Organizing Overseas Teams

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How 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.

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.

Communication 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.

I’ve posted a lot about how communication style varies dramatically from one culture to another (including this great infographic on how different cultures negotiate). It’s both very obvious, a clear variation in how we interact, and at the same time deviously subtle in how quickly it can derail an otherwise healthy team and project.

Different Styles Of Communication

Low context cultures, most often associated with Western, industrialized countries, pride themselves on a directness that is unparalleled in other cultures. Lack of subtlety and being “honest and straight-shooting” is the norm. But these cultures end up missing most of the conversation when confronted with high context, rich communication styles.

High context cultures (especially Middle Eastern and Asian, but also South American, some European, and African countries) don’t know how to communicate in this simple, direct style. Confronted with direct, low-context partners, it’s as if 90% of their vocabulary is stripped away. The rich subtlety conveyed in circumstance, timing, silence, body language, story telling, deference, saving face, and tone are missing — leaving behind nothing but blunt, inelegant words (often, to make matters worse, in a second or third language on top of it).

Communication Style: Expressing Opinions (East vs. West)
Communication Style: Expressing Opinions (East vs. West)

Understanding one another’s communication style and being able to adapt, and interpret signals from both cultures accurately, is critical.

The Global Project Compass™ (introduced in Part 1)  identifies the following management disciplines as being most directly affected by communication style:

  1. Continuous Improvement Plan
  2. Segregation of Duties
  3. Project Management Plan
  4. Project Monitoring, Execution, & Control
  5. Change Control & Management
  6. Communications Plan
  7. Performance Measurement

Continuous Improvement Plan

Your continuous improvement plan is absolutely affected by other business cultural preferences, but communication style has a huge impact. Continuous improvement relies on understanding each other without ambiguity. Anything that stands in the way will throw sand into a delicately working machine. Processes like CMMI (the Capability Maturity Model) rely on putting complex, integrated processes into action. Everyone has to understand the process, support it, and pursue it’s objectives.

Segregation of Duties

The Compass also identifies segregation of duties as highly affected by communication style. Clearly defined roles are important in any organization. Segregation of duties is intended to create checks and balances to enforce standards or, in some cases, prevent fraud or malfeasance. One way of looking at this is whether control is unchecked in one person (or one office). A common reason to separate quality assurance, giving it authority on its own, is to support a separate office that has the authority to enforce quality (or at least, stop a project that is not going well).

For this to work, communication lines must be clear. How can quality assurance know how the project is going if there is limited, inaccurate, or unclear communication?

It’s important to note that power distance also deeply affects segregation of duties. The political alignments and often muddied visibility of some organizations create complex, co-dependent relationships. These relationships interfere with the goals of segregating duties.

Project Management, Monitoring, and Change Control

Excellent project management relies on clear communication as well. Across a culturally diverse organization, “clear communication” can mean many things. How does the American manager interpret his Chinese subordinate’s silence, when critical feedback is expected? How will an Indian employee react to the direct communication of a German boss causes him to lose face? Building a project management plan that works well within the multiple, diverse cultural environments of a multinational organization is a challenge.

Performance Measurement

Knowing how your team, and your company, is doing demands no ambiguity. You’ve got to be able to assess performance accurately. For business performance, that means getting accurate, timely information. To assess your team, you need to understand and assess your team member’s contribution. That means understanding what everyone has to say, in their own subtle or not-so-subtle communication style.

Western-style “360 evaluations,” where employees critically evaluate their peers, subordinates, and superiors, rely on American-style direct communication. When used in other cultural settings the 360 evaluation completely fails. When compared to typical American feedback, French and German respondents more easily criticize, but hold back compliments — so evaluations appear much less positive. In many Asian cultures, the idea of openly criticizing is taboo. Here, evaluations come back with seemingly perfect marks — and that can lead to incorrectly concluding that the Asian office is perfect.

Communication: The Tip Of The Iceberg

Most often, problems between multinational teams get put down to bad communication. It’s true that communication is important. It’s also true that most cross cultural situations have communication barriers (and often serious problems). How well people communicate — or, how poorly your team is communicating — is a very visual indication that there are problems.

Just like an iceberg floating in the ocean, this visual indicator usually means there is more going on beneath the surface. When your team isn’t communicating, it’s time to look for other problems too.

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.

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.

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.

How Do I Communicate With My Overseas Team?

When it comes to delegating work, how can you communicate tasks to your overseas team, and know those tasks will be handled reliably? Communicating with your overseas partner or your outsourced vendor can be a lot more complicated then you might think.

Communicating with your overseas partner or your outsourced vendor can be a lot more complicated then you would think. Yes, sure, it’s fine to pick up the phone and send an email — and actually you should do that a lot. It’s extremely valuable to build those strong relationships and to maintain a lot of communication with your overseas partner. But, its easy to make mistakes when you assume that they are going to be communicating with you in exactly the same way.

Assumptions And How We Communicate

So, for example, we have had clients that would pick up a phone and call their Chinese or their Indian partner to brainstorm about ideas. But, because of misunderstandings between the two parties and between power distance and saving face, the partner over in China, or in India, might take that brainstorming session to be a directive to get to work on something. And so they throw everything else out and the schedule goes out with it — and they start working on something new. And month’s later, you’re surprised — what the heck happened? Why are they working on that? We were just talking about a fun idea we had.

Communicate Assignments Without Misunderstandings

So, how do you avoid misunderstandings like that? Well, one of the most important things you can do is make sure that you have a procedure or a system in place to manage tasks, and assignments, and responsibilities between your teams. There are a number of systems that we’ve used with our clients. Some of them are pretty simple. Basecamp is very popular. We actually don’t recommend Basecamp. It’s not too hard to get lost in Basecamp and much like sending a phone message or an email, people can start pointing fingers, saying, “Oh, I thought you had that task,” “No I had that task.” Also, base camp doesn’t have a great audit trail. Instead we tend to recommend more advanced systems that provide better audit trails, better assignment tracking, and permission and workflow systems.

Salesforce, if you are in a sales organization, actually does a great job of assigning tasks to different people, keeping track of records, who made a call, who didn’t, where is that customer support ticket. If you’re in a more technical discipline, then tools like Rally and Atlassian’s JIRA products are excellent project management tools. They can also be used for customer service management, ticket management or even call tracking because they are very customizable. Especially JIRA which has a very powerful workflow management system that you can customize to do whatever you want. But the best thing with all of these tools — Salesforce, Rally, JIRA and host of other ones — they work over the world wide web, they work on mobile phones, and they all have excellent audit trails, so you can see what has happened, who was assigned the task, and why did they give it to somebody else… And they also make it very easy to expose all of this information to anybody that wants to see it.

So, our number one recommendation, when we are talking about how do you get a hold of your team whose overseas, you can get a hold of them on the phone and with email. But you shouldn’t use those methods to communicate tasks or assignments or new requirements. Those things, if its official, it needs to go into a system. And everybody needs to understand that the system is what dictates who is working on what. That way when your team in China receives a call from the CEO saying, “Hey, what about this great idea?” — well, they’ll understand that if it wasn’t assigned to them in the system, they’re not supposed to start working on it.