Managing Globally Distributed Project Teams

I started managing projects that included team members or customers outside the US in the mid-90’s. In the beginning, it was one other country. Then two, and so on. As I progressed in my career, working with globally distributed project teams became my norm. A typical project would include people spread across five to thirty countries, three to five continents, and from three to seven time zones. As you would expect, it’s very different from managing a few folks clustered together in a cube farm. Preparations must begin before the first team meeting.

Working Calendars

It is important to be cognizant of the non-working days for the people in your team. Set up the holidays for each country in your project planning system—here is a list of commonly observed national and religious holidays in several countries for 2020, and here are instructions for updating the working calendar in Microsoft Project. In addition, ask your team members to record their planned vacation dates in a shared location—I usually just use an Excel spreadsheet, to keep the technical overhead down. Also, find a culturally sensitive way to inquire about maternity leave!

Time Zones

One of the biggest problems with working across oceans is the impact of time zones and the international date line on available windows for team meetings. Even if the organization adjusts working hours to get some alignment, it can be a burden for those who are always either getting up early or staying up late. Try to schedule meetings in a way that shares the burden.

Also recognize that not everyone observes daylight savings time, and those that do, don’t all change their clocks on the same day—Europe and North America are a week apart. And the Northern and Southern hemispheres are on completely different schedules. Here is an excellent resource for finding the current time and time zones of most of the large cities in the world, and here is their daylight savings time page.

Visibility into Workload Conflicts

Most globally distributed, cross-functional project teams include some number of people who have additional work responsibilities. The project will always be in competition with that other work, and you won’t necessarily know when priorities change. To avoid delays, maintain contact with your team member’s manager, or a proxy—someone who can act as a remote source of information and as a person of influence, should that be necessary. Not all cultures will openly discuss doubts and conflicts, especially with a distant colleague. It is vital to have a way to identify and resolve conflicts, and getting a periodic pulse check from someone on site can make a huge difference.

A Common, Bland English

For most global organizations, English is the common language. That doesn’t mean everyone speaks or understands it fluently, and it certainly doesn’t mean that everyone is familiar with all the local idioms, slang, and cultural references. When on the phone, speak deliberately (but not too slowly), as it can be difficult to parse out similar-sounding words. Work to avoid misunderstanding by keeping your spoken communications as jargon-free and non-colloquial as possible. And try to take the edge off your regional accent – I work at sounding as much as possible like a “generic American,” without the drawl. I tried to raise this with a colleague from Houston a few years ago, who replied, “What accent?” Note that British, Australian, Canadian, Scottish, Irish, and New Zealand accents and idioms are just as real and just as hard on the ears as Indian or Texas English. Speak to be understood by your audience.

There are many resources available online that can help you build your Cultural Intelligence, and even if you aren’t managing global teams right now, you almost certainly will be before long. I learn more about how cultural differences impact work and communication with every project, but I generally find that if I assume people are doing their best until I have reason to doubt it, my life is a lot happier.

Status Reports: News and Information

Dennis the NewsboyI’m sure you’ve heard the old saw that dog-bites-man is not news, but man-bites-dog is news. While the news can be a source of entertainment, especially when some man bites a dog, such incidents are anecdotal at best—a statistic with a sample size of one. We should also consider that tabulated instances of dog-bites-man and related details can be statistically analyzed based on characteristics like breed, time of year, distance from the animal’s home, behavior of the man immediately prior to the incident, and so on. We call this information.

I don’t mean to imply that news has less merit than information. I simply mean that we should distinguish between the two types of content. And you should include both types in project status reports. Effective decision makers stay current on the news but base their decisions on information.

Project News

WhiteboardProjects are like novels, described by my high school English teacher, Ray Rockwell, as “One damned thing after another.” That said, some activities are recurring, or spread over a long period of time, while other activities and events are one-off, or are notable as start or end-points of longer duration events. This is where we separate the news items from the data points.

Project reporting periods vary, based on the projects and the needs of the stakeholders, but let’s assume you are reporting each week. Some of the news items you might want to cover in your status report include:

• Milestones achieved or missed
• Delayed events or actions that were finally completed
• Noteworthy achievements by team members or the team overall (kudos)
• Noteworthy misses or failures by the team, and what was learned

I could go on, but you get the idea. These are events, both planned and unexpected, at a point in time. Timing is important, as old news is no news, and while a few news items are worth interrupting scheduled programming, most are not.

Project Information

ExcelGanttChart4Projects tend to generate a lot of data that can and should be tracked over time. For example: it can be helpful to understand how risk exposure has evolved over the course of a project. If the project team is continually updating the risk register and the qualitative and quantitative assessment scores, and you have an agreed way to aggregate all of those risk scores, a graph of the cumulative risk exposure can show the trend. If you score open issues, that can be a second line on the chart. Add those to a line with a burn-down chart of planned work and insert major milestones, and you have a picture that tells a compelling story.

During the test stages of a project, graphs can your stakeholders tell a lot about your increasing confidence in the quality of the product. I saw another team graph knowledge capture and transfer as a burn-down chart, to the delight of the folks who would assume support responsibilities after the move to production. Think about your stakeholders and the sort of information (as opposed to news) that they will focus on. Not everyone will care about labor utilization trends or cumulative spend but if your audience wants it, track it. Chance favors the prepared, and management favors the proactive.

