The 4 Rules for Success with Global Teams

By Greg Holden, Business Writer and Social Media Manager, IRI

Technology lets us do amazing things. Where once a research and development (R&D) team needed to be located in the same facility in order to collaborate, today, the sight of engineers collaborating with globally distributed coworkers via IT tools is quite common. But this dispersion of staff poses challenges of its own. For instance, when you have yet to meet one of your co-workers in person, how do you develop trust with her? When you share an office space it’s easy to casually pass along concerns, observations, insights, or interesting findings to your colleagues around a water cooler. Is it possible to replicate this with global teams? Not really. So communication is dampened on a global team. Based on research at the Industrial Research Institute (IRI), these challenges have been studied and some general rules about building a successful global team have been laid out.

Rule #1: Global Teams Require an Established Framework

In an article in Research-Technology Management (RTM), researchers from Intel, Xerox and Portland State University conducted eight case studies of global design teams and what factors led to their success or failure. A key recommendation they propose in their article is that communication is a challenge for dispersed teams and as a result the framework the team operates within should already be established before even attempting to put such a team together.

“With the teams becoming more widely dispersed, the communication channel grows increasingly wide, which increases complexity,” the authors wrote. “Dispersion helps productivity to a certain extent, beyond which it has a negative impact on the team’s output. Well-established processes ensure smooth functioning of the team. Hence, it is advisable to opt for a distributed team when the team processes are well-developed.”

Other R&D leaders agree on this point. In an IRI Community Forum discussion about the viability of global teams, Wayne Boyd, Senior Director of Business Applications at Waters Corp. said, “The key business processes that require collaboration across multiple sites must be unified within a framework that promotes a common methodology in order to produce agreed upon deliverables. The use of a framework rather than a prescriptive method helps maintain the most focus upon the deliverables that are absolutely necessary and allow flexibility with respect to the local needs; which may differ.”

Rule #2: Building Trust is Paramount– Face-to-Face Meetings Help

“Having worked with researchers in many different countries, I believe the major success factor is getting to know people personally,” said Terry Say of Say Consulting and an IRI Emeritus. “You can read reports, [and] have video conferences… but until you have met the person, preferably in a social setting, you cannot judge their capabilities, inventiveness, honesty, etcetera.”

Easily among the top factors that lead to failure in global teams is a lack of trust among team members. It isn’t that they view each other with suspicion, it’s more that they start to feel that they have no say, or that the others don’t understand their culture, or that the others aren’t giving their views honest consideration, which leads to disgruntlement. The informal interactions common to a shared office space are not present with global teams, so the casualness that build commitment and loyalty to a team needs to be built into the team’s structure at the start.

In one of the case studies presented by the researchers at Intel, Xerox and Portland State University, the manager overseeing one of the cases that failed said that if given the choice “he would prefer to work with teams in the same location… His recommendations for managers of globally dispersed teams were to divide up the work, eliminate duplication of effort, avoid cross-site ownership of one task, build trust between teams, and conduct regular face-to-face meetings, especially at the beginning of the project” [Emphasis added].

Rule #3: Build Cross-Cultural Bridges Early

The third rule relates to the one above about trust. In order to create an effective global team, its members need to have a reason to trust one another. One article in RTM written by Peter Gwynne examining culturally diverse teams concluded that a solid understanding of what makes each culture function the way it does is needed for success. By developing a good understanding of each other’s culture, the team as a whole can move past those differences and even utilize the strengths of each culture more effectively. The article promotes a “fusion” approach, similar to fusion cooking where a chef combines ingredients or methods from different traditions “while preserving their distinct flavors, textures and forms of presentation. In a management context, fusion is based on two fundamental elements of collaboration: coexistence of differences and meaningful participation.”

Michael Maccoby, president of The Maccoby Group, a consulting firm, stressed the importance of immersing yourself in another culture. “You won’t understand the management culture in another country just by reading about that country’s culture or viewing surveys of values,” Maccoby wrote. “There are differences in sub-cultures in every country. You need to examine a business culture as a cultural anthropologist would, asking how the culture has developed as a way of adapting to its environment… The key is asking the right questions and listening carefully to the answers.”

Rule #4: Frequent Communication is Vital

Frequent communication is perhaps the most important thing for a successful global team to possess and cultivate. Each rule explained in this article relates in some way to creating an effective communication structure across a global team because of the challenge that distance poses. An established framework (Rule #1) means a mechanism for handling project communication is already in place. To earn the trust of someone (Rule #2) from another culture (Rule #3), one must first understand that other team member’s culture and also be able to effectively explain her own to that team member; this creates a two-way relationship of inquiry and explanation.

Looking over all of the IRI-generated research around this topic, two things repeat themselves. The first is trust. The biggest challenge global teams confront is building trust with people they may not ever meet in person. The second biggest challenge is establishing and maintaining an open channel of communication into every aspect of the project.

Here’s what some of IRI’s studies had to say:

  • “We observed that holding regular coordinating (synchronization) meetings with the off-site team and having weekly meetings with all team members present were critical for a team’s success.” – Research group from Intel, Xerox and Portland State University
  • “Managers set up their teams to fail because they themselves fail to help the team anticipate cultural differences and so see conflict in cultural, as opposed to personal or organizational, terms and fail to set norms for dealing with cultural differences such as meaningful participation and coexistence.” –Peter Gwynne
  • “Essential to understanding people, both within your own and other cultures, is the ability to listen to what people say and the emotions they express.” –Michael Maccoby
  • “Multinational research projects can be carried out using written reports, E-mails, video conferencing, etc., but it is essential to have face-to-face meeting at least once a year. Another success factor is to understand cultural differences; these can have a major impact on successful communication.” [Emphasis added] –Terry Say
  • “While communication regarding scheduling, task assignments and other administrative matters appears to improve through electronic communication, in general, electronic communication has been found less desirable for tasks that require creativity and that deal with complex problems. Computer-mediated teams tend to take longer to complete a complex creative task and, holding time constant, engage in less communication. […] This suggests that teams that have the ability to move between various modes of communication and employ each whenever necessary can be the most creative.” –Study on virtual teams by three researchers at Groningen University, Netherlands, published in RTM

Communicate with Your Global Teams

At every turn, the literature and research on global teams points to communication as an essential component to managing global teams. It starts with having a clear strategy and framework in place before attempting a global project and moves on through the issues related to building trust and cross-cultural understanding for global team members. The key differentiator between success and failure, according to the case studies conducted by researchers from Intel, Xerox and Portland State University, was communication. Not just the frequency and quality of it, but the understanding that communication must, by the very structure of a global team, be different than it is in a traditional, co-located team. You cannot communicate virtually with team members the same way you would in a face-to-face interaction. The method of communication must change and that requires a conscious effort on the part of R&D leaders to understand what that change means and how they might better work within this new normal.

What advice would you give to an organization looking to better manage (or to start creating) global teams?

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