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10 tips to manage a global project

By Sudhi Seshachala
December 08, 2005 11:20 IST

A recent study shows 90 per cent of large companies are engaged in global projects. Ironically less than one third of them have effective, established practices to help project managers and team members communicate, collaborate and coordinate with each other.

Global projects should allow organisations to take advantage of distributed skills, around-the-clock operations and virtual team environments.

Currently many of these organisations struggle to reach the required levels of quality and effectiveness from these projects because their structure and their methodologies are not adapted to a global multi-cultural environment, where most communication is in writing and asynchronous.


This article describes how organisations can adopt simple steps and procedures for projects to thrive in global project management. It also considers the differences, from project manager's perspective; between managing a global project and managing one where all involved are co-located within easy reach.

Visualising the goals

Performance Bonus: Clearly define global goals and goals for the countries/functions/business units where the project is going to have an impact.

These sub-goals must be:

  • Fully aligned with, and contributing to, the global goals
  • Agreed with the country/functional/business unit sub-project manager who will be delivering them.
  • Agreed with the country sponsor if local funding is required
  • Validated, in the country, for compliance with local culture and legislation

Getting Step 1 right is critical for the success of any project. The following sub-steps will assist you to get it right on your global project.

1. Global project scoping

Work with the global project sponsor and steering committee to determine the high-level scope and goals. You must also identify the key functions and countries that will be impacted by the project.

2. Appoint sub-project managers

Now is the time to appoint sub-project managers not when you realize that you are disappearing without trace! You must have sub-project managers in each of the key functional areas and countries identified in your global scope. The country sub-project managers must be based in the country to ensure that they understand local culture and practice.

3. Sub-project scoping

Each of the sub-project managers will now scope their sub-projects. You will manage this to ensure that they are cascading down from the global scope. This exercise is likely to lead to changes in the global scope and you will control this. To ensure buy-in and commitment the sub-project scope documents should be reviewed and approved by
management in the country or function.

4. Review and approval

You now have a Work Breakdown Structure that scopes the project from a macro, global level to a micro, country/function level. This should be reviewed and approved by the global project sponsor and steering committee. This may seem like excessive effort for one step however being an experienced project manager you know what happens if you cut corners at the scoping stage.

5. Make a list of the jobs that need to be done

This is best done using a matrix approach that captures all of the functions and countries identified in Step 1 and drills down from the scoping done in Step 1.

  • Business Unit/Country All Countries Country A Country B
  • All Functions
  • R & D
  • Logistics
  • Finance

This step is complete when every cell in the matrix has both an owner and a list of jobs preferably compiled by the owner. The owner should be either the functional sub-project manager or the country sub-project manager. You cannot afford to own more than a handful of cells if you are to manage the global project effectively.

Benefits of the Approach

  • You will not miss any major jobs - either generic or national.
  • It provides a task breakdown structure with both detailed and high-level views.
  • It gives you an opportunity to assess the sub-project manager's ability and willingness to contribute.
  • The sub-project managers get buy-in at the planning stage.
  • It demonstrates that you are the global project manager and overall trail boss.

Either you or the project sponsor can compare the costs and benefits of implementing the project in Country X and make informed decisions on how best to proceed.

Some tasks, for example user training, are likely to feature across all sub-projects. You should identify these tasks and ensure that experiences are shared across the sub-projects.

In addition to the tasks that you would expect based on the scope there are likely to be additional tasks to satisfy national legal and cultural requirements.

In some industries in India for example, any project that involves significant organisational change requires lengthy consultation with the union. Your country sub-project managers must understand that you require them to include these tasks and that local management should be consulted if they have any doubts about such issues.

On completion of this step you should have a detailed, cascaded list of tasks for the project and all of the sub-projects.

6. There must be one leader

It is very important to establish one's leadership in the early stages of project endeavor. Hopefully you have got off to a good start in Steps 1 & 2 both by inspiring confidence in the sub-project managers and by demonstrating your leadership abilities to the project sponsor giving her a feeling of confidence that you can trail boss the project.

Leadership is like justice, it must be seen to happen! This is particularly important on a
global project where communication should be effective, regular and is critical.

You also demonstrate your leadership, particularly to the sub-project managers, by working with them in a no blame manner to take effective corrective action when problems arise and by mentoring them if that is appropriate.

Shooting the messenger is even dumber on a global project than it is normally!  If you don't have a warm feeling that you are in charge of all global activities you must address the issues now or else you are putting both the project and your job at risk.

7. Assign people to jobs

If you adopted the matrix approach recommended in Steps 1 & 2 this should be straightforward since the sub-project managers will do most of the assignment.

  • Auditing the plans and providing feedback to the sub-project managers
  • Preparing a consolidated global plan
  • Continuing your assessment of the sub-project managers, this is your final opportunity to make changes before the implementation phase commences
  • Continuing to demonstrate that you are the overall trail boss

This is also a suitable time for you to ensure that your project infrastructure is appropriate to the size of the project. This may involve setting up a project office with project coordinators, finance staff and a communications prime.

