Siv Pensar
Aug 17, 2010
Posted in category: 2010 Member Articles

Five Challenges in Global Projects

Global projects require special skills setting up temporary teams in spite of language, cultural, legal, and geographical barriers, and timezones. The pitfalls are many, but possible to avoid if you are prepared. These are the ones I consider most important:

As a project manager for a global implementation project, your first and most crucial challenge is to make sure that local management is committed. Many local managers value independence more than being integrated with the headquarter. Instead of planning project activities with the local team, many project managers who arrive on the site for the first time end up spending their time defending the corporate decision to roll out the system – something they are not authorized to question. Additionally, old local systems often peak in popularity when being replaced. If this is the case, the locals might suggest a rollout with a minimum of functionality and users, enough to convince the headquarter that the system has been rolled out, while actual work is done in a local system.

When these issues pop up, you should direct them to the corporate decision makers. Unless local management have confirmed that they will follow corporate orders, do prepare this kind of communication channel in advance.

The second challenge is to appoint qualified local project members. Talk to the candidates at least by phone. If staff is being hired, offer to help with the job interviews. Prepare a question list: Do they have time and motivation to participate in this project as an add-on to their other tasks? Is this kind of project familiar to them? Are they willing to learn? Do they have the experience they claim? Are they used to working with foreigners? Deliver the qualifications specification in writing. Ask the interviewer to conduct part of the interview in English, to verify the level of language skills. Careful preparation is important, because if you encounter problems with a local project team member later on, the locals are likely to choose sides with their colleague, not with you.

In  Asia, people are often more respected with growing age. Local management might suggest their oldest employees as project key persons, even if these are not the most suitable ones. For this reason, a grey haired project manager often automatically gets respect, whereas a younger person needs more backup from management.

If you are working in a country with unfamiliar legislation, do involve the company lawyer. E.g. some system components are not legal in Russia, but there are ways to work around this. The lawyer is also aware of tax and customs regulations if you are implementing these features into an ERP system or importing hardware.

If the local office is a new company acquisition, and the staff has only worked with locals before, it might take them a while to get used to your strange habits. However, this is an important part of the merger and should not only be billed to your project. If the merging process is still ongoing, local representatives of an international integration partner can be helpful, as they are used to working with foreigners, and can support your local project members in their own language and their own way of working.

The third challenge is commitment of local project members. Local project staff might have more important priorities. This is of course an issue in any project, but commitment can decrease with distance, if not properly managed. Unless you spend your entire time on-site and can check for yourself, you might be misinformed that everything is ok, especially in cultures where they tend to tell you what you like to hear.

If you spend time off-site, you should appoint a local deputy project manager who is in charge during your absence, with whom you schedule meetings at least weekly and walk through the task lists and project status.
If there are non-local team members or external consultants allocated 100% to the project, the budget won’t allow them to be idle while the locals are busy with other tasks and project deadlines are postponed. Priority issues should immediately be escalated to local management, who must secure the local project resources. (If local management is still not convinced that the project is a good idea, this is where you start getting real problems.)

The fourth challenge is to choose communication methods and tools. You’ll need an e-meeting package, preferably one that records meetings. If you work over many time zones, either some participants can watch the recording afterwards and comment separately, or you can schedule duplicate meetings for Eastern and Western users. If your team members are unfamiliar with e-meetings, allow time for training, and expect the first meetings to be mainly one-way communication.

If you are dependent on phones, make sure that the local staff has the authority to use their phones for international calls. Order a phone conference service that can be used without advance reservations and is billed to the headquarter. Set up a document library that can be accessed globally during the project members’ work hours for all included time zones, and define who has the authority to update what.

The fifth challenge is to adapt your communication style. In on-line meetings with non-native speakers of English, with background noise, you have to speak more slowly and clearly than normally. Pause now and then and ask if everything is clear so far and ask silent participants to click ‘Yes’ or ‘No’ or any other available icons, just to make sure they are following.

If you are working with an interpreter in on-site meetings, you have to get all parties used to speaking in short sentences and pausing in between. Alternatively, if the interpreter has a fair understanding of the project, ask her to give summaries at certain intervals.

In cultures where staff is more obedient than proactive, you have to ask the correct questions, because you might only get the answers to what you ask. I once by mistake scheduled a project workshop on a day when all the locals were out of office. Though I had asked them about local holidays, I had not asked if there were any other non-working days. I turned out that if their Independence Day occurs on a weekend, they automatically get next Monday off.

Find out about the local culture and adapt your management style accordingly: some cultures prefer an authoritative approach, whereas others dislike orders and need to be involved. Some cultures need a detailed plan, others prefer to improvise. Some cultures have a straightforward way of expressing themselves, which confuses others who like to understate and smalltalk. In some cultures they will not tell you bad news directly. There are many books about this subject. Global project managers over time become skilled at reading face expressions, gestures, tones of voices, and listening to what people do not say, which is essential when leading international teams successfully towards one goal.

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