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.

Roles and Responsibilities

Flower GirlMy wife and I recently traveled to Seattle for a wedding. Our daughter-in-law was the matron of honor, and our granddaughter was one of the flower girls. Since Abbie is only two and a half years old, this was her first wedding. Fortunately, there was another flower girl, who went first and modeled the appropriate behavior. She walked the length of the aisle, scattering rose petals along the way. Abbie followed for a few steps, and then stopped to look at the rose petals on the floor. Being OCD (like her Dad), she started picking them up and putting them in her basket. Not quite what Mom had expected when she gave her the job, but the audience loved it.

Roles and Responsibilities

For many people, being assigned to work on a project is a novelty. They have regular jobs, where they have well-understood, routine practices and procedures. However, their additional project duties may not be clear to them. When in doubt, they may default to the behaviors that have made them successful in their regular job (like cleaning up the floor after play). This default may not be beneficial to the project, especially for tasks in the critical path. Consequently, it is important to make the responsibilities, procedures, and project relationships clear for the people assigned to each role, especially if they’ve never worked on a similar project. There are several tools available for clarifying roles and responsibilities:

  • Project Organization Chart – A simple hierarchical diagram of the reporting relationships can usually answer most questions, especially on a cross-functional team.
  • Role Description – Many project charters or project human resource management plans have a narrative description of the duties and responsibilities of each role. This can prevent confusion over who is responsible for what activities.
  • RACI Chart – A table listing the work packages or deliverables, identifying who is responsible, accountable, consulted, and informed for each, usually adds enough structure for most teams to establish a well-understood workflow.
  • Samples and Templates – Many “new” tasks are best understood by looking at the result of a previously completed task, or a fill-in-the-blanks form. This is especially true for work packages resulting in a document deliverable.

Minimizing Overlap of Responsibilities

A primary goal of planning for the human resources aspects of a project should be to ensure all tasks are covered, exactly once. If two people are responsible for the same task, there is a reasonable chance that neither of them will do it. Use the RACI chart to fine-tune who participates in the production of each project deliverable. Ensure that all work assignments are unambiguous, and all participants understand how the work in progress will be handed off. Work with the team to define cues, and follow up on transitions from one person or group to the next. And don’t forget to note completion – I like Kanban boards, because they make work in queue, in progress, and completed visible to the workers.

Coaching

Of course, nothing beats coaching. Whether it comes from the project manager or another experienced team member, a bit of guidance can go a long way. Any task performed for the first time naturally raises questions, before, during, and after. I regularly work on SaaS or software implementation projects with people who will only replace their enterprise software once or twice in their career, so the coaching is less about developing skills than it is about getting them through the assigned task.

Effectively communicating roles and responsibilities can make the project a positive experience for the entire team, while ensuring the timeliness and quality of the deliverables. It takes a bit more care in planning, but it makes execution go much more smoothly.

Selecting Means of Communication

Master Kan“Avoid, rather than check. Check, rather than hurt. Hurt, rather than maim. Maim, rather than kill. For all life is precious, nor can any be replaced.” — Master Kan (Philip Ahn), “Kung Fu”

I’ve seen a lot of different estimates of the amount of time a project manager spends on communication, but I’ve never seen an estimate below 70%.  So if we’re going to be interacting with others for most of our working day, we might benefit from a rubric for selecting our means of communication for maximum efficiency.

A rubric is used to assess a performance task, but it can also be used to determine the best approach for performing the task.  The table below describes a rubric for assessing planned communications.  Each element is associated with criteria, which correspond to numeric values.  Communication tasks with lower totals benefits from use of one-to-one communications, whereas somewhat higher totals benefit from one-to-many communications, such as Tweets or Email.  The highest totals benefit from many-to-many interactions, such as conference calls or in-person meetings.

3 2 1
Number in the Audience Many A few One
Proximity of the audience Distant In between Close
Physical distribution Widely distributed In between Co-located
Need for audience interaction High Moderate Low
Familiar with subject matter Yes Somewhat No
Potential for emotional reaction Low Moderate High
Complexity of subject matter High Moderate Low
Need for immediate response Low Moderate High

The goal of communication planning should be not to reduce the amount of time spent communicating, but to making planned communications as efficient as possible. Analysis by rubric can be very useful in preparing our project communication plans.  To paraphrase Master Kan: Speak face to face, rather than by telephone.  Telephone, rather than Instant Message.  IM, rather than Tweet.  Tweet, rather than Email.  Email, rather than schedule a conference call.  Conference, rather than schedule a meeting.  For everyone’s time is precious, and their attention and participation should not be wasted.
Dilbert Meetings a Waste of Time
I’d appreciate your thoughts on the rubric elements and criteria – I’m pretty sure my first pass can be improved.  Leave a comment below and let’s collaborate on it!