The world of work has shrunk significantly in the last 20 years and it is now very common to be working with overseas partners on projects. This could be as part of an outsourcing arrangement, or through the offshoring model, which is common in organizations that require ‘follow the sun’ financial transaction processing or telephone support. Of course, your company may have divisions scattered around the world as well; international projects don’t always involve third parties.

For project managers, this means that there are different types of stakeholders involved in projects. A project to deploy new financial software may touch in-house staff in a number of countries plus several third party suppliers who provide niche services. Managing international projects can be hugely interesting and rewarding, but they are also a challenge. Here are five things to look out for on international projects.

1. Language

It may seem obvious, but if you are working across borders, it is unlikely that your project team will all speak the same language. Here at Ten Six Consulting, we work with partners in England on a regular basis, and even between US and UK English there are differences that sometimes need explaining. The problem of a common language is far greater if you are working with colleagues who do not routinely work in your language.

At the beginning of a project it is worth specifying what will be the main working language of your project. In projects led from an English speaking country it does not have to be English for everything. Your enterprise project management tool may have interfaces in several languages. The team abroad can enter their timesheet data and interact with menus in their own language while keeping the ‘official’ language of project documents as English.

Be considerate to members of the team who are not working in their native language. Minimize jargon, and make your spoken and written language clear.

2. Time

Different cultures have different interpretations of time, and for some, milestones are just a guide. You may value punctuality, but other team members may not have the same view of when a meeting is supposed to start. The only way to manage this is to have frank conversations with everyone involved, spelling out what the potential challenges might be and asking for collaborative solutions to dealing with them. It is better to have these conversations early than spend a lot of time hanging around on conference calls waiting for the others to turn up.

3. Roles and Responsibilities

The role of the project manager might be very well respected in your own country, but your role may not be understood elsewhere. Colleagues in countries where companies have very hierarchical structures may not take direction from you because they may not see you (or your role) as very important. Equally, they may not have received much guidance about how their project responsibilities fit with their day job.

Unfortunately, you are more likely to uncover this challenge once you have started working on the project, so your action plan is really to deal with a problem that has already happened. Talk to your own manager, and colleagues who have experience in working with the overseas team. You could also engage the local managers who can help set expectations with their teams about the project, their role and your role in it.

4. Tools

Make the most of the software available to you. Some tools have instant messaging capabilities. One company we know works frequently with Skype. This type of technology means that you can be connected to your team members even if you aren’t working in the same room as them. However, they work best when the time difference is not more than a couple of hours. Working with someone who is 10 or 12 hours behind you can be far more of a challenge. How can you ever speak to them in the working day?

Tools like blogs and wikis that enable asynchronous working are valuable in these situations. You can also record presentations or conference calls and make these available later. Think creatively about the problems you have to solve and then use technology appropriately.

5. Virtual Teams

We’ve touched on virtual teams above, and this is probably the single greatest challenge for project managers. Managing virtual teams is difficult and it takes a lot of commitment from everyone involved. You have to be even better at documentation, knowledge sharing and team building than when you have everyone in the same room. Being alert to the challenges of virtual teams is the first step to identifying methods to help keep your team on track.

We have a lot to learn from other cultures and working with international teams can be one of the most rewarding parts of project management. If you look at the benefits of working on international projects, these challenges are all just part of the rich experience that results from a shrinking work environment.

In this article, what have you learned about the five most common challenges that occur in international projects?

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