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Across the pond

If you enjoyed the recent series on cross-border projects you might be interested in this article from Peter Onime, about the cultural differences in project management between the UK and the US.


Cross-border reading list

This entry is part 4 of 4 in the series Cross-cultural teams

Enjoyed the series on managing international projects? Here is some further reading that you might like:

Missed the series on managing international and cross-cultural projects? Catch up here:

Part 1: Cross-border projects

Part 2: Challenges for project managers

Part 3: Tackling the issues

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Tackling the issues of cross-border projects

This entry is part 3 of 4 in the series Cross-cultural teams

This is the last in a 3-part series about managing cross-cultural and international teams. Missed the earlier posts? Read the first bit here, and the second bit here.

Mac BookThe 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, hear the unspoken concerns and messages, and respond clearly in a way that the other person can understand.

Being able to put those soft communication skills into practice is something that can be helped by technology. 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 cross-border 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) gives 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. 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. Packages such as WebEx or Sametime Unyte allow you to hold a virtual meeting with the team. 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 packages also allow 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.

IM 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 Microsoft Outlook calendar, where team meetings and project milestones are recorded for everyone to see. When you connect from a PC configured to a different timezone, Outlook will automatically show the meeting at the correct time where you are.

Investment in project-specific software like @task will offer something more comprehensive. For fully online projects, packages like Primavera include collaborative working options. An online project team workspace where you can store documents, list tasks and progress and even post photos of team members can help a team work more efficiently, if everyone appreciates the ‘rules’ and abides by them. It will be up to the project manager to establish how the site should be used, and to ensure the team understands that.

Whatever software you choose to use to manage your cross-border projects, you will quickly realise its limitations. A bad workman blames his tools, but a good project manager knows 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.

Image: FreeDigitalPhotos.net


Challenges for the project manager

This entry is part 2 of 4 in the series Cross-cultural teams

This is part 2 of a 3-part series about managing cross-cultural and international teams. Missed part 1? Read it here.

Project managers taking on 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? In the absence of incentives for the project team, the project manager will find it difficult to recruit volunteers.

Protecting the interests of the UK-based team also falls to the project manager. 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 criticise a team that then goes home at 2pm. Project managers with international responsibilities not only have to educate team members in how to work well together, but also have to manage upwards and ensure that senior stakeholders understand the constraints of this type of project. In reality, international projects 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 the UK. 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. Projects where the team was not based together suffered from poor communication, procurement problems and lack of direction. Whether you are split across multiple UK 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.

Involving another country in a project is a wider concern than just finding ways of working with the people involved. The project environment is typically much more complex than a UK-based project. While I was working in France, my Indian colleagues rang in to tell us they were being sent home after office buildings in Bangalore were damaged: the death of Indian film legend Rajkumar prompted spontaneous violence amongst mourners on the streets.

Another time, French commuters (and me) found it impossible to get to work after strikes about pensions meant 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.

Having looked at what the problems are, next Monday I’ll write about how you can tackle them.

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Cross-border projects

This entry is part 1 of 4 in the series Cross-cultural teams

This is the first in a 3-part series about managing cross-cultural and international teams.

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 organisations 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.


Having an open mind about these challenges is the first step in being able to address them in a pragmatic way that helps everyone involved. 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. That can be hard for senior managers to accept. After all, they have got where they are in the organisation by working hard and performing well. They expect certain responses to their behaviour, and when that doesn’t materialise, it is easy to put the blame squarely at the door of the person who hasn’t reacted as expected. 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, collaboarative 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.

In summary, 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.

Next Monday I’ll be writing about the practical challenges facing project managers when managing international projects.

Image: BigFoto.com


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