifts for professional favors.

Unlike relationship driven cultures, many cultures focus on cost and performance first, and enact policies accordingly.

Venture driven cultures tend to support stronger accounting and cost management policies, leaning more heavily on the rules of business. This is particularly true in countries such as the United States, Switzerland, and Germany. In such cultures, the favoritism afforded by strong relationships is regarding as nepotism or corruption.

It’s important to remember that both systems are unique and both kinds of cultures feel their system works very well.

Risk Management

Different cultures approach risk from very different perspectives. Cultures that prioritize relationships tend to view those relationships as a means to avoid risk. Awarding an important contract to a close relative or friend provides security. The close relationship helps eliminate unknowns. While price and performance may not be the best, they are known. The strong “in group” network that defines the relationship means everyone will want to support the in group. Performance becomes a matter of saving face.

Venture driven cultures tend to equate risk reduction with choosing the best performer. Giving favored treatment to friends and relatives is viewed as a risk, and potentially disastrous. This usually means taking as objective an approach as possible. Contracts are awarded based on price/performance analysis, and risk is reduced by evaluating past performance. Contingency plans for poor performance generally involve financial penalties or having a contract revoked (not something a relationship driven culture is comfortable with).

Procedure & Outsourcing Management

As pointed out above, the typically “Western” venture driven style eschews anything that seems like favoritism. When talking about outsourcing this is probably one of the biggest differences between venture driven and relationship driven culture. The relationship driven culture will stick to its in group, favoring existing relationships. The venture driven culture assumes that every project must be objectively awarded based on performance criteria.

This also shows up in organizational procedures. Venture driven cultures tend to have written procedures that are enforced through business mechanisms (such as forms, systems, and policy review). Relationship driven cultures, on the other hand, rely more on informal, cultural procedures. Important policies are enforced not by forms and systems, but by the peer network and cultural environment.

Business Continuity, Recovery, & Security

Who is responsible for the continuity of the business? Many venture driven cultures will push for a separation of concerns, using an objective, often outside third party. This might be a service provider responsible for auditing and securing an information network.

Relationship driven cultures tend to prefer a more closely-held approach. Sensitive information is often controlled internally, and important individuals within the organization are tasked with ensuring continuity.

Each culture’s approach to security and information management can be very different. Probably the most dramatic example of this is the American view on intellectual property protection versus that of Chinese culture. While China is definitely changing, the American perception that intellectual property is owned and protected by law is not commonly shared in China. We routinely hear stories about how products are copied in record time in the Chinese market — and U.S. firms are constantly evolving strategies to stay ahead of the Chinese copycats.

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.

Where To Invest Around The World In 2014

Are you looking to diversify your investments, spreading your money around the world? It’s a great idea. A multinational investment strategy protects you from fluctuations in one region. But in today’s tumultuous world, with geopolitical upheaval and unsteady markets, where should you invest?

Daniel Altman may have what you need. In Foreign Policy’s Where To Invest Around The World, 2014 Edition, he offers some great insight. His Baseline Profitability Index (BPI) maps economic growth, financial stability, physical security, corruption, expropriation by government, exploitation by local partners, capital controls, and exchange rates. His goal: To map the total pre-tax return on investments in a region.

Baseline Profitability Index (BPI)
Baseline Profitability Index (BPI)

Darker countries indicate a higher score on Daniel Altman’s Baseline Profitability Index for 2014, meaning they are a better bet for foreign investment. The index considers asset growth, preservation of value, and repatriation of capital. Botswana ranks the highest in 2014 with a BPI value of 1.31; Venezuela ranks the lowest at 112, with a score of 0.63.

As Altman writes, the shifting global landscape has moved a lot in the past year: “In just the past 12 months, quite a lot has changed in the global investing environment. Some struggling economies have found their feet, notably in Europe, while others around the world have fallen victim to conflict. A few have improved their economic institutions, too; neighbors Greece, Macedonia, and Turkey all bolstered legal protections for investors, and nearby Azerbaijan strengthened its property rights.”

This year’s edition of the index has a few changes over last year. Most notably, a new source is used for measuring the likelihood of government expropriation. Altman is using the Index Of Economic Freedom in this 2014 edition.

The index suggests that not every fast growing country around the world is a great target for investment. You need to take into account the risks of each market — that’s the purpose of the index, after all. But it’s also important to make an educated decision. All indexes have their limits. For example, after switching to the Index Of Economic Freedom, China dropped from position 21 to 43 on the BPI. While the new approach is hopefully more accurate, it also illustrates why it’s important to understand the data.

Despite the change to the Index Of Economic Freedom, and shifts in the geopolitical landscape in the past year, India has maintained its position at number 6 on the index. Altman feels this is, “In large part because of the potential for real appreciation in the rupee.” He adds, “This may now be more likely than ever, thanks to Narendra Modi’s supposedly reform-minded government and the strong hand of Raghuram Rajan at the central bank.”

Creating An International Culture Of Success

The International Business Dimension

Multinational teams present new challenges for the International manager. There are logistics problems: How do you coordinate teams that work in different time zones? What kind of collaboration can you create in a team that rarely sees one another?

