Global Change Teams That Work
While the scenario of managing globally dispersed change or project teams is more common now than it was 20 years ago, managing a team that is spread out across different time zones and geographical locations, and that is made up of people with different cultural backgrounds and languages, is not without its challenges and complexities, even for the most experienced change leaders.
But first, what scenarios would require a globally dispersed change or project team in the first place?
Typically, there could be any one or more of four reasons for needing a global change or project team:
If a global company was to undergo a rebranding for example, then that project would involve all the geographical locations in which it operates so there would be a business requirement for a global project
Some geographical locations can have a higher concentration of people with a specific technical skill set
Offshoring elements of a project to India or China, where they are technically skilled to do the work, is generally cheaper than the UK or America
If you take a ‘follow the sun’ approach, then the project is essentially being delivered 24-hours a day and the work moves across each time zone as project activities are handed over from team to team which means you get much more worked on in a shorter period of time.
What are the typical obstacles and challenges to look out for?
It goes without saying that globally dispersed teams come with their own complexities.
You need to make sure that everything’ s being communicated effectively and clearly across all locations at the right pace, in the right way, at the right time, to the right people. What you don’t want is a scenario where you’re saying, “we are doing Z in X location”, and then allowing that information to simply trickle down to the other locations, taking the risk that each time the message is passed on it will, much like Chinese whispers, change.
How you communicate is also an important factor to take into consideration. In some countries it is culturally appropriate to say “yes” every time you are asked to undertake certain work, so it is important to verify whether they can do the work assigned. In other cultures, saying “no” is the norm and in that case, you might have to work with them to point out that they are indeed capable of doing the work.
You must also factor in how you communicate when dealing with questions and requests in different countries to ensure that the work is getting done in the right way, because different cultures have a different mindset to yours when approaching things that you might perhaps take for granted.
One Team Approach
To ensure that you’ve got a uniform standard of work across the different resources that are all part of one team, you need to have criteria that applies uniformly to everyone. What you don’t want to get into is a situation where your expectation of a resource in one location is 80% and then your expectation of a resource in another location is 50%, because that creates resentment. That’s why you need to have a standard that all people work to and that is transparent to everyone. One way to achieve this is to have KPIs or performance metrics that are published to everyone, and then everyone can see where they sit within that, and you can address any people that are not achieving the right standard and work out why that is. It might be they haven’t been given the right information, or they don’t have the right tooling and have got got a technical issue that’s preventing them from doing that. But what you can’t do as a project, is to drop your standards to the lowest common denominator, which is why you need to have a one team standard that is the right standard for the project.
Additionally, you want the whole team to feel like they belong to one team and aren’t operating in silos. To achieve this, it can help to have a weekly newsletter that is shared across the team, keeping everyone updated on what is going on or to share announcements like birthdays and anniversaries, to create that feeling of camaraderie and unity in the team. It’s important for dispersed teams to feel connected to the wider team and that people are interested in their lives beyond work. It’s also about shouting out and celebrating their achievements in the wider team and then rewarding them in a way that is culturally meaningful to them. For example, in some geographical locations, recognition is about receiving a certificate in a small presentation with family present, and in others it’s about receiving an Amazon voucher.
It’s important to ensure that everyone in the team is speaking the same language and that if they are not, that at least one member of the team in every location is fluent in the common language being used. For example, if the common language is English, it’s important that at least one person in every location can translate to the wider team from English into their native language what you mean so that your message is communicate clearly and accurately. The last thing you want is an unintentional misunderstanding that could cause offence, confusion, or an error in the project, all because of a translation issue.
Clearly, dispersed teams mean your resource will be working in different time zones. What you don’t want is to create a culture where everything is based off one time zone because that can be very unfair to people in the different locations. It’s therefore useful to try to mix things up whereby your resource might, for example, work three UK days and two days where they start at lunchtime, so that they have more of an overlap with the West Coast in the USA. Or there might be days where they start earlier and days when they work normal hours, depending on where they are based, to overlap with all the different time zones. It’s effectively about getting the right balance so that you get enough engagement and so that your resource doesn’t feel disparate from the team. As much as possible you want to have times when everyone’s available to talk to everyone so that that the team can engage properly and in a way that allows the work to continue uninterrupted and on plan. To achieve that goal, it’s important that all locations make compromises when it comes to their working hours.
