The Challenges of International Projects

This is a guest post by Elizabeth Harrin.

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 9am in ‘my’ London it’s 4am in London, Ohio. 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 on an international project team. You need a pragmatic approach, especially as national culture plays a big part in how we act, and we can’t change who we are – we can just learn how to make those differences work for everyone concerned.
This can be difficult for project managers to get their heads around. Once you are in the position of managing an international project, you may well be one of the more senior project managers in your team. You have gained that position through hard work and successful project delivery. You expect your project team members to behave in certain ways and people from different cultures won’t always behave the way you expect. As you can imagine, that causes problems and conflict on projects.

Making international working easier

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 Brazilian 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 New Zealand won’t look favourably on your request to send everyone home at 3pm. Project managers with international components to their teams 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 executives.
Practical suggestions aside, the easiest way I have found to work with international teams is to build cultural understanding. As I found when living and working in France, you can be linguistically literate without being culturally literate. At a pub quiz I couldn’t answer the questions about children’s TV programmes or what was found under the streets of Paris (I think, if I remember rightly, that it was the river). But the pub quiz was in an Irish bar, and there weren’t many of them around so that was a change of environment for many of my Parisian colleagues.
Cultural understanding relies on the emotional intelligence of the project manager, his or her leadership skills, adaptability and ability to inform and train the teams.

Using software to help international communication

Aside from cultural understanding, your next challenge is communication. Successful communication 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 help with the challenges of international projects, even if we have to accept its limitations with regards to the interpretation of messages communicated using it.
There are lots of technologies available to project managers with virtual teams, whether they are based all over the world or in multiple offices in the same time zone. Instant messaging 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 works best 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. Applications such as WebEx 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 – lower travel costs and a reduction in time spent out of the office even if you don’t have the international element to contend with.
Instant messaging and web conferencing allow synchronous communication, but asynchronous communication is also useful for project managers with international teams. You could opt for something as simple as a shared calendar, where team meetings and project milestones are recorded for everyone to see. When you connect from a PC configured to a different time zone, Outlook will automatically show the meeting at the correct time where you are. However, I have been caught out by the same feature in Google’s calendar, which didn’t seem to adjust for daylight savings time for some reason – and I missed my conference call.
Whatever software you choose to use to manage your project, you will quickly realise its limitations. A good project manager knows when to use the tools, and when to set the tools aside and lead with understanding and instinct.
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 if you see them react, but that of course relies on you having the time to do that period of ‘getting to know you’.
Even if you don’t have lots of time, be curious in the time you do have. Many people love talking about how their countries work and a short discussion early on in your project can make a big difference. This knowledge provides you with a framework to manage the differences that will occur and also the confidence that you can develop an appropriate way of working together. 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.
 This article has been adapted from material published on A Girl’s Guide To Project Management and is reprinted with permission.
(Pic Courtesy: Google images)