As well as the logistic problems come cultural problems. For example, successfully creating a culture of innovation can be a challenge. Honeywell experienced this, according to a November, 2013, Time article, when Rameshbabu Songukrishnasamy began working as general manager of the company’s R&D centers in Shanghai and Beijing. He found his employees were not innovating. They weren’t tinkering or inventing on their own — not a positive sign in an R&D lab! “They were happy just doing what they were asked to do,” Rameshbabu says. The problem is, R&D is about doing something new.

A project manager for a large corporation in Brazil recently told me that the PMI Book of Knowledge is used infrequently at best inside Brazilian projects. He also warned against assuming that someone with a PMI certification has extensive experience, as is the case in the US. — Moore, Brandi, The Little BRIC Book.

Rameshbabu found that his Chinese workers had a fear of failure. They worried that the company would be upset if their work did not yield positive results, so they didn’t experiment. Another problem is that some Chinese engineers “tend to shy away from critical questioning,” a process that is fundamental in R&D. “The reason they are able to make so much innovation in Silicon Valley is that people question the status quo and find alternative ways,” says Rameshbabu. But he found that Chinese culture and education focused on rote learning, not critical thinking.

Creating A Culture Of Success

Creating successful International programs requires understanding and adapting to different business cultures. Applying Western management practices in Asia will fail, just as surely as transplanting Western employees into an Eastern environment. Imagine an independent, critical thinker from Silicon Valley landing in Foxconn, Shenzhen — where challenging the status quo is forbidden.

Team dynamics play a huge factor in management style, objectives, and capabilities. Building a culture of innovation is just one example of where these dynamics become complicated. Power distance will affect everything from goal setting to how problems are socialized. Communication style can quickly lead to misunderstandings. Differences on the fluidity of time can mean completely missing the mark with customer deadlines. And differences in identity and engagement style can lead to initial confusion, bad first impressions, or distrust.

This is why understanding business cultural practices is so important. Hyrax International LLC has a program that explores each of these five preferences. The program examines each of 27 different management disciplines, such as goal setting, risk management, change management, and assessing outcomes. The affect of business culture on each discipline is explored and explained, providing a road map to success on the International management scene. The company also offers many free resources to explain and explore International project management, and is also sponsoring Successful International Project Management, an in depth book that maps project management processes to cultural preferences.

We’ll be posting five more parts to this article (read Part 2, or see the entire series right here) in the coming couple of weeks. Each post will look at one of the five business cultural preferences, and briefly introduce how that preference impacts and affects the 27 management disciplines.

Hyrax International LLC’s Global Project Compass™ is the only visual map that clearly shows the connection between business culture and business process. This is what makes Cross Cultural Management™ so much more effective than traditional management.

The Compass maps 27 project management disciplines directly to business cultural preferences, and shows how these preferences affect business. The goal of the Global Project Compass, and Hyrax International’s associated management program, is to show how culture affects businesses worldwide — and to provide a clear map on how businesses can adapt successfully.

Did you know India has a little more risk today?

Euler Hermes, the 100-year-old trade credit insurance firm, has a fantastic little tool for assessing credit risk around the globe. Euler Hermes monitors country risks in 241 countries and territories. Their country risk map aims to assess the risk of non-payment by companies in a given country.

In other words, if you’re thinking of developing a new market, you can use this little tool to see how likely (or unlikely) it is you’ll get paid. The map is interactive, and updated periodically to reflect changes in the global economy.

As many of you know, we do a lot of business in India — so, I was pretty surprised to see that Euler Hermes upgraded India from “low risk” to “medium risk” this year. In retrospect, while it took me by surprise, it probably shouldn’t have. India still suffers from an immature business market. I can see how this can translate into higher credit risks.

Country Risk Map
Country Risk Map, Euler Hermes (click to open)

It also underscores how important it is to work with a trusted source, and an experienced partner, no matter what country you go into. Euler Hermes is one such resource when it comes to insuring your revenue stream — whether its import/export, manufacturing, or even R&D. If you’re doing International business, trade credit insurance is a must, and these guys know how to do it well.

Getting back to India: Yes, maybe it is a little bit more risky today, at least when it comes to credit risk. But that’s no reason to stay away, it just means you need to account for those risks. Engage with a partner that really knows how to work with India, take the right precautionary steps (such as using trade credit insurance), and move forward with your eyes open. India is an incredible market opportunity, and not one to shy away from!

How Do I Find The Right Global Partner?

Businesses are thinking bigger now. Your partners need to understand your values, win business and support contracts for you, and vice-versa. But, finding the wrong global partner could be a huge blunder. Here are few tips to help you make the right decision.

Hi, I am Zacharias Beckman, president of Hyrax International and today I want to talk about finding the right partner to go into business with, overseas. A lot of our customers come to us because they are in business with the wrong partner. They found a great looking ad on the internet, they sourced a request for proposals, and they got back an excellent response. Before you know it, they’re signing a contact and they’re going into the business — really, with somebody that they don’t know.