Project Scorecards

Most of us have adopted a Red-Amber-Green score-at-a-glance for quick and easy summary of the detailed message. The key here is to make these broad assessments the result of an actual score, decided in advance of the project. I’ve written before about making these indicators rigorous, but let’s be clear about their value to the consumers of your reports: they should call attention to something to be investigated elsewhere in your report. If you have one overall RAG stoplight and six detail-level stoplights, ensure your project news and information is organized in a way that lets them find the details quickly. Don’t force your CFO to read the whole status report in order to find the sentence that says consultant labor spend is running 10% ahead of plan. Highlight the bad news!

Communication Leads to Influence

We prepare project status reports because we want to communicate with our stakeholders, make them aware of progress, road blocks, and speed bumps, and influence them to act on the things that require their action. A good project status report doesn’t “spook the herd,” but it does let management know what to expect. And the key to becoming a positive influence is by managing expectations.

Defining Status Metrics: RAG, Trends, and Transitions

Execution

We’re judged on our results, rather than our intentions

A colleague of mine, Rob Young, lamented the lack of rigor in governance by new project managers. This is especially evident in red / amber / green (RAG) summaries in status reports, where a failing project can still be reported as green. “Clearly, there needs to be a common understanding of the status metric that is being reported against and the rationale for moving between statuses.”

Rob is absolutely correct: You can’t manage what you don’t measure, and you can’t effectively communicate your measurements if there are no well-understood units of measure. And as Glen Alleman regularly insists, the dimensions measured and units of measurement need to be meaningful to the decision-makers and applicable to their problem domain.

Selecting Project Dimensions for RAG Measurement

While I am an advocate of using RAG status indicators to direct attention to specific areas, such as schedule, budget, quality, staffing, and so on, I believe that reporting an overall project status or risk status using RAG is “governance for dummies.” These are complex topics deserving of a short narrative description that invites inquiry into the details. More on that below.

Prior to the project kickoff, select dimensions that are both relevant to the project and meaningful to your stakeholders, and create a reporting definition statement for each one. Schedule and quality are always relevant, and unless you have an unusual situation, so is budget. Projects with a dependence on shared resources should include staffing. You may also need dimensions for software development, change management and communication, data record conversion, and so on. Then describe how you intend to measure that aspect of your project, as you move from one phase to another. For example, your projected budget should be broken down by month, or whatever shorter time period is meaningful. With that assumption, consider this description:

Budget: Cumulative non-BAU spending to date matches cumulative projected spending in the approved project budget, with approved changes. Capital budget expenditures tracked separately from those to be treated as operating expenses.

  • Green: Cumulative capital spending not more than 3% over budget and operating expenses not more than 5% over budget and no anticipated events are expected to change this state
  • Amber: Cumulative capital spending more than 3% over budget or operating expenses more than 5% over budget, or an anticipated event is expected to put the project over these limits
  • Red: Cumulative capital spending more than 5% over budget or operating expenses more than 10% over budget, or an anticipated event is expected to put the project over these limits

This definition is both precise and verifiable throughout the project life cycle. Other dimensions, such as quality, are more complex and may need different definitions in different project phases.

Trends and Transitions

Once you’ve reported an amber or red status, you have their attention. But when you transition from amber in one reporting period to red in a subsequent period, or red back to amber, you are indicating more than just a status—you are describing a change of state.Consider this example definition:

  • Green to Amber: An issue has been identified that is driving the project over budget, and corrective action is being taken. If the underlying issue has not been identified or no mitigation is possible, report as Red
  • Amber to Red: The underlying issue that drove the project over budget has not been corrected and executive management attention is required
  • Amber to Green or Red to Amber: The underlying issue that drove the project over budget has been corrected and the overage recovered, or the adjusted budget has been approved
  • Red to Green: Not an acceptable transition in a single period

I’ve seen some status reports that use arrows to identify trends. For example, an up arrow indicates trending toward green, down represents trending red, and an arrow pointing to the right indicates a steady state. Trend reporting can be useful, if accurate, but if you report an upward trend from amber in one period and then red in the next, you are going to face some well-deserved hard questions. If you decide to report trends, be sure your stakeholders understand what you want them to do with the information—a down arrow may not mean “all hands on deck.”

Dimensions Where RAG Isn’t Appropriate

As I mentioned earlier, overall status and risk are not RAG-appropriate. Smart stakeholders and sponsors don’t get bogged down in the details, but they want the ability to identify, investigate, and act on a specific, troublesome weed. Facilitate this with your narrative descriptions. If a risk has morphed into an issue or has been overtaken by events and is no longer a concern, say as much. If the schedule has slipped due to resource conflicts with another project or with business as usual, be specific. One team’s solution can easily become another team’s issue. It may be that the conflicting demand really has a higher priority, but let the sponsor and stakeholders make the decision, explicitly.

I’ve also learned to like using “++” and “–“ to flag changes in scope. For example:

  • — Interface to FloximateKersplunk moved to Phase 2, per Nixard Richon
  • ++ Additional testing of GL interface approved and funded by CFO

Also, as Rob points out, “Especially on T&M projects there should of course be no reason not to report spend (in hours and dollars), and estimate to complete.” If you are managing a project with multiple vendors, it may be useful to break out their costs separately, in a detail section. If one vendor is way over budget, while the others are on target, don’t just report amber.

Actionable Information in Digestible Form

The people who are reading your status reports can handle mixed metaphors, so aim for clarity and accuracy rather than mind-numbing consistency. Deliver actionable information and recommend actions. You can be concise and clear, if you seek to communicate rather than just fill out some weekly form.

Consider the ultimate in status reporters: those folks who forecast the weather. They start with current temperature, humidity, precipitation, and so on, and then talk about their projections. You quickly learn whether you need an umbrella or sun block, and when you need a sweater, because they don’t just give you the numbers—they help you reach conclusions. Watch, and learn.