Carl Manello is a Solution Lead for Program & Project Management based in Chicago who enjoys exploring how to tightly couple the art and science of project delivery with business operations.
“The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion it has taken place” – George Bernard Shaw
Advancements in technology, corporate globalization and an increased reliance on offshore resources can result in today’s project manager leading not only a virtual but a global work team. While project managers can expect an increase in the amount of juggling required to plan a schedule across multiple time zones, managing a global team also means anticipating an unique set of communication and linguistic challenges as well.
Establishing effective communications is a critical component in managing a team’s success. Below are some common challenges and potential solutions to assist a PM in facilitating effective communications.
English is the official language of many countries and is used to conduct business worldwide. However, multi-national teams using English as their backbone may be lulled into a false sense of common understanding when it comes to project concepts and terminology. This may ultimately lead to mis-communication among team members.
Slalom Consultant Beverly Lieblang has significant experience in managing global teams, project management, finanancial services, and health care.
- Validate what you heard by asking questions or repeating your understanding of the conversation.
- Ask the team, often, if the verbal communication is clear; be aware that some people who may be at a loss may also be unwilling to admit it.
- Speak slowly and clearly. This does not imply demeaning your audience; just slow down. When speaking in one’s native tongue, it is easy to forget that others may not be as fluent.
- Avoid using slang, metaphors and colloquialisms.
- Summarize the key discussion items and distribute to the team in writing.
- Develop a project glossary to define common terms and acronyms.
The Mother Tongue
Non-native English speaking team members may revert to their native language when discussing complex ideas in a group setting, or when trying to have a conversation that they don’t want anyone else to follow. This will create a separation among team members as it excludes all participants from the normal “give and take” of discussions. Tips:
- Redirect team members to hold their discussions in English.
- Schedule separate meetings with a limited number of participants to discuss complex issues that are country or region-specific.
- Establish a team blog to allow all team members to have access to discussions regarding project questions and decisions.
In some cultures (e.g., the Middle East and in Asia) business protocol and the perception of respect reigns supreme. For example, “Yes” may not mean agreement, but instead may be a polite acknowledgment of the person speaking. In fact, the person responding with the traditional affirmation may be in total disagreement; however, respect demands that they not disagree. As the PM, work to break down barriers and build mutual respect within the team. Tips:
- Post team bios that include details regarding background, country, and languages spoken. This also allows team members to get to know their peers without being intrusive.
- Recognize and embrace the different cultures present in your team by asking people to share a bit of information about themselves as a form of an icebreaker early in the project
- Be aware of and avoid prejudices and stereotypes.
- Be considerate of religious beliefs. For example, when scheduling meetings, understand time commitments that may supersede project meetings (e.g., daily prayer for Muslim team members, ending work prior to sunset Friday for Orthodox Jews). Also be sure to consider vegetarian meals when planning working lunches and dinners for multi-cultural teams.
- Display common consideration towards team members at all times.
Location, Location, Location
Team members are not only dispersed among time zones, but across continents as well. Therefore, a document due by end-of-day today Chicago time can mean tomorrow in Australia. By using specific date and time references (global teams often use GMT), unclear messages – like close-of-business or end-of-day – can be avoided. Tips:
- Meet face-to-face as early and as often as possible to develop trust and team relationships. Think about a trip abroad. Leverage video conferencing solutions whenever possible (e.g., Microsoft OCS)
- Establish a project team site ( e.g., SharePoint) to store work products and templates for easy access for all team members.
- Know time differences to identify “normal” work hours among regions.
- Schedule meetings when most participants can attend
- Schedule meetings using a 24 hour time clock and ensure there is clarity on which time zone is being used (be wary of Outlook, as cross-time-zone meetings are sometimes a challenge to schedule).
- Identify local holidays early in the project planning process.
By anticipating and mitigating communication challenges across cultural and geographical divides, one can capitalize on the rewarding benefits of managing a global team.
All the world is certainly a stage (yes, yes, that was Shakespeare and not Shaw). As project managers, our role as global “directors” grows increasingly important. Ensure that you know the rules, the customs, the norms and are open, honest and clear with all your team members. Don’t be fooled by the illusion of communication; ensure the messages are understood and you will raise your odds for success.
Authors: Beverly Lieblang and Carl Manello