The Unique Challenges of Managing Global Projects

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Managing a global project presents a unique set of challenges apart from the obvious ones of different physical locations and time zones. There are also likely to be cultural issues that extend far beyond language barriers; as well as issues of efficiency, administration and reporting. 

 

Many large companies have a worldwide presence and it is common for project managers based in the company headquarters to have the responsibility of leading projects using teams from different countries and cultures. Managing such geographically and culturally diverse projects effectively requires an understanding of the communication challenges and cultural barriers that must be overcome in order to build a successful multi-cultural team with a single common goal.

 

The reasons for using teams in different parts of the world are almost always based on economic decisions – quite simply it is less expensive to employ teams in certain parts of the world. Sometimes there might be specific skills that are only available in one country but this is a rarer reason to use overseas teams for projects.

 

And it is not just multi-cultural teams working with language and culture issues that can have problems – seemingly minor differences in working practices can also affect the outcome of the project as can teams with a common language based in different parts of the world. But generally the most significant barriers to project success have been identified as diverse geographic location, time-zone range and cultural and language differences.

 

So experienced global project managers know that the following differences have to be managed appropriately:

 

  • Location
  • Language
  • Time
  • Cultural

 

But just how can the risks associated with these differences be managed most successfully?

 

Communication

Effective communication is the most important tool in a global project manager’s toolbox. Right at the outset, communicate with everyone involved in the project to explain the reasoning for assigning tasks to teams in particular locations (use cost-benefit analysis, if appropriate) to prevent ill-feeling between teams. Rivalries and different agendas may exist between different groups and these relationships must be managed to minimise their impact on the overall success of the global project. 

 

Email, telephone calls, instant messaging, internal blogs and forums are all tools useful for day-to-day communication, but it is also important to schedule regular video/conference calls to discuss concerns and problems. These calls should be quite distinct from progress reporting in order to encourage frank discussion about the project in a less formal atmosphere. An experienced global project manager will ensure this distinction is well-understood to avoid situations where problems are not raised because they might indicate lack of progress.

 

The format and frequency of both the informal communication and the formal progress reporting should be established at the beginning of the project. Depending on the size and complexity of the project and the number of teams involved different reporting may be required at local and global levels.

 

Never underestimate how important it is for the global project manager to clearly define expectations for individual tasks as well as the overall project work and to provide detailed feedback on all completed tasks that clearly states what was done well and what wasn’t. Failure to do so can lead to misunderstandings and result in unsatisfactory work which will be exacerbated due to the global nature of the project.

 

Time Zone Constraints

It is not unheard of for local teams to work on the same time-zone as the global project manager but disregarding the personal lives of the team members in this way is likely to be counter-productive in building a committed team. Far more effective is setting a common time window when all members are available at their workplace for either scheduled communications, such as conference calls or regular reporting updates, or simply for impromptu communication when everyone can be certain to receive a quick response to any query.

 

Cultural Issues

Understanding cultural differences is a two-way process aimed at helping everyone involved in the project to understand the expectations and attitudes of each other to reach the ultimate goal of a successful project. Clarifying different attitudes to areas such as quality, cost and time is an important first step. It will help to build trust and loyalty between the global project manager and the local teams which will in turn encourage honesty and accuracy when progress is reported.

 

Obtaining accurate progress information can be one of the most difficult things to achieve in a global project where local bosses may encourage an attitude of never delivering bad news. Then no matter how hard the global project manager tries to encourage frank discussion this can be difficult to achieve.

 

Motivation

Methods of motivating individuals vary significantly in different cultures but it is vital for the global project manager to understand what motivates a local team and, just as importantly, the local manager’s approach to motivating the team. It is not unusual for a local project manager to have a completely different approach to motivating a team so a global project manager may be encouraging frank discussion and accurate progress reporting whilst the local project manager uses a carrot-and-stick approach that discourages admission of problems. This can be a particular difficulty for global project managers and local teams that have never worked together before and who have not developed trust in each other.

Responsibility for motivating a local team may well be seen as a local level task but where it impacts the success of a global project – most particularly through the failure to acknowledge problems and accurately report progress – then this is an issue for the global project manager.

 

Managing global projects presents a specific set of challenges that require specific project management skills and experience to overcome. There are inherent difficulties in working with disparate teams from different cultures but the economic advantage in doing so means that global projects are here to stay for the foreseeable future.

 

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