Key success factors in managing global projects

Project teams in today’s large organizations are frequently made up of team members from around the globe – a fact that can make work much more interesting and inspiring, but one that also lifts the complexity of project (or program) management to entirely new levels.

There are many good reasons for having an international team. No one likes “headquarter projects” that ignore local conditions and requirements, and having team members from various countries ensures local needs are taken into consideration. It also sends a strong signal to regional or country management that they have a stake in the solution, which I’ve experienced to substantially increase the likelihood of a successful roll-out.

In addition to being global, teams are also increasingly virtual, meaning they consist of team members who have to work together without much face-to-face contact. Not only do they have little personal interaction, but frequently team members also have other responsibilities or “day jobs”. They can only commit part of their time to the project. This puts a lot of pressure on individuals and can easily result in emotionally charged situations.

Let’s take an example of a European-based financial services player where a transformation program is staffed with team members based in North America, Europe, and Latin America. After a number of somewhat slow and frustrating initial calls and meetings, the team manager of the European team (who might see this as an opportunity to speed up her career trajectory) decides to just move ahead without letting the others slow her down, while the North American team seems very risk-adverse and moves in circles because of possible local budget constraints. The Latin American team members initially feel left out and soon become too caught up in fixing business-as-usual issues. After a few months into the project it becomes clear that objectives will not be met as planned, and rather than jointly solving the problem individuals start publicly blaming each other for delays or quality issues.

These problems are commonplace and they have a wide variety of roots. Many of the challenges are based on language differences and on cultural differences. In Denmark, for example, it motivates people when the boss acts like a facilitator among equals, but in Russia the staff might respond better to a boss who is clearly in charge. Add to that the fact that virtual teams barely can interact synchronously and face-to-face.

There is a lot of academic research available on how to best manage a global virtual team. For example, Frank Siebdrat, Martin Hoegl, and Holger Ernst studied software development teams from 28 different labs in various countries. They found that under certain circumstances virtual global teams can even outperform collocated ones as they offer better access to the right talent and higher degrees of diversity which improves levels of creativity and innovation. The key success factor the researchers identified is to have clear task-related processes to coordinate work among team members. Well-implemented processes increase the levels of mutual support, member effort, coordination and task-related communications.

At the same time, a program manager also needs to ensure the right socio-emotional processes are in place. Not surprisingly, research shows that all teams work better if they do have regular face-to-face meetings – however, doing so frequently enough might be difficult for cost or time issues. To establish trust team members therefore need to make appropriate use of other communication channels. Arvind Malhotra, Ann Majchrzak, and Benson Rosen (Leading Virtual Teams, published in: Academy of Management Perspectives, Feb 2007) outline amongst other things how leaders can use technology to establish trust, monitor progress, and manage work-cycles.

So, what should you do if you get tasked with managing a global project? Consolidating the ideas from academic research and adding from my own experiences managing global transformation programs, I recommend the following key steps:

  1. Establish clear task-oriented processes: all global or virtual projects need a strong governance in place. Having a “central” PMO that works next to the program/project manager is a prerequisite. Expect 1-4 FTE depending on the size of the program who support planning, monitor progress, and ensure quality of deliverables

  2. Set-up communication channels: establish norms how information should be communicated and make use of appropriate channels / tools. Some form of central program repository (e.g. a Sharepoint site) can be of very high value. A PMO team member can be the knowledge manager, but make sure that team members from all locations have access to the data

  3. Delegate accountability: you cannot manage a large global program centrally. Therefore, team members need to be made accountable for individual work packages. The overall program management needs to ensure that all components fit together

  4. Recognize contributions and celebrate successes: team members’ contribution to a global program might not be valued within their local organization. Therefore, it is key to point out the value of these contributions in a very visible form. You have to make sure that no team member gets “punished” for contributing to the project rather than doing other work that might be more visible within his or her unit

  5. Organize appropriate face-to-face meetings: in person meetings are important. It’s usually good to have them early in the project (kick-off sessions), but also somewhat regularly throughout. If having one global meeting is not an option, consider regional ones. To get the full pay-back, those meetings should be hands-on working sessions rather than nice get-togethers

  6. Have the right program governance: especially on global programs it is important to think about who you want to have on your Steering Committee or Sounding Board. You need the right mix of Regional and Functional Management to make sure that the body can decide on important issues

If you get these points right, you substantially increase your chances of success. But, of course there’s still a lot of hard work that needs to get done.