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Managing Globally Dispersed Project Teams

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In the past 15 plus years, I’ve lead project teams on six continents in over a dozen countries.  Today, I am a Program Manager with projects running in the United Kingdom, India, New Zealand, and the United States.  The culture of each project team is different, and to manage each team successfully, I adjust my style depending on the team I’m working with.  Following are six best practices I’ve learned for managing globally dispersed project teams.

Find a Mentor.  When I first started managing global teams, I thought I was smart.  However, after a couple of team meetings that didn’t go well, I found someone to mentor me.  This person had been working with remote teams for years and understood the challenges of working with diverse cultures. My mentor sat in on meetings and gave me constructive feedback on how to acclimate to cultural diversity.

Communicate, Communicate, then Communicate Some More.  I can’t stress the importance of communication enough.  With travel budgets declining during tough economic times, the ability to travel to site locations isn’t always an option. Notably, trust is key to working with teams, so if you can’t meet face-to-face, other communication methods must be employed.

Email is one option, bit it can be misunderstood.  Instead, consider conference calls, or preferably, video calls.  Furthermore, schedule regular meetings with global teams at times when most, if not all, team members can attend.  Non-verbal communication is also important; so if you’re using video, don’t sit rigidly at your desk.  Instead, relax, move your arms, and if possible, stand up and move around (as long as your audience can see you).  I recommend daily touchpoints at the start of a project, with no less than one update meeting per week. Remember to speak clearly and refrain from using jargon that is not universally understood.

Travel if You Can, But do Your Homework First.  Nothing beats face-to-face interaction when working with global teams because it builds trust and allows you to see the team at work in their own environment.  To facilitate interaction, take the team to lunch or dinner and spend one-on-one time with as many team members as possible.  Listen to what everyone has to say and look for common themes that will help you to interact effectively.  Remember, one trip doesn’t make you an expert on a team’s culture, but it will help you to understand it.

Before traveling, do your homework and learn about cultural norms by talking with your mentor or someone who is from that part of the world. If all else fails, Google it!  For example, I researched South Africa before traveling there, and I’m convinced it helped to ease team interactions.  In contrast, a co-worker who went to India did no research, drank too much, and attempted to ride a cow.  She learned about her impending termination on the flight home.

Define Roles and How Decisions Will be Made.  Although everyone in a company has a title, don’t assume all roles are defined the same globally.  When assembling your team, be sure the roles and functions are clearly defined, and then assign people to them.

Throughout my experience, I have seen managers and project leaders struggle with decision making.  Typically, in the United States, decisions are made quickly, whereas, in Europe, decisions take longer and include an open debate.  In Japan, the decision-making process typically involves informal discussions that conclude with a larger group decision.  To aid decision making, I use a matrix to reduce ambiguity:

  • Immediate Decision: Escalate to the executive team or sponsor to make a final decision.
  • Urgent Decision (needed within 24-72 hours): Schedule a meeting right away with the team to review the decision to be made and management’s recommendation. The team will collectively make a final decision.
  • Non-urgent (needed within 4 days to 1 month): Discuss the decision to be made at the next scheduled team meeting.  Allow everyone to ask questions and participate in forming a recommendation.  Schedule a follow-up meeting where the team will collectively make a final decision.

Employ an “Open-Door” Policy.  I am available to my global project teams from 7 AM to 10 PM in my time zone and outside of those hours upon request.  Everyone on the team, from top-to-bottom, has my cell phone number and is welcome to call me.  When they do, I commit to giving them my full attention and to attending to their needs.

Treat Everyone With Respect.  Respect is a fundamental principle that should prevail in all team interactions.  I’ve seen projects go terribly wrong when a team leader doesn’t set the example for how team members will interact.  If you show everyone respect, team members are likely to do the same.

There are more global project teams today than ever before, and they are continuing to grow in number.  Managers who can effectively lead globally dispersed teams will have greater success and be in higher demand than those who can’t.


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