Cornelius Grove & Willa Hallowell, 1998
This article appeared in the April 1998 issue of HRMagazine Focus, published by the Society for Human Resource Management. Following is the original, unedited typescript of that article.
If you've ever tried to drive out of a snowdrift, you know that whirling wheels create even more slippery ice. Gunning your motor looks energetic and decisive, but it's more likely to yield frustration than forward movement.
Or, you can get out and patiently dig and sand, preparing the conditions for success: traction for your wheels. If you're conscientious, you're on your way.
So it is with global teams. Those that plunge right into work look efficient at first, but eventually spin their wheels. Those that succeed are guided by people who recognize the magnitude of the global team challenge and patiently prepare six conditions for success:
- Face-to-face relationships
- Informed, skillful leadership
- A communications "heartbeat"
- Intelliguent use of e-links
- A cross-cultural "third way"
- Time, money, managerial support
1. Face-to-face relationships
The most productive global teams are those whose members enjoy working with each other so much that they want to do it again!
This finding from a recent study by Dianne Hofner Saphiere (see references) resonates with the messages from other researchers who are seeking the conditions for success. All highlight the importance of trust, the glue of the virtual workplace. All say that, when it comes to making trust possible, face-to-face relationships have no equal, not even via electronic communications systems with every bell and whistle. By face-to-face, we don't mean videoconferencing. If you can't shake hands, you're not face-to-face.
We're learning that informal, spontaneous talk adds value. It not only builds and maintains trust (which motivates people to work collaboratively), but it also absorbs the shocks of conflicts and misunderstandings, and creates opportunities for mentoring, modeling, and monitoring. These advantages of close proximity decline rapidly as distance increases, according to researchers David Armstrong and Paul Cole. The distances they're referring to are measured in meters, like people at opposite ends of a hallway. What happens when colleagues are separated by distances measured in time zones?
"Face-to-face relationships" is numbered "1" on our list because we believe it's the sine qua non of success. Every get-together of a global team, beginning with its first, needs both structured work periods and free time for schmoozing and fun. (We suggest a three-day minimum every time members come together.) By the way, Hofner Saphiere discovered that during formal meetings, productive teams discussed relationship issues and emotions much more than unproductive ones. Productive teams were task oriented and relationship oriented. Unproductive teams were merely task oriented.
Here's a way of keeping face-to-face relationships firmly in members' minds during periods apart: Create for every member an identical wall map of the world with everyone's photo and a bio attached at the appropriate coordinates.
2. Informed, skillful leadership
According to leaders of successful global teams, their responsibilities require many more hours of work than they've ever devoted to co-located teams.
Why? First, there's the complicated logistics. Then there's the greater need for thorough, timely documentation of everything, supported by graphs, charts, and other visuals to aid communication across language and culture barriers. Perhaps most significantly, there are the hours devoted to becoming personally acquainted with the team's members, to learning about their national and organizational cultures, and to dealing proactively with their diverse and sometimes clashing expectations regarding accountability, conflict, authority, decision-making, feedback, deadlines, and more.
The leader's informed skillfulness is rarely more critical than during the first weeks of the team's formation. Before the first meeting, he or she must hammer out the team's purpose with it's executive sponsors, then gauge the members' aggregate strengths and weaknesses (information to be shared with team members so that ways of compensating for weaknesses can be devised). Worthwhile, too, is trying to persuade each member's local manager to include performance on the global team in determining that member's evaluation.
The team's first meeting paves the way for long-term success. One leader we respect held this meeting at a site unfamiliar to all (including himself) and focused it on discovering commonalities among the members, not on dissecting their differences. With customer service as the topic of discussion, each member had equal time to share insights he'd gained working back home; all identified ideas that were cross-nationally transferable. The leader was careful to model respect for each team member and his or her culture by, for example, listening carefully, asking clarifying questions, and neither interrupting nor permitting interruptions. Finally, he insured that there was free time for all simply to have fun together.
3. A communications "heartbeat"
Your heartbeat is predictable, routine. When it's no longer so, you're history.
Likewise for global team communications. Successful teams establish a disciplined pattern of face-to-face and telephone meetings. Example: face-to-face meetings quarterly, phone (or video) conferences every second Friday.
As discussed below, extensive use of e-mail, facsimile, and groupware certainly is necessary. But these can never substitute for the traction of relentlessly regular face-to-face and phone conferences involving the entire team.
4. Intelligent use of e-links
If you're a frequent user of e-mail, you'll be able to list a few of its curses together with the undeniable blessings. Here's what researchers are discovering about e-links within the U.S.
In comparison with their face-to-face and phone communication, Americans using e-mail tend to be less polite and more rude, presumably because they have low awareness of the other's social presence. Result: Faster escalation of conflicts, which we easily recognize as detrimental to team success. Also, e-mail users are less aware of the other's prestige and experience, presumably because these don't show up on screen. Result: E-conversations and debates are more inclusive, less inhibited by age and rank. That's good, right?
Not so fast. We're talking about geographically dispersed, multicultural teams here. Outside the U.S., people are not as enamored of inclusiveness as we are; they give far more respect to status and hierarchy. Believe it or not, our egalitarian tendencies can perplex and offend them.
Americans have complained to us that team members abroad, such as the Japanese, are slow to respond to e-mails and faxes. This complaint provides an example of how e-mail, which reflects Americans' need for speed, collides with features of Japanese culture. Leaving aside that the Japanese are using a second language, let's note first that their language does not include the concept of "spontaneous." Japanese are correct and proper, expecting to carefully craft their responses. Second, Japanese recipients may need to develop consensus within their group before replying. Finally, for the Japanese, a written message devoid of nonverbal, social, and other contextual information is an incomplete message. Americans like the "efficiency" of targeted, sparse prose, but for the Japanese and others it's often not enough to compel action.
