Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Managing International Projects

I've managed two international projects. Both were among the biggest challenges I've ever faced. Managing across multiple time zones adds a whole new level of complexity to a project. In my case, the two projects were in Northern Ireland, 7 hours ahead of us here in Colorado. Much of project management involves communications, so communicating effectively across such distances requires new approaches.

A little background on the two projects I managed, and the companies involved: In 2004, Gambro BCT (now CaridianBCT) bought a small sterile solutions manufacturer in Northern Ireland (by the way, for all you Americans, that's in the UK! It's kind of like New Mexico and Mexico!). CaridianBCT is launching a new product where integrating small sterile solutions will be critical. Very few manufacturers are in the small solutions bags. Baxter makes 2 litre bags by the billions, but nobody makes 250 ml bags. That's what Ivex Pharmaceuticals in Northern Ireland does. CaridianBCT employs a couple thousand people. Ivex has around 120 people, and most managers wear many hats, and do a lot of the paper work themselves. Other than that, the companies' cultures are remarkably similar, and the people at Ivex are warm, friendly, humorous, and great to work with.

Here are some of the lessons I learned from these two projects:

Plan Regular Face-to-Face time
Conference calls just don't do it. You have to plan regular time when you fly there, or they fly here, or both. It's the only way you'll get agreement, and wrestle things to the ground.

Know Your Stakeholders!
We thought that Quality was our key stakeholder on one project, and it was, but so was Finance. Finance was involved, but when we went live, they held things up as they didn't have test plans to assure them that all the data had transferred correctly. We should have realized that, and planned ahead. Instead, finance went off in a corner by themselves and did the testing over several days rather than several hours, almost killing our project.

Even in a Predictable Project, Plan For the Unexpected
We were implementing an accounting and manufacturing system. We had done this many times before, so we knew everything to do right? wrong. The data was a total mess, and had to be totally rekeyed. Plus, many of their business rules didn't agree with ours, so we had to change how they did business in some instances. In most instances, we let them run things the way they wanted, but some accounting issues had to be standardized - that was the point of the project.

No one at Ivex was accountable for the success of the project. If we failed, no one would be bothered, and if we were successful, no one got rewarded. So they wanted it to fail. Well, not openly, but they didn't really care, and hoped that they could go on doing things the way they always had. The success of the project should have been on the performance evaluation of their stakeholders.

Know the Culture
The culture in Northern Ireland is remarkably similar to American culture, but there are still many differences in how you deal with problems, concerns, issues and conflict. Learn from others before you how it works in each culture. Each country has its own culture, and there are even regional differences in large countries like the US.

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