“Dear Elizabeth: Can you help me with starting right on an international project? I will be responsible for the delivery of 3 projects in Australia and New Zealand. I have a formal project management certification, but managing projects with international teams is new to me. Any tips?”
The principles of managing projects with international teams are the same as managing a project with a team all in your own country. That’s the starting point! It would be best if you still had a schedule to do risk management, status meetings, and all that.
However, there are challenges with projects that span national borders. When I’ve worked with international teams, or on projects where the result needs to be rolled out to multiple countries, I’ve found there are some areas worth spending more time on.
1. Build Trust in the Team
The first thing to consider is how are you going to create a sense of ‘team’ on your team?
You may have contributors from various countries, and you would like them all to feel that they are working together to complete the delivery. Asking someone to work with colleagues they’ve never met, in a different time zone, is one thing. You’re all professionals. You’ll get on with the job.
But being a team goes further than simply handing off tasks to people you’ve never seen. Ideally, as project managers, we want team members to trust each other (and us), and for the communication lines to remain open.
In my experience, building trust often starts by sharing small talk and getting to know each other. Allow some time in each team meeting for people to say what they did at the weekend, much as you would do as an in-person team gathers and chats in a room before a meeting begins.
If you can get them together face-to-face, that’s the most critical thing you can do to build trust in each other. If that’s impossible, have web conferences where you can see them.
2. The Importance of Culture
I’m in the UK, and I’ve worked with people in Spain, Ireland, France, the USA, India, and the Philippines. The culture in each of those places is different.
Use your team meetings to talk about culture and expectations. Be open about the fact you are different, and celebrate the differentness by making a note of international holidays, for example.
Ask, “What do you understand by…” and clarify that a term or action means the same to them as it does to you.
Being conscious of the fact there might be cultural differences is 80% of the solution. You’re already a good project manager. This international project is similar to every other project you’ve done, but with a different team. Get to know your team as people, and not as their national stereotype.
3. Dealing with Language Barrier
There can be a language barrier to international projects too. As an English speaker, you won’t have too much trouble with the language in Australia or New Zealand. For those readers who work with colleagues who do not have English as a first language, consider how hard it is for your teammates to work in their second language.
I remember a Spanish colleague talking about washing lingerie when he meant laundry. I’ve made a faux pas or two in my time when I worked in France. My spoken French was never as good as a native speaker’s, even if I thought I was doing pretty well!
When you’ve got multiple languages in the team, make it as easy as possible for everyone to do their best work. If your colleagues can access the project management software in their language, help them switch their settings so they can see menus in their native tongue.
Here are some other language tips that have served me well:
- Use more written communication
- Speak more slowly
- Don’t speak over each other on calls
- Signpost where you are in the discussion by highlighting the topic on the list before you move on.
4. Managing Time Differences
If you have set up their profile in your project management tool to reflect their location, they’ll be able to see time-driven events and comments in their time zone.
The biggest challenge with time zones is finding time for everyone to get on the same call for a meeting. My colleagues in the USA and the Philippines, find it challenging to speak together because of the time difference. I do have some overlap time with both of them, being in the UK, but you may find someone on the team (you, as the project manager) is staying up later than normal or joining calls in your pajamas to speak to your colleagues on the other side of the world.
5. Tracking the Work
One challenge I had of managing team members in different countries is that I didn’t have visibility of their work. I’m all for trusting people to get their tasks done, but sometimes you need evidence that progress is being made.
Get your colleagues set up with access to your project management software so they can enter task updates directly themselves. Schedule regular check-in calls at convenient times or ask for weekly reports so that you can stay on top of progress.
6. Cross-Border Finances
The final consideration I want to mention is the difficulty in managing a cross-border budget. When you’ve got expenses happening in multiple currencies, tracking your spending becomes very difficult!
In the past, I’ve done this by creating a master tracker that recorded cost in the local currency, then conversion to UK sterling (my ‘normal’ currency) at the exchange rate of the day. That’s the figure I would use for budgeting.
Your finance department will be able to give you specific advice about how you should account for multi-currency projects in line with their accounting principles, but be warned – it’s not easy! Make sure you put enough time aside to do this and rely on your project management tools to help.
Managing international projects is fun. I sometimes travel when I work with global teams. While business travel isn’t hugely exciting by itself, I love the opportunity to visit colleagues and see them in their environments. It’s a great way to learn more about their working culture and build relationships.
Beyond that, remember that you know how to manage a project. Set it up as you would do any other project and use all the same skills you would on a local initiative.
Best of luck with your project!
Elizabeth Harrin is a project manager, author of several books, and a mentor. Find her online at her blog, A Girl’s Guide to Project Management.