Taking the time to meet with and understand the culture of your international partners goes a long way to boosting you entire team’s efficiency. The following case study demonstrates the value of cultural sensitivity when leading an international team.
Case Study: (some details intentionally left vague to provide anonymity for those involved)
Senior executives at company headquarters in the US wanted to have several new products commercialized from a company that they recently acquired in Scandinavia. The effort was to be led by a US-based Project Manager with R&D, Operations and Finance team members split between the US and Scandinavia. This product was originally being commercialized by the Scandinavian team alone prior to the acquisition.
Soon after project kick-off, the effort began to run into delays and missed deadlines. Team members would be absent from critical meetings, deadlines would be frequently missed and resentments seemed to be growing. This was a project that was on its way to a spectacular disaster.
How we saw them
The US members of the team seemed to feel that all of the project problems were coming from the Scandinavian side. We would send them plans, proposed work solutions and data. We felt that we would either hear nothing in return or there was an extreme lack of urgency. We felt that there must be some resentment among our Scandinavian colleagues since this project leadership had been imposed on them and that they were actively looking for ways to sabotage the project.
How they saw us
The technology and science behind the product we were commercializing had all come from years of work that was originally done by the Scandinavians. They felt that the US side of the team was arrogant and pushy. We were seen to be constantly questioning the quality of their science and imposing unrealistic deadlines. To them, the US team seemed to be bent on placing the blame for delays and problems on them.
Getting back on track
The project leader traveled to the Scandinavian site and spent time getting to know each of the individual project members. Several meetings with the US part of the team where held while the project manager was with the Scandinavians to begin to rebuild trust across the entire team. This allowed for some mutual understanding to be made between the US and Scandinavian team members and also helped to establish a way of working together that both sides supported. We finally became one team with a single purpose (Our Team). Ultimately, we all successfully commercialized our product on time and within budget.
Some Lessons Learned:
- All meetings were held in English. The Scandinavians seemed perfectly fluent in English so it was with some surprise to learn that their own confidence in speaking and understanding English was low. Their slowness to respond to questions and demands for information were not being delayed by a willfulness to obstruct the team’s progress but more from a fear of either providing the wrong information or not looking competent.
- The culture of the Scandinavian team was to work by consensus. On the other hand, individual initiative was rewarded and appreciated on the US team. Someone being singled out for a particularly good job was a good thing for a US team member. The same thing was seen as embarrassing and even offensive to a Scandinavian team member. This is why the US style of giving ownership of parts of the project to individuals was not well received by our Scandinavian colleagues.
- National pride was extremely important to the Scandinavian team members. In the US, individual achievement and a successful commercial launch for the company were rated much higher than national pride (this in spite of all of the hoopla around ‘Made in the USA’). With the US now owning the company, a successful product launch was no longer seen as important since this was not perceived as a success for their country. Regardless of these differences, both cultures prized success for the team. Once everyone felt that we were all on the same team, we worked hard together to succeed together.
The ultimate outcome
Once both sides of the team learned more about the cultural differences between them, new ways of working together that respected these differences got the team back on track. Ultimately this project was able to launch earlier than expected. Simply imposing the project management style that had worked well in the US on our Scandinavian colleagues resulted in a dysfunctional team. The value of making the effort to understand the culture of the people that you will be working with is not only good advice for international teams but also for domestic teams as well.
Some Tips for Managing International Teams:
- Plan some travel in your budget – Ideally it is best for there to be an opportunity for all of the team members to meet face- to-face at the beginning of the project. If this is not possible, make sure that at least the team leaders can spend time working with the international team in person.
- Alternate meeting times to accommodate time-zone differences. Nothing is as arrogant as forcing your international team to stay late or get up early just so they can make a meeting that is within normal working hours for you.
- Many things can be done remotely once a connection has been made and trust established. Build trust and understanding early to leverage the effectiveness of this way of working.
- Take the time to find out what motivates your overseas colleagues as well as what they might find offensive. Paying attention to these details can make all the difference between a successfully executed effort and a disaster.