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Managing kick off meetings for global project teams: 10 key questions to chew over

David Trickey

Face-to-face meetings at the start of international projects are a precious investment of time and money. Without doubt in the very near future they will become the exception rather than the rule, as technology allows us to reproduce and may even improve on the richness of meeting "in the flesh". However, many project leaders recognize the value of bringing together the core or even extended team for eyeball-to-eyeball contact and interaction. We have noted down 10 questions which Project Managers should ask themselves to get the most out of this limited time together and ensure such kick off meetings "work their magic" to increase trust, commitment and collaboration in the longer term.

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1. How will we get the most out of the face-to-face dimension?

Plan a face-to-face kick off meeting well ahead, avoiding any national holidays of team members. This type of meeting is precious both in terms of cost but also in terms of ROI for the team. Multicultural teams tend to take longer to integrate at a deeper level because of language and cultural differences, so ensure there will be balanced airtime between soft issues linked to relationship building and hard issues relating to goals, roles and targets.

 

You only have one chance to create a first impression and first impressions set the atmosphere in the team for weeks to come. Will this be a team where thought has obviously gone into making members feel understood, engaged and involved or will it be a series of one-way 'alignment presentations' which could be more efficiently managed by sending out videos to each other and saving the travel time and costs?

2. What's on the mind of my team members?

Interview the key players at least by phone before they come to the kick off. Have patience in finding out from members in more face-saving cultures what is important for them to be able to contribute at their best on the project. Don't be afraid to ask 'what else?' a number of times or 'what's one thing I can do to support you so you can perform at your best?' Ask what you need to know about their local situation which can impact positively or negatively on their contribution.

 

Particular pressures should be noted and dealt with as early as possible, perhaps by influencing their direct bosses. Ensure that team members unload any frustrations on you, the project manager, BEFORE bringing them still burning to the kick off meetings.

3. How should we start the meeting?

When people arrive at multicultural meetings they tend to be tribal and sit with people they already know. Ensure people rotate during the day around different mixed nationality tables and have time to discuss issues together and report back to plenary. How you set the room up is vital, for example a horseshoe formation of tables and chairs is just going to focus on the speaker at the front.

 

Create islands using a cabaret style and offer regular opportunities for members to explore issues at their tables, such as different working practices or cultural profiles. Invest in people getting to know each other as people (the Tree of Life activity in the book is a powerful but simply way of doing this). Keep presentations to a maximum of 15-20 minutes each before working in subgroups. Avoiding getting everyone to introduce themselves formally, as in a team of 20 this can take an agonizing hour in itself. Instead get everyone to think of something most people in the room don't know about them and then give them 15 minutes to walk around the room individually meeting as many of the members as possible to exchange, collect and remember 'personal insights'.

 

Then in plenary say everyone's name in turn and get the others to say what they have found out about them. Just 30 minutes and they're all involved. During the course of the day, ensure you make people feel recognized by mentioning everyone's special local knowledge, experience and competencies which they bring to the team.

4. Who should be invited?

Ensure that you invite the key sponsors and stakeholders to the kick off meeting - most project teams don't. They should give the team the bigger picture so they understand how this project and their role in it connects with other projects and the wider strategy of the global organization.

5. Who should I be especially sensitive towards?

Be aware of the potential resentments between younger project skills oriented people and older expert technicians. There also might be members who feel 'second class citizens' in an organization where although everyone is officially equal, some members (if they are close to the headquarters or are in the majority or who are native speakers of English) seem to be more equal than others.

6. What pre-work should I ask from team members?

At a minimum, ask members to forward a short profile with a photo and including both professional and personal information. Send a template of what you expect (if not you'll get a CV!).

These should be shared among the team before they arrive so that people can find things in common ("Ah, I saw you're interested in photography too...I'm a Canon fan, and you?").

Meetings

7. How should I manage the pace of the meeting?

It will be tempting to get down to the technical challenges immediately (after all the deadlines are pressing). Our advice, however, is once you have placed the project in a bigger organizational picture, have clarified common goals, roles, interdependencies, challenges and targets, then focus on the how: bring the different perspectives and understandings of the process to the surface. Careful facilitation is needed here and the tools in our book will help you to structure this exploration of differences so that everyone contributes meaningfully. Without participation at this stage there will be low commitment and ultimately accountability will be missing. Be aware of different instinctive approaches people can have for contributing where some cultural groups find it easy to take the floor or ask questions, but others are more cautious, as well as personality types (ie. Extrovert / introvert differences, where some people need to talk to think while others prefer thinking before they talk).

 

You may need to control the usual suspects who can start to dominate the talking (and the thinking) within the team. Multicultural teams have high levels of potential collective intelligence, but it requires Project Managers who are prepared to create the space for the quiet divergent voices.

8. How should we start to build trust?

Remember that trust is built differently across cultures and so ensure you understand your team members' trust criteria. When you don't know what others need to feel trusted, why not ask them?

 

Getting everyone to note down what they see as the most important factor to trust colleagues on this project and then explaining why this is so important to them can provide a first insight into how people on the team may need to be treated differently.

9. Do I need an external facilitator?

Not necessarily. For example, the tools included in our book Managing Challenges across Cultures: a multicultural project team toolbox can support Project Managers in running their own kick off meetings with plenty of structure, variety and insight. However, if the PM needs to be fully focused on technical issues and detail it is hard to also attend to the process.

 

External facilitation can also be useful if the PM has limited experience with managing multicultural teams at a distance. If there are conflicting agendas within the team a neutral person could be especially useful.

 

Their role is not to get a team out of trouble, but to help the team to improve the process of working productively together - to creatively manage differences and stalemates and ensure high levels of commitment because everyone feels heard and involved.

10. Should we organize a dinner in a nearby restaurant?

It depends how it's organized. As we said, in the early stages of a multicultural team there is tribalism. In our experience people with the prospect of sitting one to two hours with a person for dinner will chose to sit next to someone they already know. Cultural clusters tend to form. This runs completely contrary to the your needs as the PM which is to create connection between those who DON'T know each other - but may need to collaborate together at a distance afterwards - overcoming tribalism.

 

A few suggestions: organize the dinner so that people change table at different times during the evening (eg. a 'tapas evening' so that after every course lasting 20 minutes people changed table configuration and met everyone over the duration of the evening), organize a social activity where people do things together (e.g. a pre-dinner cocktail making evening where in three teams they had to create an original cocktail to be evaluated by official 'tasters' from the other teams), or run a learning experience before, during or after dinner.

 

Fast can be slow in global project teams, and taking the care to answer these questions will ensure that the precious face-to-face time is a real investment in the future stability in the team. Perhaps a metaphor will help.

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If you take a pack of chewing gum and take out a new piece, it's easy to break it in half. It's fragile, with low elasticity. But chew it for a while and then take it out and pull it between your fingers...and you have a new substance which can stretch for meters. The right face-to-face kick off will act as the chewing process, as relationships mixed with trust can then stretch across distance and overcome the brittleness of their original state.

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