The problem with this is that, on an international scale, contracts don’t mean the same thing that they do locally. Part of this is just a practical matter. Enforcing a contract overseas is very hard. It’s expensive, it’s time consuming. But more important than that, is that relationships are the core of business in most of the world. That means that to find a really good partner you have to build a relationship network. You’ve got to have feet on the ground, overseas, building connections that you can use to find partners that are trustworthy. Those connections are what’s going to help you find the right partner, internationally.

The most important thing here is that, when it comes to finding a partner overseas, you need to have a relationship. You need to have feet on the ground, you need to build a trusted network, and you need to create a relationship based in more than just a written contract. And you need to understand the culture in which you are doing business, so that you really know how to relate to and build that strong relationship with your new partner.

Solving cultural and logistic International project problems

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

There’s a solution?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

International project problems… Solved

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

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

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

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

Tell me three times: The importance of quality assurance

Tell me three times

The earliest military applications of quality control came about from needing to send messages with reasonable confidence. The protocol was simple: Send every message three times. This triple-redundancy provided a checksum against failure, and could be used to correct broken messages. Any difference between the three copies would usually only show up in one, so the remaining two could be treated as accurate. The incorrect third could be discarded. In time, of course, advances in technology and process made it possible to introduce far more advanced — and secure — methods of communication. But the principle still lives on today in formal quality assurance: By introducing a redundant check on a program or process, we improve our chances of success.

As an industry, software folks have invested a huge amount of time toward figuring out what goes wrong with most projects. The root cause is complexity and our ability to accurately manage that complexity. Finding a method that enables reliable and repeatable results is a tough problem, especially given the variables involved in every project: Changing business environments, customer demands, technical capability and understanding, and team makeup are just a few of the factors that affect every project in a multitude of ways.

To combat the problems of complexity different best practices have become popular — some good, and some abysmal. The more successful techniques have a common theme: The idea that we can manage all this complexity by introducing multiple checkpoints.

Quality assurance and checkpoints

This is what quality assurance and structured software testing is all about — and yet, at least in the commercial industry — there’s always pressure to cut quality assurance or testing budgets. Take, for example, a recent project that ran about 18 months, involved well over 25 people, and launched to huge success (and zero defects in the product). The immediate aftermath of this successful effort? One might imagine kudos were in order. How many times do 18-month long, multi-million dollar projects get out the door without major problems? Instead, the project sponsors criticized the cost of development and, rather arbitrarily, said the team had “spent too much on quality assurance.” The reasoning behind this was simply that, since there were no bugs in the finished product, all that money spent on quality must have been wasted.

Management then demanded the quality assurance budget be cut dramatically — In fact, insisting they would not spend another dime on quality assurance. It was one of the most counterintuitive situations I’ve ever encountered.

The unfortunate consequence of this is an antagonistic relationship between project team and project sponsor. It brings into question how much visibility the sponsor should have when it comes to internal project budgets, and that’s a dangerous line to tread. At the same time, taking the position that QA will not be funded is crossing the line between budgetary management and meddling with technical process — and in this case, a process that had worked with stellar success.

The politics of management

Visibility should not be compromised. The project sponsor needs to know where costs are, and most project sponsors are not going to be happy with a single budgetary line item for “project development.” However, it is equally important that project teams and their organizations maintain a uniform front defending what works.

Stated another way, when you have something that works, treat it as a whole product that cannot be “sliced and diced.” Software development, at least those processes that work, cannot be subject to arbitrary and partial budget cuts. Cutting just the quality assurance department alters a working process. In this case, we had an unreasonable project sponsor that was not interested in understanding the complexity of building a product.

I held a firm line with our sponsor. We could not run a project with arbitrary cuts to parts of the program. Our compromise ended well enough. I was able to tell the sponsor that we would cut the budget across the board, not just in one department. At the same time we came to a mutual understanding: The sponsor was really just concerned with the big picture, the total number of dollars spent. As such, we agreed he would not see another line item labelled “quality assurance.” Future budget reports had a single line item for the total engineering cost, all inclusive of quality-related expenses.

The team, and the project manager, need to defend a system that does a good job. The sponsor needs to be informed that budget cuts cannot arbitrarily target specific program components: Instead, the right way to tackle this problem is for the sponsor to cut the overall budget and let the project organization decide how that cut will be implemented. Most likely, cuts will need to be applied equally across the project — thereby reducing overall output, but not messing with a process that works.

Unfortunately, everyone needs to recognize that this can lead to losing a client or canceling a project. The question is, would keeping the project alive be worth the long-term headaches, knowing that cost will be a constant challenge? You might gain near-term budget cuts, but the problem will come back ten-fold when poor quality and schedule slips lead to unhappy customers.

Once you have a working program and methodology, don’t compromise on what it takes to deliver a project right. It’s better to decide it’s too expensive and walk away, rather than put everyone through the mess of a poorly run project.

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]

Tackling the global project problem, part 2

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

Recap: Face up to communication problems

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

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

Tools do help

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

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

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

Use the right tool for the job

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

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

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

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

Use the right estimation methods

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

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

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

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

Pay close attention to metrics — and metrics tools

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

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

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

Prioritize and balance dynamically

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

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