Domestic project management is difficult, but conducting business internationally poses an array of additional challenges that can make a project even harder to navigate.  International project management requires that you conduct business across borders and cultures, requiring a special set of skills to ensure project success. However, if you’re unaware of the unique situations that arise when conducting global business, you may be ill-equipped to tackle them head-on.  The following provides a bit of background on the United States’ global footprint along with insights into the common challenges associated with international project management.

The State of International Affairs

As business has become more and more IT centric, companies, large and small, tapping into global networks have seen greater success.  US companies are embracing this advantage, leading to the outsourcing of 14.4 million jobs and, consequently, an explosion of international projects.

You may be wondering just how much cross-border business is being conducted.  A quick glance at our foreign direct investment stats shows just how substantial the country’s international dealings are. According to Economy:

“Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) is when a company owns another company in a different country.  FDI is different from when companies simply put their money into assets in another country – what economists call portfolio investment.  With FDI, foreign companies are directly involved with day-to-day operations in the other country.”

Every year, the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) puts together the World Investment Report, a comprehensive document assessing the state of global business.  This report shows that the United States’ FDI is significantly higher than that of other countries and that its’ cross-border mergers and acquisitions are surging.       

According to the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis, U.S. multinational companies invested an astounding 3,610.4 billion dollars abroad throughout nearly every country.  These figures demonstrate how prevalent international business is in our economy and underscores the importance of being ready for the unique challenges presented when managing international projects.

Unique Challenges

Language Barriers

The first challenge you will face when coordinating and managing international projects is the language barrier.  While English has been adopted as a common language in many foreign countries, especially in the business context, not every person is proficient enough to carry on complicated conversations.  In certain situations, project managers (PMs) may be tasked with working with teams that speak several different languages, and they must be able to implement plans that can traverse the barriers.

While differing languages make projects more challenging, proper planning can help alleviate some of the issues.  When constructing a project team, look for language commonalities and incorporate people who can act as translators.  By placing someone who is bilingual within a team, you can utilize them as a resource when communication issues arise. 

Foreign colleagues may not be proficient at speaking English, but they could be adept at understanding the language when it is written.  Online translation programs are readily available and can aid greatly with inter project communication. Putting everything in writing, including minutes for phone conversations and meetings, gives team members the time to process the content and seek clarification about anything not making sense.

Approach

Communication issues do not hinge solely on the type of language being spoken; rather, there are many mannerisms and non-verbal cues that differ by country.  For instance, in certain countries, such as Germany, people are much more direct and tend to give feedback sans the pleasantries; while in countries, such as the US, criticism is often sugarcoated.  If this is not taken into consider, it can be jarring to interact with others who have a different communication style. When managing international projects, you must be cognizant of these different approaches and communicate accordingly.   

Culture

Cultural differences affect every facet of life from how people eat to how gender roles operate.  Professor Geert Hofstede conducted a comprehensive study on how values in the workplace are influenced by cultural difference.  The result was a six-dimension model outlining the independent preferences for one state of affairs over another that distinguish countries from each other.  According to Hofstede, the model looks at the following factors: 

  • Power Distances Index. The degree to which the less powerful members of a society accept and expect that power is distributed unequally.
  • Individualism Versus Collectivism. Individualism is defined as a preference for a loosely-knit social framework in which individuals are expected to take care of only themselves and their families.  On the other hand, Collectivism, represents a preference for a tightly-knit framework in which people expect their relatives or members of a particular ingroup to look after them in exchange for loyalty.
  • Masculinity Versus Femininity. Masculinity represents a preference for achievement, heroism, assertiveness, and material rewards for success.  Femininity is a preference for cooperation, modesty, caring for the weak, and quality of life.
  • Uncertainty Avoidance Index. The UAI expresses the degree to which the members of a society feel uncomfortable with ambiguity.
  • Long Term Orientation Versus Short Term Normative Orientation.  Societies who are long-term oriented prefer to maintain time-honored traditions and norms while viewing change with suspicion.  On the other side of the spectrum, cultures that orient in the short term take a more pragmatic approach: they encourage modern education as a way for preparing for the future.
  • Indulgence Versus Restraint. Indulgent societies allow relatively free gratification of basic and natural human drives related to enjoying life, while restrained cultures suppress gratification of needs and regulate it by means of strict social norms.

Utilizing this model, you can gain a better understanding of the various cultural differences of your team and adapt to each person’s individual preferences.  

Timing

Taking into consideration different time zones may seem like a no brainer, but it is often overlooked.  Your team may be dispersed over a multitude of countries, necessitating consideration of not just the country but also differing time zones.  It is important to consider how time zones will affect both availability and deadlines and plan accordingly.  

When conducting meetings, rotate times regularly so that the entire team has a chance to engage real-time, at some point.  Additionally, tape calls and post them to a cloud-based location so that team members who are unable to attend can easily get up to speed.

For complex projects with multiple foreign-located team members, utilizing project management software is a necessity.  These tools take into consideration different time zones and can automatically convert deadlines according to the time zone of a user’s device.