By Peter Coesmans | 6 October 2017
The role of a project manager can be summed up very easily and simply – it is to allow the team to deliver.
The trouble is that many things get in the way of that. Not least that teams suffer when they are extended across geographical boundaries and cultures.
In today’s world, there are good reasons for having distributed and virtual teams. It may mean that productivity can be around the clock, it may widen the resource pool, or provide greater budget flexibility due to varying local costs. It seems that international teams are on the increase, and yet this makes effective collaboration and communication harder.
When teams are co-located, the face-to-face time they have together means they can bond. They flow naturally through Tuckman’s stages of team formation by responding to one another’s behaviours. They mature through the leader-dependent ‘forming’ stage, through the uncertainties of ‘storming’ as team members test their situation, to ‘norming’ where roles settle and are understood, to ‘performing’ where the team’s shared understanding of goals allows more autonomy, and encourages mutual support. Where teams are spread across the globe this tends not to happen naturally, leaving co-workers feeling isolated and potentially ‘out of the loop’.
Nothing replaces being in the same room
A good team needs regular and effective communication, and trust. Whilst collaboration software is valuable, nothing replaces being in the same room and so strategies need to be put in place to compensate.
It’s critical to make sure your core people are in one room regularly – for instance, once every six weeks. There’s much that can be done in-between through virtual workshops or breakout groups, but where different cultures are represented it’s easier to identify and overcome misunderstandings face-to-face.
Being part of the tribe
Human beings are social animals. We’re tribal and our sense of belonging to a particular social group is important to us and drives our behaviour. This can result in overseas team members feeling as if they are ‘outsiders’ and less valued. Teams can help to mitigate this problem by sharing team members across locations so that one person becomes an integrated team member within more than one team. By spending three to four months in one location, and then returning, one person can come to understand both team cultures – improving communication and feedback.
Inclusiveness is the key
When organisations start to put inclusiveness at the centre of their mindset, they work in a genuinely collaborative way. Success lies in understanding the strengths and skills that each person brings, and by overcoming the obstacles that language can put in the way. Working methods such as Kanban combine visual markers with language based communication, reducing the reliance on linguistic understanding.
The risk of misunderstanding is greater when teams are distributed. It’s easier to ask questions when someone is actually there in front of you.
Bringing people together
With some large infrastructure projects that last several years, it is currently normal to co-locate multicultural teams in ‘project villages’ on site. Differing cultures will still provide challenges, but the opportunity to overcome these in a complete social environment is much greater.
Creativity and collaboration
Innovation and creativity can achieve effective collaboration, whatever the obstacles. An awareness of the challenges that international teams bring will point towards options for overcoming them if people work together in a transparent and cooperative way.
We need processes and structures, but it’s people that deliver results.
This blog reflects aspects of Peter’s talk at the Agile Business Consortium’s Member Training Day on September 14th. Peter is an independent programme and interim manager and a jury member for IPMA’s best project manager of the world award. He was one of the first adopting an agile approach for projects outside IT, and was lead author of the international competence baseline for programme management in 2015.