Taking Project Management Overseas: Challenges and Lessons Learned

    Taking Project Management Overseas: Challenges and Lessons Learned

    By Keith Willeford, Volunteer Content Writer

    Project management can take on additional complexity when it involves clients or coworkers in other countries.  Here are some lessons learned from recent projects that involved clients overseas. 

    Mind the (time) gap

    During a project last year, the client was 14 hours ahead of Houston time.  When they emailed me during their work day, I was asleep.  After getting to work, finding the answers, and getting back to them, they were asleep.  So under the best case scenario, the client was reading a response 24 hours after sending their question.  While this seemed perfectly reasonable to me, it came to light that I was perceived as unresponsive and this unfavorably affected my relationship with the client.  In retrospect, there was an easy solution.  During that project, I should have promptly acknowledged emails received afterhours.  This could have been done by checking for emails from this client first thing in the morning, and in the evening before bed.  The client would have felt heard, and expectations for response time could have been managed.  Here is an example response.  “I just received your email.  I will meet with the appropriate people tomorrow and have a response for you in 12-16 hours.”  Too easy.  Don’t work 24 hours a day just because your client is in a different time zone.  But, buy yourself time by giving prompt acknowledgement.  Conference calls with this client had to be conducted during times that were convenient for them.  Thus, I would occasionally have to get on the phone at 8 or 9 pm.  I felt this was appropriate, as long as it wasn’t happening multiple times per week.  The occasional early or late conference call is perfectly reasonable.  Waking up to check your email at 2 am, probably not. 

    Be aware of language barriers

    On a recent conference call, a client overseas asked a question about something we had trouble understanding.  Preparing yourself to graciously handle such encounters is paramount.  Instead of asking the client to repeat the misunderstood word, perhaps we should have asked him to describe what he was talking about.  At the same time, we could have allowed him to save face by saying our audio connection was poor.  Is this a lie?  I don’t think so.  It would have been a false statement, but not made to deceive.  It doesn’t matter what country you are from, everyone wants to “save face” (avoid humiliation).  Brainstorm ahead of time for ways you can diplomatically work around language barriers.

    Email is your frenemy

    Sometimes a concise email is best for getting a point across.  Stick to brief facts, only.  Follow your email with a phone call to hash out any discussion items.  Follow your phone call with a short email to document any decisions made.  I know, it is an endless loop.  Here is the point: ensure high-quality communication that keeps all parties on the same page.  Do not hide behind email, when a phone conversation is more efficient.  (And phone calls can give your client that “warm and fuzzy” human feeling.)  But don’t neglect to document all communication – email is a great way to do that.  Email and phone calls are yin and yang.  They are interconnected and complimentary.  Use common sense and employ them accordingly. 

    You will notice that these lessons learned have nothing to do with schedules, resources, or budgets.  As with most things in life, the technical aspects of project management are the easy part.  The difficult part is dealing with other humans.  This can be especially pronounced when some of those humans happen to be in other countries.