Thanks to advances in technology, project team members scattered around multiple time zones work together as a matter of routine. However, without a keen understanding of important cultural differences that are most likely to affect collaboration, many virtual global project teams struggle to achieve their goals, or sometimes simply fall apart.
In this edition of Communiqué, co-authored once again by my colleague Rich Johnston, an IT Architect for Carrier Corporation in Syracuse, NY, we explore practical tips and techniques for remote leaders of cross-cultural project teams who want to take the best advantage of the diverse talent and perspectives of all team members.
While some of these tips may be true for most virtual or cross-cultural teams, they are especially important for global project teams that rely on virtual communication as their primary means to collaborate. We wrote these tips with North American-based companies in mind, focusing on same-time meetings. However, these tips can be applied to globally dispersed organizations based anywhere.
- Start with an unambiguous, realistic agenda. State what you plan to achieve in clear, simple language. Especially if new members are joining, indicate that the meeting will be held in English. Build in sufficient time to allow non-native English speakers to translate into their local language and back into English, which can take up to 50% more time than a native English speaker may need. Make it clear what you expect from each participant in the form of prework and participation during the meeting. Let team members know if substitutions or additions are acceptable, which is often the case if a strong command of English is required.
- Establish and enforce meeting norms. At the start of the meeting, summarize which countries, languages and time zones are represented. Ask people to clear their desktops of any additional work during the call to allow for full and active participation by all. Remind people to speak clearly and avoid making interruptions. If you’re using a web meeting tool, review the functions you plan to use, such as raising hands or sharing desktops. Make sure all know how to mute the phone, and remind people to say names before speaking. Indicate under what conditions team members may use instant messaging (or tweets). Remind people of the need to stay focused on the objectives, and indicate how you plan to capture and address “parking lot” issues that you won’t have time to discuss during this meeting. Another norm that helps all feel equally valued regardless of location: Rotate meeting times to give everyone a chance to wake up at 5 AM or stay up until midnight.
- Keep the language simple. Use the fewest number of words to get your point across, which may require extraordinary preparation. Enunciate each word clearly, taking pains to pronounce them in a neutral accent. (This can be especially difficult for those with strong regional accents, but so critical for non-native English speakers who may become quickly lost when hearing a dropped “r” or a flat “a.”) Avoid idioms and metaphors, which can confound or offend others. Americans in particular tend to use sports metaphors that have little or no meaning elsewhere. Examples: Full-court press, out of left field, slam-dunk.
- Set the pace. Allocate time for checkpoints at key junctures in the conversation. Pause periodically to allow silence to let all participants absorb what’s just been said. Some people — Americans in particular — often feel compelled to puncture silence with a comment. For that reason, you may need to set a ground rule to ensure that people maintain these planned moments of silence. If you’re using a web meeting tool, you can invite some participants to make comments in writing during these periods of reflection.
- Engage all participants equally. Many people can converse more easily by speaking and others by writing. Whenever possible, offer participants a chance to communicate in the ways they feel most proficient and comfortable. In addition to phone, make use of web meeting technology that allows people to submit questions or offer responses in writing. People in some cultures may be reluctant to discuss sensitive or contentious topics out loud, especially where hierarchy is important. In this case, you may want to use a web meeting tool that allows for anonymity. Some people, whether due to culture or personality, may be reticent to speak. Make sure to go around the virtual table and solicit input from each team member. Be thoughtful about how best to pose a question that makes it safe for each to respond. Examples: What do you see as the greatest advantage/disadvantage of this solution? If you could change one thing about our proposal, what would it be?
- Choose the best combination of tools. Some meetings, such as a routine weekly status review, might be fine with just phone, as long as everyone has access to needed documents. A business requirements discussion, on the other hand, would be most productive if people had multiple ways to get their ideas across, such as by writing on an electronic flipchart or posting notes for all to see. Videoconferencing can be especially valuable for new virtual team members who want to get a feel for each other’s culture and working environment. When different time zones are involved, allow for asynchronous participation of some sort, such as by posting comments or questions in a virtual conference area whenever it’s most convenient. Make sure that meeting notes are posted during the call as a way to verify for accuracy and understanding. Whatever the tool, make sure that all have reasonable access.
- Identify and address miscues. If you suspect that someone has responded to a conversation point in a way that suggests she has misunderstood a key point, acknowledge her comment and then proceed to paraphrase the original point and invite her to make an additional comment. If you have trouble following someone’s accent, let him know you are having difficulty hearing him (rather than complaining that you can’t understand his accent), and ask him if he can repeat his point a bit more slowly. If you still can’t comprehend the point he is trying to make, you might try following up with him privately offline.
- Use analogies for shared understanding. If you believe that the information you want to convey may be overly complex, consider using an analogy that all can understand regardless of culture or native language. For example, when describing the actions to be completed prior to closing out a particularly complex project, you might use an analogy of a cargo ship leaving port, with all of the many tasks that have to be orchestrated in a certain sequence before the ship can push off. People can often connect best with a shared image, making it easier for them to agree on tasks, milestones and dependencies.
Leading a global project team requires diplomacy, preparedness, superb listening skills, and the willingness to invest time in learning how cultural differences are likely to affect successful collaboration. Check in with a representative sampling of team members from time to time to hear how they’re feeling and learn what improvements you and the team can make. Developing the needed skills and cultural literacy doesn’t happen easily or fast, but once cultivated, can last a lifetime.
Navigating Across Cultures, a three-part white paper by Nancy Settle-Murphy, explores how a new global project team overcomes significant missteps early on by reflecting candidly how cultural differences can make or break successful collaboration.
Cross-cultural training workshops by Guided Insights, delivered onsite or virtually, customized to the unique needs of each organization.