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6 Tips for Managing International Project Teams

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When I was working in France, my Indian colleagues rang to tell us they were being sent home after office buildings in Bangalore were damaged: the death of Indian film legend Rajkumar had prompted spontaneous violence amongst mourners on the streets.

Another time, I was stuck with other commuters trying to get to work in Paris after strikes about pensions meant that more than 90% of high-speed trains were cancelled.

A project manager leading an international team needs an international view of the different legal and political environments in order to successfully navigate unforeseen difficulties or changes.

Here are some tips for making that a little bit easier.

The fact is that many of us do manage international teams now. The world of business is continually shrinking: we work in an environment with real-time audio visual communication with colleagues on the other side of the world and online translation tools.

Even small companies can operate internationally with outsourcing agreements and partners overseas, which means that project managers in organizations of any size face the challenges of managing international projects.

And that means far more than just calculating that when it’s 9 am in Paris, Texas it’s 4 pm in Paris, France.

International projects come with two main challenges: the people you are working with won’t necessarily work in the same way as you, and the people you are working for won’t necessarily want the same things.

1. Accept and research the cultural challenges of international teams

National culture plays a big part in how we act, and we can’t change that – we can just learn how to make it work for everyone concerned. Having an open mind about the challenges of managing an international project is essential. It helps you address them in a pragmatic way that benefits everyone.

That can be hard for senior managers to accept. After all, they have got where they are in the organization by working hard and performing well. They expect certain responses to their behavior, and when that doesn’t materialize, it is easy to put the blame squarely at the door of the person who hasn’t reacted as expected.

Building trust in virtual teams is really important. And it starts from the very first conversation.

Being able to see that working with an international team requires an appreciation of local reactions is key to making cross-border projects a success.

Spending some time with your team members overseas is the best way to understand how they work, but desk research before you go (or if budget constraints mean you can’t go) will be beneficial.

You will find out a great deal about how team members will most likely react in the project environment. Here are some examples of cultural differences that manifest themselves in a team environment:

  • Leadership: an egalitarian, collaborative style will work better with Scandinavians than with Russians, who will distrust a leader who is too friendly with subordinates.
  • Time: in some countries, time is a flexible concept. French business meetings rarely start on time. Plan your conference calls to allow for the Mexicans to join even later. When a deadline is a drop-dead date make sure everyone actually understands the significance of missing it. For some cultures, milestones are just a guide.
  • Your role: while you might be the most important person on the project in your country, your counterparts in China for example could see you as a spare part. Employees working in cultures with strong hierarchical structures may not take direction from you because in the grand hierarchy you just don’t register. Bring in your Sponsor or a board member if you need to get things moving and ask them to speak to local management to make your role clear.
  • Saving face: some cultures find it easy (or at least acceptable) to hold up a hand and say ‘I made a mistake’. But others don’t. That makes managing issues much more complicated.

Be bothered enough about cultural differences to find out what they actually are. Many people love talking about how their countries work and a short discussion in the early days of the project with a local expert can avoid headaches later.

This knowledge provides you with a framework to manage the differences that will occur and also the reassurance that you can develop a realistic way to work together.

2. Deal with the practicalities of time zones

Project managers leading international projects face a variety of practical challenges. For example, time zones are important. How will you conduct real-time team meetings? Who is going to be the person who gets up in the middle of the night for a call with the Australian development team to go through the testing results?

You will find it difficult to recruit volunteers so think about how you can incentivize the team, or shift meeting times around so the burden isn’t always on the same individuals.

One of the things that might fall by the wayside on an international team with multiple time zones is team building. However, you can still engage and build the team, even if you aren’t all together.

Choose activities like a virtual office scavenger hunt to create a sense of ‘team’ and share an experience.

3. Protect the home-based team

Protect the interests of the home-based team as well. A project sponsor who doesn’t appreciate that you have just spent half the night on a web conference with the manufacturing supplier in Japan will criticize a team that then goes home at 2pm.

