Communicating Plans to Global Teams

In today’s connected world, it’s increasingly common for project and portfolio managers to collaborate with teams across multiple countries and cultures.

In some ways, working globally is a great thing. Talent can be acquired and nurtured wherever it’s found, marketplace efficiencies can drive bottom-line benefits, and diverse viewpoints often lead to superior finished products and processes. But there are certainly challenges, too – and few see them more keenly than the project manager.

Keeping individuals and departments on the same page (and the same timeline) when they’re divided by distance, language, and culture can be difficult. As a result, many project and portfolio managers are turning to project visuals, like Gantt charts and “birds on a wire” timelines, to effectively communicate globally. Here’s why.

Visuals Are a Universal Language …

Humans, by nature, are visual creatures. Our eyes are incredibly efficient at ingesting data, and our brains can interpret the resulting information faster than any supercomputer, and retain it extremely accurately. A picture is worth 1,000 words for a reason, after all.

Universal Gantt Chart

This Gantt chart is easy to understand, regardless of culture or location. Start and end dates are extremely clear, and timing of individual pieces is indicated.

Better yet for the context of global teams, visuals – when used correctly – can go a long way toward breaking down language and cultural barriers. Some concepts are universal; time, for instance, is always read left to right, even when the written language (e.g., Hebrew) is right to left. That means a Gantt chart is always laid out and processed the same way, regardless of geography. Similarly, a progress indicator showing a task 50% done should always be seen as 50% done; there is little room for misinterpretation.

… For the Most Part

It is important, however, to pay attention to the particular norms of the region where the team is located. If you’re dealing exclusively with Western countries, there’s a good chance “red” will always be interpreted as “danger” or “stop.”

Japanese Stop Sign

Not all stop signs are octagons, as Japan proves. (h/t Wikipedia)

There are plenty of other connotations of which the individual creating the visual must be aware. In Korea, for instance, it is considered taboo to write a name in red; this traditionally indicates the name’s owner is dead. Likewise, stop signs aren’t octagons in every country. Sensitivity is key, and Wikipedia is your friend.

It’s important to try to draw a line in your mind between the big picture and the minutia – the strategy and tactical elements of what you’re doing. It’s relatively easy to make the main element you’re producing universally understood; everyone gets Gantt charts, timelines, etc. But the devil is in the details. You’re much more likely to create confusion (or offense) with a relatively small piece of the puzzle, like a red icon or an octagon meant to signify “stop.”

Minimizing the Impact of Time Zones

Depending where team members are located, it’s not always possible to get everyone in the same meeting. Imagine the time zone difference if product management is in the U.S., engineering is in India and manufacturing is in Vietnam. There’s no realistic way to ensure representatives from all three departments can get together consistently (unless nobody at the company sleeps).

Cogent visual plan communications could go a long way in this example. When an understandable and accurate version of a project plan exists, it can be circulated via email or SharePoint, reducing the need for all stakeholders to attend all meetings and briefings.

Coordinating Global Projects: In Summary

Keeping global teams on track is a real challenge for project and portfolio managers. There are a lot of hurdles to clear, and a lot of things to consider. While successfully navigating the waters of worldwide collaboration takes experience and perseverance, visual plan communications can provide a major assist. The smart use of visuals can deliver information efficiently regardless of language or culture, and even help overcome logistical difficulties like time zones.

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