Tough Project? Talk It Out

Managing international projects is a challenge for associations of all stripes. But nothing fixes problems quite like picking up the phone.

In the nearly four years I’ve been covering associations, I’ve seen globalization generate both the most excitement and the most frustration within the industry. Executives intuitively know that expanding their organization’s global reach is important, but figuring out how to do it is the kind of thing that leads to you talking a lot at formal “What’s Keeping You Up at Night” education sessions. (Or at informal ones, better known as bars.) Even settling on the right price to charge for products overseas isn’t easy.

The task is no easier for associations that already have strong global presences. How do you sound out their needs? How do you get them to work together to generate new ideas? On that front there’s a lot of wisdom in Keeley Wilson and Yves L. Doz’s “10 Rules for Managing Global Innovation,” published in the October issue of the Harvard Business Review.

Companies that are smart about global innovation create an explicit role for senior executives in their projects.

Wilson and Doz, coauthors of a forthcoming book on the topic, make a point that isn’t very popular in this era of flex-time and ROWE: If you want results on global projects, you need some old-fashioned top-down management. “Companies that are smart about global innovation create an explicit role for senior executives in their projects,” they write, stressing that global projects come with an increased risk of misunderstandings. If you don’t have a person who’s job is to get people on the same page — if not in the same place — the likelihood of a plan falling apart rapidly increases.

So how does this designated taskmaster get the job done right? A good part of the answer, the authors suggest, is already in your skill set. They cite one project that had fallen off schedule until a project manager stepped in and made an important adjustment. “With senior management support,” they write, “he successfully introduced a protocol requiring that all initial communication on a topic be voice-to-voice.”

Allow me to take that out of HBR-speak for you: The project manager made sure everybody talked to one another.

That’s good advice for a global project, where misinterpretations abound amid cultural differences and misinterpretation of email tone. But it also applies to the everyday domestic business of an association. Perhaps even ratify it as a rule: If there’s any chance that what you mean to say will be misinterpreted, pick up the phone or walk over to a colleague’s office.

So what have you seen in your global projects? What’s OK to handle over email, and what do you need to talk out?

(TMG archive photo)

Mark Athitakis

By Mark Athitakis

Mark Athitakis, a contributing editor for Associations Now, has written on nonprofits, the arts, and leadership for a variety of publications. He is a coauthor of The Dumbest Moments in Business History and hopes you never qualify for the sequel. MORE

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