Effectively Managing Global Projects is hard work! A common theme in business today is the myopia regarding an international and multicultural environment. As humans we usually all operate in one social context belonging to the nation from which we hale (which for most of us is also the country in which we live). We generally do not give much thought to the fact that people elsewhere might behave or perceive behavior differently. That is the myopia, and it makes sense; the notion that something could be seen differently elsewhere is most of the time completely irrelevant. Global business, however, is the game changer, and overcoming this myopia is essential to survive in business. Luckily, it is not so difficult if you know how to perceive it.
The idea of a global economy is almost as old as humanity itself, and has gone through many different periods, evolutions, and struggles over the millennia. From the spice traders to the Vikings to the pirates, you could say that the pursuit of the global economy has given us some of the most interesting characters of human history. Recently, starting in the late 20th century there was huge push for large corporations to harness globalization, generally for the purposes of increased profits through lower costs, or increased revenues through new perspectives driving innovation. Today, “Globalization” is no longer a business buzzword but a reality that is here to stay.
Every day most of us will work (sometimes very closely) with teams that have a rich diversity of cultural backgrounds. While it still happens that we might be collocated with our teams (whereby default in this situation some people represent the “home team” and some people represent the “visiting team”), more and more often this collaboration is virtual, where every person on a team – each with his and her own nuanced cultural understanding of human and business interaction – will still be geographically located in their own home context.
This can provide and interesting challenge for many of us since most people have never worked (or even traveled) internationally, and with little or no practice in the understanding of the global-cultural kaleidoscope we have all been very quickly placed in this relatively new multinational working environment. So how do we navigate it and understand it when we all have so much work we need to do at the same time? How do we embrace it so that we can all be successful in our teams and in our jobs?
It is almost impossible to look at the job description of a project management role and not see ‘Stakeholder Management’ listed as one of the essential duties. That is because it is such an important part of managing projects. In addition, it is not easy. Stakeholder management is a delicate balance of earning trust, leading by example, managing by influence as opposed to by force while still ensuring everyone is completing their work by the agreed upon deadlines.
There is a great deal of emotional intelligence and an elegant streak of personal finesse that makes a project manager great at their job. Already, virtual work has made this slightly more difficult to attain. Looking at each other through computer screens – sometimes with cameras off or mics muted – and communicating heavily through emails and chats, we lose the nuance of body language, smiles, laughs, and a lot of other interpersonal human touches that help us form bonds with others.
Combining this disadvantage with the one that comes from cross-cultural communication (which can often come with a language barrier of varying degrees) can cause a lot of anxiety in the workplace, and it is important to be mindful of this. There is now a lot of ground to gain in the ‘earning trust’ department.
Here are some of the important things to consider when managing a global team
Speak In PowerPoint
Do you speak a second language that you learned later in life, that you do not speak at native fluency? Have you ever lived (or even traveled) abroad and felt completely out of place around groups of people speaking in a language you don’t entirely understand? If you answered “No” to one (or especially both) of those questions you should pay very close attention to this next section.
I have been to public speaking seminars and been told that a slide should not exceed six lines, and that each line should not exceed six words. In addition, they also tell you “Don’t speak in PowerPoint!” In other words, when your slides meet the proper criteria do not just read off the bullet points. However, when managing a global team, I like to think the opposite of that theory is true: “Speak in PowerPoint”. In other words, be concise and precise in your language; do not embellish with five-dollar words and avoid the use of idiomatic expressions.
We as native English speakers are incredibly fortunate that English won the lottery of modern global business language. The countries where English is spoken natively are also notoriously bad at educating its people in other languages. As a result, we have very little empathy for most of the people on our global teams for whom English is not their native language. As an American expat working abroad, I can tell you how frustrating it is to be in meeting and with a group of people speaking in another language, even a language I speak fluently (just not natively.) Imagine a dog watching a steak as it gets thrown around in a circle from one person to another. That is how I always felt I looked in such meetings, trying desperately to understand each person as they spoke and hoping I could gain clarity on the sound bites I did not understand by concentrating on reading lips.
This experience made me acutely aware of what it is like for many of my colleagues for whom English is not a native language. Now back home I often find myself getting very frustrated by unnecessarily big English words, colloquial idioms, any expression/usage of the word “get”, and just a lot of word vomit. I am not frustrated for myself; I am frustrated because I know how difficult it makes things for others.
Simplifying your language is itself a simple practice; just a little mindfulness will go a very long way in the success of your global project, and in the comfort of your multicultural team. In addition, think about things that transcend language, like visual aids.
Another important part of “Speaking in PowerPoint” is the visceral aspect. Gantt charts, timelines, calendars, graphs, dashboards, even stick figures. When it comes to assigning responsibilities, setting deadlines (preferably using the YYYY-MM-DD format), getting progress reports, etc., the more you can do using any kind of visual representation the more transparent everything will be for everyone.
Lastly, remember that in our increasingly virtual workplace misunderstandings can be compounded because of shaky internet connections, the inability to read lips, not having a clarification question asked in time because of a muted microphone. Clarity and visual aids are even more important in overcoming those barriers. To this regard, a best practice to consider is to send out any prepared documents (such as a PowerPoint) before the call; and all notes, screenshots of the virtual whiteboard, etc., after the call.
Cultural Relativism vs Ethical Imperialism
If a practice or behavior differs starkly between cultures how can a determination of right or wrong be made? Is that a determination that need even be made, and if so, by whom? During my MBA program in Global Management we discussed this nebulous and often difficult concept rather extensively as it can cause some serious problems in global business. One of the most prominent examples is the idea of gift giving. In Japan, it is a normal practice to give gifts when conducting business. In fact, not doing so could put a relationship at risk. However, an American entity wishing to do business with a Japanese entity that thinks “When in Rome…” and engages in this practice will now have most likely violated the United States’ Foreign Corrupt Practices Act.
