Continental Drift: Bringing Together the Perfect Team from Across the World

Posted on: August 8, 2016 by

As metaphysical poet John Donne noted in his magnum opus, Devotions upon Emergent Occasions:No man is an island”. Although first published in 1624, 400 years later it is still relevant – though perhaps not in the way that Donne originally intended. First applied in a spiritual and political context, the phrase now resonates with many organizations as we work in increasingly collaborative set-ups.

But what is it that turns a collection of individuals and employees into a team? And how do you make that team work when its members are separated by continents, cultures and time zones? What makes a good team great?

Although it sounds counterintuitive, good teamwork is about celebrating individual attributes. In any successful team, there is always a wide range of expertise: everyone has something to contribute. In a global context it becomes even clearer that success still lies in the diversity of the team: providing different perspectives on the challenge, highlighting issues specific to the relevant regions, and bringing a mix of alternative solutions.

Of course, within this diversity, we need to find a common thread – something that helps bond participants and drives the project forward. At a fundamental level, there are three primary sources of motivation: fear, greed, and pride. In my experience, it is the third factor that yields the best results. Having a group of people working for pride means pushing the boundaries, allowing new solutions to be considered and attempting to do something that no one else has ever done before.

During the course of my career, I’ve had the privilege to lead a number of brilliant teams – one in particular stands out. Though a relatively small team, every member was a thoughtful and committed professional and during our project we delivered results of exceptional quality – even receiving a coveted Tully Award in the process.

As with any project we faced challenges. In solving them, we were able to identify a number of critical success factors that I believe can be applied almost universally when building globally distributed teams:

Secure adequate funding and management support:

It is a myth that a bad workman will blame his tools – having access to the right resources and equipment is essential for any successful team. It’s about giving employees the opportunity to do the best job possible.

It’s also worth noting that money can come from external, as well as internal, sources. In my experience, there is always money out there for good ideas – you just need to have the right conversations and share your project’s vision far and wide.

Support is crucial, and it’s important to ensure that the wider business believes in the outcomes your team is working towards. Having to back from the right quarters can help to open doors and ensure the project’s aims, progress and success are properly recognised.

Organise the team:

Finding the right balance of people’s talents, expertise, and partner participation is key to the success of a global team.

Think carefully about the level of participation of each member: are they part of the core team, an RFC-style consultant, or taking on a member-at-large role? Knowing when to call on the extended team members for support during reviews and the decision-making process maximizes the results and builds trust within the community. Always drive for 100% consensus within the core team, taking into account each member’s point of view in order to build trust and promote faster adoption for the best quality results and longer lasting support.

Define roles and responsibilities from the outset:

Everyone on the team has a job to do. It is important that not only do they know what it is, but other team members know exactly what they can expect from one another.

When it comes to a global team, usually individuals are able to choose how they want to participate. With this in mind, it’s important to remember that there are rarely any formally assigned tasks. Ultimately, it’s a matter of commitment that brings success. Core team members have a sense of knowing what they want to do and have a feeling of accomplishment when it’s achieved. This is a good dynamic to foster, one in which the team leader facilitates an environment to bring out the best in team members rather than assigning roles or tasks directly.

Set team meeting norms and standards:

Within global teams, it’s likely that a number of different cultures and styles will be brought to the table. Avoid any potential clashes early on by establishing a single process for meetings that everyone is expected to abide by.

Normalise team expectations:

Make clear the goals of the project, as well as the methodology for achieving these. Though it often requires a lot of prep work to ensure objectives are as clear as possible, it will be invaluable in the long run.

Organise the work, team processes, and team reporting:

Coordination is critical. Information should be shared in real-time, with regular updates and reports given as the project progresses.

Establish a global collaboration method:

Although it is important for teams to meet at a regular time, face-to-face in a meeting room, for a truly global team with participants from different countries there is a practical limit to the number of these meetings. The use of multiple collaboration methods is inevitable – from email to a conference call, to instant messaging, to team social media sites and data stores – but having an ‘official’ language can be helpful in ensuring everyone is able to access updates.

Look towards a ‘Collaboration without Boundaries’ approach in order to create a higher level of interaction, engagement, and immersion within and beyond the team.This methodology is key to early adopters and longevity of teamwork.

Market the results:

Make sure the wider business understands the value of the outcomes produced by your team. Not only does this help motivate members, it can create new opportunities for collaboration, building links with other departments and teams to extend the remit – and worth – of your work.

Develop team spirit and identity:

Togetherness, team spirit, and strong relationships all contribute heavily to the success of any team project. To illustrate the importance of this factor, I’d like to quote from one of my former team members:

Feeling as part of the team right from the beginning helped me to enjoy working on the project, and motivated me to contribute to the team’s overall success.

In every organization, across every region, and in every industry teamwork is a central component of success. Creating the right setting in which a team can thrive is critical, and can elevate a project from ‘good’ to ‘great’ to ‘award-winning’.

In my next piece, I’ll be looking towards the European Championships, in which a number of teams demonstrated some of the above factors to great success…

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