Harness Time, Teamwork, and Technology to Successfully Follow the Sun
If you’ve participated on a global project team, you’ve likely had a few difficult experiences. If you’ve managed a global project team, you understand why it’s so difficult to do well. Challenges inevitably arise from multiple languages, cultures, time zones, and technologies. Unfortunately, in our global economy, it is only going to happen more often. So finding ways to effectively deal with these challenges is the only option (besides retiring.)
Over the years, we’ve managed project team members in countries such as the USA, Canada, Brazil, Mexico, England, and India. Through this we’ve learned a few lessons that we’d like to share. In addition, several technologies have evolved to make the process much easier and we’d like to suggest some good ones.
This topic is quite simple: global teams work in a variety of time zones. This means it’s tricky to either conduct meetings or to collaborate in real time. It is always helpful to prepare a simple chart to help the team understand when colleagues are available. Basically, it shows when people are actually working, when they are willing to be available, and when they need to sleep.
Share it with the team as a first draft, then make any adjustments based on individual preferences and flexibility. As you can see from this example, the four hours highlighted in green are the only times when group meetings are even possible and even then, someone needs to be flexible. Schedule a reoccurring meeting each week sometime during this window.
It is equally important to understand applicable holidays and post them on a shared calendar. Keep in mind that in some countries certain holidays are strictly enforced as “no work” time. Again, you will need help from your team to understand this. For example, Valentine’s Day isn’t a national holiday in the US (unless you’ve just started dating someone) but Thanksgiving Day is.
Finally, allocate an appropriate amount of time for project management. Project management activities are often expected to consume 10% to 20% of a typical project budget. However, global team projects are rarely typical. Expect to add at least another 5% to give the project manager time to coordinate team communication and time for team members to participate.
One of the more well-known challenges is that there are often multiple first-languages and a range of accents. For instance, most business people in India speak English, but their level of fluency and their accent clarity can vary greatly. If this is the case, be sure to coach speakers to slow down and to avoid using unfamiliar terminology. You should also make sure that messages are properly sent and received by frequently summarizing and checking in.
Then there are the cultural differences. Certain societies are strongly hierarchical which can mean that team members will be reluctant to speak up if they feel outranked— even if they have something important to say. It always helps to ask direct questions to people who may not feel comfortable asserting their opinions.
Unique cultures also apply to organizations. This can include separate departments or even outside business partners. Be aware of any client/vendor situation with contractors and any other authority/subordinate relationships. Consider how they might impact interactions. Find out more about the dominant styles and adapt your approach by having occasional 1:1 meetings to get the “back-story.”
A strong team should be made up of individuals with unique skills. Encourage the sharing of relevant credentials in the initial introductions. It is often helpful to ask members to connect with each other using online tools, like LinkedIn, where member profiles describe key experiences and interests. Also, use this opportunity to describe roles and responsibilities on the project so that members can see how the skills relate to the roles. This exercise helps build trust and relationships.
Regarding relationships; it’s wise to foster opportunities for informal conversations. When teams are fortunate enough to travel to a single location for a kickoff meeting, arrange group dinners that provide time for members to mingle. It is often necessary to remind all team members that they need to actually participate in these events for the good of the project. Be sensitive to food preferences and other cultural factors.
Be aware of the primary/secondary effect that often happens when one group, like a home office, dominates the situation. Avoid sharing team information informally among team members in the primary location without also sharing it to the secondary locations. People in primary locations will often forget to offer to entertain any guests who have come to town, so reminders may be helpful.
Of course, delivering on basic team project management practices is absolutely critical on global projects. This includes producing contact lists, role descriptions, and meeting summaries that capture the agenda, attendees, announcements, agreements, and action items. Provide a template and then ask team members to take turns drafting the notes. You should also create project plans that include key milestone dates, stated goals, priorities, and strategies. These documents will keep the team aligned and will be especially helpful to people who miss meetings or who have trouble fully understanding the conversations.
It’s quite helpful to step back and consider how you will use both the old and new technologies. Surprisingly, global groups may use standard tools like email differently and may use systems that present the content differently. Ask teams to be very overt about the requests, intended recipient(s) and copied parties. Mobile text messaging and desktop messaging tools also can vary. So be sure to spend time with the team discussing expectations and what works best. For instance, how long should it take for an email response? Should people be expected to stay signed-in to a particular instant messaging tool during working hours?
Sometimes video calls are not very effective, especially with large groups or when some people are joining during off-hours and don’t want to be seen in their pajamas. In contrast, screen-sharing tools like WebEx or GoToMeeting are quite helpful. They add another channel, besides voice, and can save time by showing rather than telling. At the very least, they can function as a virtual whiteboard to document agreements and action items. Still, for the first meeting, expect to experience technical challenges while connections, software downloads, and phone numbers are sorted out.
One of the best technologies for teams is a robust online collaborative platform that will support task, schedule, document, and resource management. This way, teams can stay organized as they work around the clock and globe. Highly effective teams can even achieve “follow the sun” efficiencies, when daily handoffs are done between team members. we’ve seen this succeed for naturally sequenced tasks like writing and then review. Team members simply do work and update the workflow when they need the next person to act. Setting up both a good plan and a good system makes this possible.
Some organizations use tools like SharePoint to collaborate, which has many features and can be customized for many needs. One quick way to customize is to manage lists using Excel, but embed these files in a file sharing site to allow group viewing and editing. Others use online subscriptions or tools like Box.com to get specific functionality. Often, a collection of specialized products like Harvest Forecast or Trello are used to manage resources or tasks. These tools have excellent user experiences and many of these tools now talk to each other.
Finally, there are some helpful online systems that enable the gathering of team feedback, teammate performance, and even individual recognition. Using survey tools like Survey Monkey is one easy way to collect lessons learned from team members. Going further, there are even specialized teamwork tools such as HighGround and StandOut that have innovative features to build team engagement. Implementing these tools takes broader organizational commitment, but the payoff can be significant.
HRchitect is well versed in the use of global project teams and can provide expertise from multiple Human Capital Management (HCM) technology global projects, on the most efficient methods to get the most out of your global teams.
Hopefully these tips will help you successfully manage your own global teams. Just start with a few techniques that can provide the most value and introduce them on your next project. Good luck!