At Solvegy we say we are on a RIDE with our core values. The acronym stands for Relationships, Integrity, Diversity, and Excellence. In this series of articles, I explore some of the lessons I have learned over the course of my career that have helped guide my client engagements. Each article will focus on lessons that relate, albeit sometimes loosely, to one of our core value groups.
This article focuses on the D of our RIDE: Diversity. There are multiple perspectives on diversity: diversity in personalities, diversity in thoughts, diversity in ideas, diversity in experiences. Diversity of project teams provides a catalyst for creating high performing teams.
However, such diversity can present challenges and risks to a project that must be acknowledged and for which responses must be considered. Teams must be willing and able to adapt when presented with challenging diverse factors.
Our team recently completed projects supported by highly diverse and distributed teams. The projects presented us with opportunities to overcome interesting challenges, some of which we anticipated, some of which we did not. Here are some of those challenges and the ways in which we adapted to them, overcame them, or simply accepted and worked around them.
These critical projects were deadline driven, regulation mandated, and monitored at the highest level in the organization. Adding to the complexity were several inter-dependencies between them. The stakes were high and the risks were many.
Our core team was quickly assembled and consisted of client representatives and three different consulting firms to provide subject matter expertise, project management, business analysis, development, and quality assurance. There were also two external service providers.
Our extended support team consisted of two consulting teams, one for infrastructure support and the other for application support. All total, between the core project team, direct support, subject matter experts, and indirect support teams there were more than three-dozen direct stakeholders. Add to that mix the management and executives to whom we were reporting progress and the total stakeholder group was formidable.
Variable time zones presented the most apparent challenge when working with our global team. We had team members on two continents in three time zones with up to 13 hours’ difference. Members were located on the east coast of the United States, in Southern Asia and in Southeastern Asia.
For our South Asian team members, the time variance meant shifting their work-day schedules to ensure availability during our daily calls which started at 9:00 am eastern time. However, during the daily calls we queued assignments to be completed during the next full business day. With careful planning and occasional patience, we overcame the challenge and turned it into an advantage. Completed work was queued for our US development and QA teams through the day.
The Southeast Asia time difference of 13 hours was more challenging. It required our team members to provide 24-hour support with key team members working the night shift so we collaborated directly during the US work day.
Team member experience levels varied widely. We had seasoned professionals who were new to the client and its applications working with less seasoned team members who had more client and application experience. The less experienced team members were coached and led by the more seasoned professionals. Those team members who were less experienced with company processes and legacy applications spent extra time reviewing documentation and consulting with company subject matter experts to quickly get up to speed. The diversity worked in our favor. We leveraged the diverse experiences of all team members to build cohesion and strengthen performance.
Communication and Collaboration Challenges
We were fortunate that all our team members, regardless of location, spoke English. However, accents and inflections presented some challenges. The rolling structure and rapid speech of our South Asian team members made it difficult to understand them at times. Our Southeast Asian team members spoke slower but softly; while the words were easy to understand, the tone, and to a lesser extent the accents, made it difficult to catch every word.
We frequently had to request our South Asian colleagues speak slower to ensure we clearly understood their statements. [Tip: when making such a request, emphasize that their English is good but the speed at which they speak combined with an (expected) accent can make comprehension difficult.] With our Southeast Asian colleagues, we respectfully asked them to repeat statements or parroted them back to ensure we had fully understood their messages.
Email was the most widely used means of communication for the entire team. However, some things were simply not well managed by email. Sometimes more immediate methods of communication & collaboration were required. We used a combination of online conferencing and instant messaging (multiple services including Skype, Lync, and Slack) for more immediate communication. Varying security policies required us to be flexible and adaptable. We also used SharePoint to maintain issue lists and tasks. This worked well for our core project team. However, we had to use alternate methods of collaboration with the extended team then update our portal. This increased our project management workload but it ensured our records were up-to-date.
Aside from some sports rivalries and occasional banter, our United States-based team members shared comparable cultures. Despite representing different companies, we had shared objectives, the same norms, and similar work ethics. No adaptation was required when collaborating with our American colleagues.