Given that global projects generally cross several financial reporting lines you should meet with finance management to ensure that there will be adequate financial reporting for the project.

8. Manage expectations / allow a margin for error

Fallback position You should now have:

  • A detailed, cost consolidated global project plan.
  • A consolidated risk register with both your assessment and the sub-project managers assessment.
  • A consolidated open issues log again both yours and the sub-project managers.
  • Your assessment of the sub-project managers.
  • Your audit of the plans in Step 4 ensured that the sub-project managers had included adequate contingency.
  • Prepare a number of implementation scenarios.

While you need to take account of business drivers your preferred approach is to deliver early successes by commencing the implementation in countries that you have identified as high added value (significant benefits, low risk and low cost).

Any country where you have concerns about the sub-project manager's ability to deliver is high risk and should be kept well down the list. Address cost concerns by using your matrix from Step 2 to highlight countries that are low added value.

Review these implementation scenarios with the sponsor/steering committee

You have been keeping your sponsor and the key stakeholders fully informed so there should be no surprises here. Presenting a range of implementation scenarios both forces them to make the difficult decisions and demonstrates that you are on top of the project.

Get sign-off on the plan

Stand firm and ensure reality prevails! You then do all of the usual things, calculate your PSI, and communicate with the teams etc. as you move from planning to implementation.

Use an appropriate leadership style

This may involve using a different leadership style for each country. You can only lead effectively if you have the time and space to do so in Step 4. The sub-project managers will probably not report to you

The motivation for them to deliver is that they are part of a high profile, winning team and that you are developing their skills by transferring knowledge to them.

Key leadership issues to consider

This is so important I make no apology for mentioning it repeatedly. You will be managing a virtual team and you will probably never have a face-to-face meeting with your sub-project managers.

Virtual Meetings
Audio conference calls are valuable but need to be chaired effectively to avoid time wasting. If your company does not have audio conference facilities there are service providers who provide conferencing facilities.

There are a number of Internet based software packages that allow you to share information such as project plans during conference calls. I find this combination very effective and I tend to avoid videoconferences. I don't like them and they are very expensive.

Direct Communication
Electronic mail and regular telephone calls are likely to be your main contact with your sub-project managers. Don't rely exclusively on electronic mail - telephone calls often provide valuable early warning signs.

Broadcast Communications
In addition to your regular status reports you also need to communicate with a larger audience about the project. How you do this depends both on the culture within your company and the technology available.

The conventional wisdom is that you set-up a website and leave it at that. This might work if your target audience obediently bookmark your website and check it regularly. My preference is to set-up a website and sends regular broadcast e-mails with a summary of the project and hyperlinks to the website for those who require more information.

One of the benefits of this is that people will respond to e-mails providing valuable two-way communication.

Time zones
The biggest single difference you are likely to encounter between managing a local project and a global project is time zones. This permeates all project activities, I have chosen to discuss it here because time zone management is one of the key skill sets you will need.

It is imperative, that you factor in time zone differences in the contingency. In addition, synchronise the working hours of groups who need constant interaction, for example by getting one group to work from 14:00 to 22:00 daily.

Doing this for even a short period can have a major impact on your critical path. Clearly this is a sensitive issue and needs to be discussed with those affected, with line management and with human resources.

You also need to consider how you will be contactable by your sub-project managers in other time zones - without spending 24 hours a day at your desk. The best option is to set-up a home office with links to your company's telephone and computer systems. This enables you, for example, to participate in a conference call from 21:00 to 22:00 at home. If this set-up is not possible a mobile phone is the next option.

Know what's going on
If you don't believe you are getting accurate information from a particular country you have two options.
Provide assistance or replacement
Send somebody you know and trust out there to provide you with accurate information. You should include a certain amount of travel in your project budget to cater for situations like this.

If the sub-project manager is enthusiastic but inexperienced then the person you parachute in should support and advise the sub-project manager who remains, at least nominally, in charge. This is the preferred option.

Scope reduction
Take the country out of scope this is one of the contingency/fallback options that you discussed with your sponsor during Step 5. Regardless how you communicate this it will be perceived as a failure by the country sub-project manger and may lead to action from management in the country.

You should ensure that both the country sub-project manager and his line manager fully understand what you intend doing and are given an opportunity to take corrective action.

Tell people what's going on
Again you need to be attuned to cultural sensitivities particularly when communicating bad news. While a certain amount of competition between countries can be good for the project you need to be careful to avoid stirring up nationalistic jingoism.

9. Repeat Steps 1 through 8 until Step 10

Nothing much to say about this provided you have followed my advice in the earlier steps and mapped out discrete phases and milestones with the low risk milestones in close and the high-risk milestones a long way out.
In addition to the normal scope creep that you are constantly beating off you also need to watch for sub-project managers and stakeholders in the various countries attempting to use global funding for their pet projects.

10. Performance bonus

Congratulations you have successfully managed a global project!

The author has been working in the IT industry in various capacities, currently working for a Houston, Texas-based company.
Sudhi Seshachala