If you have international responsibilities then you not only have to educate team members in how to work well together, but you also have to manage upwards and ensure that senior stakeholders understand the constraints of this type of project.

4. Understand the challenge of split locations

Projects with international teams often take longer and involve higher travel costs than projects where the entire team is co-located – and that isn’t always a welcome message to the senior team.

In fact, co-location can be a problem even with projects completely based in one place. A project team that is split across several locations can also be difficult to manage.

If you have the choice, opt to have your team in the same building, preferably all together on the same floor. Research done by the US Civil Engineering Research Foundation shows that co-location contributes to effective decision making, attention to detail and helps the team form a partnership (link removed as no longer available).

Projects where the team was not based together suffered from poor communication, procurement problems and lack of direction. Your project is likely to hit these issues so put them on your risk log and manage them.

One of the big challenges of having the team split across different locations is scheduling, so I would pay particular attention to making sure the plan is created collaboratively.

5. Focus on communication

Whether you are split across multiple home-country sites or multiple countries, getting together at critical times in the project is a sure way of moving forward with the minimal amount of miscommunication.

The biggest issues for international projects are cultural understanding and communication. The former isn’t something that can be neatly tackled by a software package.

It relies on the emotional intelligence of the project manager, his or her leadership skills, adaptability and ability to inform and train the teams. Successful communication also relies on the soft skills that a project manager brings to the table.

These are:

  • the ability to listen
  • the sensibility to hear the unspoken concerns
  • the ability to respond clearly in a way that the other person can understand.

6. Use the right collaboration tools

Technology can help you put those communication skills into practice. People need to be able to hear and speak to each other in some format before the project manger’s emotional intelligence can be put to good use.

Technology can at least alleviate the difficulties of international working, even if we have to accept its limitations with regards to the interpretation of messages communicated using it.

The technologies available to project managers are wide-ranging. Instant messaging (IM) and chat features give project teams the ability to connect informally when their status is shown as online.

This can promote collaborative working as team members can quickly and easily ask questions of their colleagues instead of waiting for a scheduled formal meeting.

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In general, the more communication the greater the bonds and understanding between team members, so provided this facility is not abused, it can help improve working relationships. In practice, it only works when all users are in similar time zones where the difference is only a few hours.

The next step up from one-to-one messaging is web conferencing, where multiple users join the same online conference. Web conferencing means you can make changes to documents in real time or show product demonstrations to the rest of the team without having everyone in the same room.

Some tools also offer the functionality to record presentations or meetings so they can be played back afterwards: useful for colleagues in time zones that don’t allow them to participate, or for people who are participating in a meeting not held in their native language, so they have another chance to go over any details they missed later.

Chat and web conferencing allow synchronous communication, but asynchronous communication also has its place in building a successful international team. You could opt for something as simple as a shared online calendar, where team meetings and project milestones are recorded for everyone to see.

When you connect from a device configured to a different time zone, the app will automatically show the meeting at the correct time where you are. It is little things that will make a difference to team efficiencies.

Whether you stick with smaller, single-function collaboration tools or go for an all-singing, all-dancing online project management software suite, you will quickly realize the limitations of your choice.

Don’t blame the tools. Use your professional judgement to know when to use the tools, and when to set the tools aside and lead with understanding and instinct.

In a shrinking world, projects are expanding, and the keys to success in international projects are shrewd use of the available technologies and excellent cultural awareness.

Recommended Reading for International Project Management

If you’re managing international projects, here are some books I recommend:

About Elizabeth Harrin

Elizabeth HarrinElizabeth Harrin is a Fellow of the Association for Project Management in the UK and the award-winning blogger behind A Girl's Guide To Project Management. She's passionate about demystifying project management and making tools and techniques work in the real world. She's also the author of several books including the PMI bestseller, Collaboration Tools for Project Managers.

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