Videoconferencing falls short, too. One of our American interviewees, while in Taiwan, participated in a videoconference between local team members and Americans back in the States. When a U.S.-based member noisily pounded the desk while arguing a point, the American in Taiwan sensed an abrupt change in the locals' demeanor that signaled that they had taken offense. This was not noticed by the Americans in the States. Fortunately, the Taiwan-based American was able over the next several days to act as a culture broker, soothing the locals' consternation.
Developing e-protocols [sidebar 1]
E-links are wonderfully efficient. Problem: They make everything more efficient, including simple misunderstandings, escalating conflicts, and cultural clashes.
E-protocols mitigate that problem by supplying guidelines for using groupware, e-mail, faxes, voicemail, and other e-links. Each team should begin developing e-protocols at its first meeting and refine them at later meetings. A cross-cultural consultant can facilitate this process.
Categories addressed in e-protocols include carbon copy and length limitations, topic guidelines, participation requirements, hierarchy issues, and so forth. A team we know asked itself: "In terms of time-to-action, what does "urgent" mean to each of us"? Discovering wide differences, they restricted use of "urgent" to rarely necessary 24-hour turnaround times.
Another team we know developed an e-ritual of solidarity. Every Friday, all members got together on groupware; each member related an occurrence that week that made him feel proud. Before long, they were mentioning their children's soccer goals and piano recitals more often than how they'd fixed a recalcitrant piece of software. Mutual trust soared.
5. A cross-cultural "third way"
Researchers Mary O'Hara-Devereaux and Robert Johansen advocate that new teams, during their first meeting, begin crafting a unique "Third Way" of getting work done. The goal, attainable only after several meetings, is to develop approaches to work procedures and relationships that all members find practical (if not necessarily preferable) and that no one finds intolerable.
An e-protocol (see sidebar) is a limited type of Third Way; it specifies work procedures for electronic communications. All other features of collaborative work are affected as well by cross-cultural variations, and all need to be carefully discussed and cautiously adjusted if the team intends to become highly effective. No team can successfully develop Third Ways unless its members are conversant with cultural concepts such as individualism-collectivism and able to practice cross-cultural skills such as surfacing assumptions and suspending judgement. Trial and error plays a role, too.
Here's how teams we know dealt with a key issue: members' motivation to act. Through discussion, members discovered that some felt inhibited unless data they received were buttressed by contextual information, while others were willing to move forward with only raw data in hand. Another discovery was that the source of data and information was a critical factor for some (is it from a supervisor?), whereas others scrutinized its technical accuracy. And when members received materials deemed inadequate, some requested the missing pieces, while others remained silent due to "face" concerns.
Is there common ground here? If a team's members were determined to succeed, they found it! Some members agreed to routinely provide more background and context than usual, while others agreed to accept less than usual. All planned that materials requiring key action steps be transmitted over a note from a supervisor (even though this could cause modest delays on the sending side). All developed a standard reply form with check-off responses indicating what was wrong or missing from recently received materials.
Conscientious global teams have a seemingly slow start because they work through Third Way issues like these. It's these teams, though, that finish their assignments in top form. It's these teams whose members are most likely to say, "I'd really like to work on another global project with these people!"
A process facilitator? [sidebar 2]
European expert Sue Canney Davison takes the view that most global teams need an external "process facilitator" in addition to the task-oriented (internal) leader. The facilitator's role is active in the early stages, when cultural and organizational issues have maximum ability to reduce traction and Third Ways are being negotiated. Skillful, cross-culturally adept process facilitators work themselves out of a job.
Davison notes that one company calculated the daily standing cost of its global team at $150,000, and the daily profit from its best selling product at up to $3 million! If an external facilitator can genuinely smooth and speed the work process, even by a few days, how much might he or she be worth?
6. Time, money, managerial support
The above five conditions for global team success will have impact only if teams receive sufficient money, time, and managerial support. One rule of thumb for funding, often ignored, is to assess all costs and double the total. Time requirements are harder to predict, but probably should be doubled as well. If executive sponsors care about spectacular, lasting results, they'll insure that teams have time to gain traction before being expected to produce results.
Global Teams and Human Evolution
Over hundreds of thousands of years, humans collaborated and competed exclusively face-to-face. Only in the 1900s did it become practical to pursue relationships at a distance. Only now in the 1990s has it become practical to do daily work at a distance.
Global teams are trying to succeed at an undertaking that no prior generation has attempted. As evolutionary beings, are human beings well prepared to collaboratively perform complex, long-term tasks without face-to-face interaction? We believe the answer is no.
The distinguishing characteristic of humans is that, by taking thought and planning ahead, they can overcome their evolutionary limitations infinitely more quickly than any other animal. What we've presented here is a way in which members of global teams can do exactly that.
Armstrong, David J., and Paul Cole, "Managing Distances and Differences in Geographically Distributed Work Groups," in S. Jackson and M. Ruderman, Diversity in Work Teams, American Psychological Association, 1995.
Davison, Sue Canney, "Leading and facilitating international teams," in Mel Berger, Cross-Cultural Team Building, McGraw-Hill (London), 1996.
Hofner Saphiere, Dianne M., "Productive behaviors of global business teams," International Journal of Intercultural Relations, Vol. 20, No. 2, 1996.
O'Hara-Devereaux, Mary, and Robert Johansen, GlobalWork: Bridging Distance, Culture, and Time, Jossey-Bass, 1994.
Successful Global Teams, by C. Grove & W. Hallowell