Our South Asian team members tended to work long hours, making time to participate on our daily calls even when the timing seemed to interrupt off-hours family time. Despite not being required to support three shifts these team members stepped up when needed and could be relied upon to react and respond in times of crises and even when more mundane assistance was needed. No adaptation was required to work with this team but we did queue up work that could be completed during non-working hours in the US.
Working with the Southeast Asian culture was a little more challenging. Punctuality and timeliness were not always a priority and the directness to which Americans were accustomed was lacking. The latter resulted in occasional miscommunication and poor follow-through. Fortunately, hierarchy and formality were more emphasized in the Southeast Asian culture. We coordinated with a US-based onsite liaison who had authority over the Southeast Asia support team. He engaged our team members in their language with an understanding of their work methods. He emphasized the importance of addressing questions directly and tackling issues with purpose in a proscribed time frame.
As I wrote this brief article about the challenges we faced, I had the benefit of hindsight and the time to research and reflect on the general challenges of managing multi-cultural project teams. I found an interesting study in The Journal of Technology Management and Innovation published by Universidad Alberto Hurtado in Santiago Chile titled “The Cultural Challenges of Managing Global Project Teams: A Study of Brazilian Multinationals.” In the article the authors made a statement that in theory seems elementary, but in practice, particularly in the heat of a challenging in-flight project, is not necessarily top of mind: “…the project manager needs to be aware of the impacts of cultural diversity on the performance of the project.”
The authors cited several theories and reviewed multiple case studies to offer recommendations and to propose a framework for the management of global projects that considers the environment, the organization, and the project. I encourage all project and program managers to read the full study, and more importantly, to be sensitive to the impacts of culture in their project teams. For my part, I pulled out some relevant points and key takeaways that I can apply to future projects in this context.
Relating to management in general: The authors astutely stated within the context of a project, “…most of the team members have two bosses: the functional leader and the project manager. People, therefore, need to have a tolerance for ambiguity and the ability to resolve conflicts focusing on the interests of the project and not about the hierarchy.” This held true for our project. While the idea of putting project interests first seems intuitive, we would have been well served to recognize the importance of hierarchy among our off-shore team members. By doing so we could have asked the client’s project sponsor, the ultimate authority, to clearly define and communicate the roles and responsibilities of each team member in a more hierarchical and structured manner to eliminate the project leadership ambiguity.
Relating to timeliness: The authors suggested that one must have tolerance for conflicts generated by how (differing cultures) perceive time. By recognizing and acknowledging the differences I could have worked more closely with our foreign team members to ensure they understood, and acknowledged interim and final deadlines. I may have even padded them to ensure our “real” deadlines were met. That level of micromanagement was not required when working with our American team members but necessary when working with our overseas team.
Relating to follow-through on task completion: The paper referenced a study that suggested high hierarchical distance can make some team members overly submissive. Thus, they pointed out that “…it takes a while to trust people and feel free to express their ideas.” Under these circumstances the authors wrote that it can be difficult to delegate tasks with confidence. Team members may accept a task but be uncertain how to complete it and tentative about asking for clarification and assistance. We experienced that on multiple occasions. Had we recognized and understood the trait we could have made extra effort to emphasize that not knowing or not understanding was ok and that asking for help or clarification was encouraged.
Relating to Communication: The authors of the study said “If an American does not understand the conversation, communication is compromised and can harm the project. If the team was co-located this barrier may be lower.” Upon reflection, this statement hit home. There were many times when accents or intonation made it difficult for me to understand our overseas team members and admittedly I sometimes shut down or moved on without a full understanding of the message. The co-location recommendation was sound but not possible for our team. However, had we used video teleconferencing more often, doing so might have resolved some of the communication barriers by requiring engagement and promoting empathy.
Ultimately, we adapted and overcame the challenges presented by the diversity of our team. In fact, we turned the diversity into an advantage, completed our major tasks, reached key milestones on schedule, and put the projects on a path to be completed successfully. However, had we better recognized, acknowledged, and addressed the challenges up front, particularly the cultural challenges, we could have reduced the stress levels among all our team members so they could focus on the tasks without the noise.
Rodrigues, Ivete and Sbragia, Roberto. “The Cultural Challenges of Managing Global Project Teams: A Study of Brazilian Multinationals.” Journal of Technology Management and Innovation, vol. 8, Special Issue ALTEC, 2013, pp. 38-52