So how can this be reconciled?
The answer is not an easy one. Luckily, managing global projects typically does not involve such an extreme scenario; however, we will regularly experience this fundamental dilemma. For example, I was an expat project manager working for a large American multinational in Europe. Many a time did I find myself thinking in discussions with my European colleagues “Yes, I know this is Europe, but you work for an American company and this is how Americans do things.” That would be a time when I was thinking like an Imperialist. However, on calls with my American leaders sitting Stateside who were frustrated that – to give one example – it was now July, the project deadline was fast approaching in September, yet my entire team was about to go on vacation for the whole month of August. I would need to explain to them “Well, this is Europe. We are doing business in their house and here this is just how things are done.”
That is me acting more like a relativist.
As I mentioned at the beginning of this section, this is a difficult concept to grasp because there is no easy answer. Even when an answer seems “easy” (e.g., because the alternative would violate a federal law) it does not actually solve the misunderstanding that can occur to the audience on the other side of the conversation. Not all examples involve a legal constraint on one end though. Did you know that in some cultures it is frowned upon in a business meeting to jump straight into business? In a one-hour meeting the first fifteen minutes will often be spent in casual conversation regarding family (and probably football1).
This might seem strange to an American project manager who has a lot to cover in that hour and cannot imagine a quarter of it being ‘wasted on chit chat’. But is it being wasted? The people in that room see that as a valuable opportunity to nurture their personal relationships with one another. The American PM might not see this, and therefore perceives it as a waste of valuable time. While the agenda items that get covered will be reduced with only 75% of the meeting left, the dividends it pays off in the backend with trust and collaboration amongst coworkers is certainly valuable.
How damaging might it be for the American PM to not respect this practice and jump straight to business. This person has American attitudes and an American boss to report to, and completion is easier to quantify in a report than is trust amongst colleagues. What is this PM to do? This is a balance that every person operating in a global context will need to strike. Accepting that this is a conundrum of which we need to be mindful is the first step in the pursuit of that balance. I can, however, give some guidance on the matter.
As I look back at my successes and failures as a global project manager, I can say with considerable ease that erring on the side of relativism has always been in my favor. That is not to say that it is always the route most popular amongst those I report to (who might think like imperialists), but it is usually always at least justifiable, and earning trust is still a vital part of your job of stakeholder management.
Assume Best Intent
We are all eager to do our jobs well. However, the way we go about doing that can change based on our cultural attitudes towards what it means to work. In the previous section I spoke about one of my experiences as a PM in Europe where my entire team was about to go on vacation for the whole month just before the project’s deadline. That was a tough pill for my boss to swallow – and not a very enjoyable conversation to have with him – but the interesting point about it was what he thought about the members on my team. Did he assume they all just threw their hands up in unison to abandon the deadline of such an important project because they did not care?
In most of Europe there is a greater level cultural (and even legal) protection of one’s personal life and its balance with work. The part about vacation is but one example of this nuance and how it is baked into attitudes and mindsets surrounding work. Unaware of this nuance an American PM might become frustrated. Let’s say the American shows up to work early and is always the last to leave; the European makes sure their work week does not exceed 40 hours.
The American therefore might start to make some negative assumptions about the European (I have, in fact witnessed this personally). This perception comes from a lifetime of American social conditioning mixed with ignorance of the societal and cultural (and legal) norms in Europe.
Alternatively, the European might start to perceive the American as an overly exigent taskmaster. Consequently, the trust between these two starts to break down. This is both needless and unfortunate because both individuals want to excel at their job and deliver the best results, but they can only do so in the manner which fundamentally aligns with their concept of work.
This slight difference in mindset does not pose a threat to the success of the project nearly as much as the unconscious breakdown of trust between the two colleagues does once negative interpretations begin.
While this is but one hypothetical example pertaining to two [somewhat] specific demographics there exist many other nuances amongst a myriad of different cultural backgrounds, an endless permutation of circumstance and perception; there is no way one person could know them all. Luckily, no one needs to. So long as the underlying assumption we all make of our colleagues and team members is that they are genuinely interested in doing their jobs well and are as vested as you are in the success of the project (and the team) it will be easier perceive a differing behavior without making false judgments that result in the deterioration of trust.
“Borders Frequented by Trade Seldom Need Soldiers.” -Dr. William Schurz
After millennia of practice the global economy of today is testament to that which we can achieve when we learn to think outside the box and operate outside our comfort zones. Now, working with multinational and multicultural teams is an unavoidable part of modern business; almost all of us – despite our background and level of global EQ – are participating in it daily. As a result, there are often some growing pains that come with operating in a realm with which we generally have very little experience.
That said, with just a little mindfulness overcoming many of these obstacles is quite easy. People have a natural tendency to distrust what they do not understand. While deep knowledge of other places and other cultures can be a big black box for most people, the key element of stakeholder management is still earning trust. Therefore, as we continue to globalize and interact with new people, let us remain conscious of the very basic tools we need to cultivate the healthy interpersonal relationships with our global teammates we need to achieve our common goals.
Also, let us not forget to seize these opportunities to learn more about others. There is often no more enriching an experience, nor a better education about one’s own culture than to learn and see it from the perspective of another.
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1The use of the word ‘football’ in this article refers to the sport recognized around the world as “football”. This is a disambiguation with American football, which is called “football” only in the United States
As an entrepreneur at heart, I love the feeling of rolling up my sleeves and solving real business challenges. I have been a project manager in all kinds of organizations over the last 10 years, from small companies to multi-national corporations, and in many different countries.