To facilitate the effectiveness and efficiency of global change / project teams you also need good tech in place to not only ensure good communication across the wider team but to also ensure the work is getting done on time and to budget. This can be a challenge in some locations if they don’t have access to, for example, the same quality of broadband that other locations have, and it’s about factoring that in and giving them access to the right tools that will allow them to stay connected to the team but to also get their work done. It can also be about thinking outside the box sometimes and having days where everyone in a particular location gathers in person so that the resource in that region is able to use the same broadband connection which means they can all be on camera for meetings simultaneously.
Finding the right resource
Sometimes finding resource in certain geographical locations can be challenging in and of itself so you must engage with resource that is not physically based in that location to get the work done. If this location is somewhere like Australasia, this immediately poses a time zone challenge as you need to find people who are prepared to work either very early or very late to have the right amount of overlap. You must then balance the impact of that on those individuals, especially if the project duration is expected to be lengthy. Although working nights would be reflected in their pay, you need to ensure that you keep them engaged and happy with their quality of life to avoid high attrition.
Negative conflict can be a side effect of any team working together, let alone a global team., and as such needs to be addressed promptly as it causes problems the way it would in any project. Sometimes it can be slightly more challenging if it’s a cultural issue, as people can be less willing to let you know what the problem is. One thing that can help is making sure you schedule individual face-to-face meetings with the resource in that location, as it often allows you to get to the bottom of the real issue and to address it in a way that you could not do from afar in a formal context.
On other occasions you might find you have to deal with situations in a way that is culturally appropriate for that location / region. What is acceptable in your location might not be acceptable in another location, and as unjust or unfair as that might seem to you, you must make sure that you’re taking into consideration what’s appropriate for their location and how they feel, and not just impose what you think is right from a Western perspective.
What are our Top Five Tips for getting it right?
For a global change team to work you must recognise that obstacles and challenges will come up simply due to the natural make-up of the team, and then it’s about allowing for that and working around those.
These are our top five tips for getting it right:
- Communication – Getting it right is key to your project’s success. A globally dispersed change team is simply not going to work if you don’t communicate properly.
- Flexibility – You need to have elements of flexibility in how you approach the team with respect to working in different time zones, different cultures and different skill sets. Having a one-size fits all won’t approach doesn’t work when you have global teams.
- Accountability – For a global project to work you need people to have standards that are published so that everyone can see that are achievable and to make sure that everyone's working in the right way and that there aren’t any differences in how different locations are being treated.
- One Team – You need people to bond as a team because, as with all projects, challenges are going to come up at some point and what you want is for people to pull together rather than to work in silos. You need them to all think of themselves as one team and for them to want to help out their colleagues to ensure the project has the best possible outcome.
- Cultural make-up of Team – When you are working cross culturally, there are lots of things to take into account that you need to get right to ensure you’re working in the right way, from the way you speak, how you address people, and what colour of clothing you wear, to what allowances you make for family time, for religious celebrations, and even for legal restrictions in specific locations such as employment laws.
What does good like?
Good looks like having great communication across the team and where you can clearly see from the metrics that you’ve put people in place who are working at the right level, and that that there aren’t peaks and troughs in performance but that instead everything is working in synergy and the project is running on time, on scope and on budget.
Good also looks like you’re building on positives and minimising negatives, and where you’ve built an adaptable, flexible project team, where your attrition rate is low.
In fact, lot of what “good” looks like is general management of how to run a good project. You need a good team, and you need the team to work well together. You need to ensure that you’re continually working on that to keep everyone engaged, and that you’re delivering to time, cost and quality.
When you’re dealing with dispersed teams you also need to check in with each team, wherever they are, and to continually be asking questions to determine how they’re feeling and what’s going on, and if there are any specific challenges they’re facing or if there is anything that you can help to improve.
Good basically looks like a balancing act. Different languages and time zones might not necessarily be a problem, but you need to consider the impact of those and how to balance that and to ensure you’re optimising the benefits and using the right tools to engage with your team and for them to do their work. It’s easy to set up a project and to press go, but the art is in finding the right balance when managing resource dispersed across the globe and taking into account all their different cultural and personality intricacies and particularities.