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Updated: February 4, 2010 20:56 IST

Well-mixed teams can develop new products faster

D. Murali
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How do you establish trust in international projects? Sample this, from ‘International Project Management’ by Kathrin Köster (www.sagepublications.com): “A US-American project manager invited his Asian team members to where he was located in the USA on the East Coast. Instead of dining out with them in a high-class restaurant, he took them along to hockey and baseball games where they all had hot dogs and beer.”

For the team members, this was a unique experience that they enjoyed very much, the author narrates. “They could observe their team leader in a totally different environment and thus got to know him a bit better.”

She explains that the challenge for the project manager is to establish trust within a very short timeframe, compared for instance with the more gradual development of trust between colleagues in an operational department. However, the development of trust does need some time, Köster adds.

“It is not a one-off event, but a reiterative process that is especially important for teams with a majority from relationship-oriented and diffuse cultures. These people prefer to work with ‘friends,’ not only ‘colleagues.’”

At times, people from close geographies can be worlds apart, as in a ‘mini case’ about a team of Italian and German consultants working in Italy for an Italian customer on a new software solution for the service industry. “The German consultants, commuting between Italy and Germany, were experienced in managing international customers, but did not have first-hand experience in Italy. For the Italian colleagues and customer, it was the first time a non-domestic party had been involved.”

The differences within the team showed up at the project start, the book recounts; the rough cost estimates of the German side turned out to be nearly 40 per cent higher than the fixed price that the Italian side of the team had quoted to the customer!

During the implementation phase, again, there were differences. “The Germans reported their travel costs to the Italian project manager in the form of Excel files containing all details. They got a bit irritated when they noticed that a local internal controller was going through all the figures in detail to cross-check them, asking for invoices and more details.”

To establish trust, the Germans showed their invoices and explained the arrangements with the travel agent, continues Köster. “But nothing would convince their Italian colleagues who still assumed that the Germans were not honest. Tensions within the culturally mixed team augmented. The Germans got aggressive because they could not understand what they had done wrong. In return, the Italians found the Germans to be extremely rude and non-cooperative – one more reason to distrust them…”

Among the trust-building techniques that the author recommends is the bonding of the project team and protecting it against conflicts with superiors. By assuming the role of a ‘shock absorber,’ the project manager takes the criticism from superiors and channels this in a modified and tailored way to the people in the team, she notes.

Another technique is to provide context. “Anybody will have more trust in given tasks when he or she knows the reason for and background to this task. You can only expect people to do certain things or to follow certain guidelines when they understand the reasons why they should do this.”

Teams with diverse stakeholders are more efficient if they can mutually acknowledge their differences, Köster advises. She sees value in ‘fusion,’ whereby all members try to cherry pick what works best in their traditional ways of doing things and fuse these styles to create synergies from diversity.

An example in the book is of a Chinese-German mixed product development team. In China, product developers like mechanical or electrical engineers tend to have a pragmatic view of what the customer needs and how to design it in a simple, fast way which leads to quick and cost-efficient product development, writes Köster. She adds, though, that the pitfall might be that products will tend to be more difficult to repair due to a non-transparent development process and the lack of a proper conception phase.

“In Germany, product developers tend to be painstakingly correct with their product conceptualisation and documentation, obsessed with optimisation and further high-tech developments with a high degree of innovativeness. The downside is that new products may be over-specified and thus too expensive with too lengthy development cycles.”

If the differences are acknowledged and used, Köster explains that well-mixed teams can develop new products faster, at the appropriate level of specification demanded by the customers with proper documentation to facilitate after-sales service. A fusion strategy is certainly ideal but difficult to achieve under time pressures, especially in very complex settings, and with people who are typically not that experienced with international projects, she concedes. “Yet, it is a strategy to strive for in order to benefit most from diversity.”

A book that can help foster productive collaboration in global project teams.

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