Despite the recent unforeseeable economic environment that has arisen due to COVID-19, Japanese companies have not weakened their focus on overseas markets. The results of the PwC Japan Group’s August 2021 survey on trends in global strategy at Japanese companies show that over 60% of all respondents view overseas markets as a source of growth, and over 90% plan to either maintain or reinforce and expand their overseas businesses over the medium term (approximately the next three years).
As Japanese companies work to solve the various management challenges and issues they face, many of companies face difficulties especially in advancing projects that involve overseas businesses including overseas offices and business partners.
Over the past 20 years, I have also had opportunities to experience not only successes but also failures in the managements of global projects that involved multiple offices in Japan, the US, Asia and Europe. Out of the many lessons I have learned, my biggest takeaway is that 90% of the success or failure of a global project is determined at the start-up phase.
In this article, I will present nine tips for better global project management based on my actual experience in the field.
Many of the global projects of Japanese companies are based on ideas from the head office in Japan. These projects cover a wide variety of genres, including research projects (such as analysis of market environments and competitive relationships or compliance with local laws, regulations and business practices); HR and organisational projects (such as response to operational fraud and embezzlement, improvement of local reporting systems and reporting speed, and training of local digital talent to drive overseas operations); and process improvement and system application projects (such as digitisation of value chains, accelerated consolidation of overseas financial statements, and post-merger integration). Regardless of the type of project, it is always essential to establish a consensus on the project objectives with the local stakeholders by taking the following tips into account.
For locally hired executives and managerial-level personnel, clearly define each person’s job description, roles and responsibilities, and evaluate their performance based on the achievement of quantitative and qualitative goals. While the objectives of a Japanese company’s global project are set by the head office in Japan, local staff judge the value of such a project depending on whether it is meaningful to their own company (the local subsidiary) and how it impacts their performance evaluation. Let’s consider the global unification of account titles for accelerated financial reporting and closure as an example. Is this project objective truly meaningful from the perspective of local staff, as well as from the Japan head office? It is possible that, for the local subsidiary, the global unification of account titles might only mean an increase in the number of work hours and amount of effort required for closing. The first step to success is to proactively identify these potential issues in advance, understand the pros and cons for both the head office and the overseas subsidiaries in question, and obtain consensus and cooperation on project objectives with the local staff at an earlier stage.
It is not easy to build consensus with overseas subsidiaries in English. For this reason, project managers from the head office in Japan often spend insufficient time building a consensus with the overseas subsidiaries, or even omit the process entirely based on assumptions such as the belief that previous experience being stationed at a local subsidiary in the country in question is equivalent to a full understanding of that country’s business processes and issues. Other similar assumptions can also lead to a situation where insufficient time is spent explaining the process to the overseas subsidiaries or arriving at a consensus: for example, project managers frequently assume that local operating processes are simple, and that this means current business processes from the head office can be automatically applied to local subsidiaries. These are examples that invite project stagnation, suspension, and even the need to redefine the project requirements just before implementation due to animosity amongst stakeholders at the local subsidiary.
It is very important to identify and analyse all stakeholders involved the project, not only at the head office but also at all overseas subsidiaries that are involved. In a global project, situations often arise where the overseas regional headquarters agrees with the project, but the manufacturing and sales subsidiaries or Business Unit under the control of the regional headquarters do not. I personally recommend using a stakeholder map (see the template below) to help you instantly understand the balance of power among stakeholders, and each stakeholder’s attitude toward and expectations of the project.
Because global projects often require implementation amongst geographically distant locations, it is important that they share a common project management framework.
Regardless of whether the project is global or local, it is important to organise the perspectives to be used for project management and share them with all stakeholders. Policies and management points for project management are often defined based on principles such as the 12 Principles of Project Management and the 10 Knowledge Areas1 of the Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK). PwC recommends that the following 12 Elements of Delivery Excellence be applied to all projects and used for project reporting, risk assessment and quality control.
1 Project Management Institute, 2021. A Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK® Guide). 7th Edition.
For many projects in Japan, spreadsheet software is often used to create and manage project tasks and work breakdown structures (WBS), and presentation materials are often created from scratch for reporting purposes. For global projects, it is imperative to adopt common project management tools in order to ensure global transparency, sharing capabilities, and real-time management of project progress and agenda status, as well as smooth reporting at each layer. There are slight differences amongst project management tools in terms of usability, granularity of management items and grouping, but whichever tools you use, it is important for project managers, team leaders and team members to learn how to use those tools and to deepen their understanding of the project itself through the process of defining project plans and tasks. In this way, the use of common tools enables uniform project management.
When locally hired staff who work on a job-description basis take part in a project, it is important to clearly define, document and reach consensuses regarding the scope of each staff member’s responsibilities, tasks and outputs. One efficient way to achieve this is to adopt a methodology that is suitable for the project objectives and goals as the project standard, and to define tasks and outputs based on that methodology, with the involvement of the local subsidiaries. You might also want to consider one of the many methodologies provided by consulting firms such as PwC, in addition to the methodologies and system implementations provided by solution vendors.
The hardest part of a global project is communication. Linguistic and cultural differences have always resulted in differences in the nuances of communication, and as the COVID-19 pandemic has made face-to-face communication even more difficult, it has become more important to consider various methods of communication (such as email, telephone and online conferencing services) according to their purpose of use, and to establish communication plans in advance.
The communication plan is always the first thing I check when I start to address the problems that have occurred in a project. This is because of my experience, which tells me that even with tasks, schedules and agendas, projects without a communication plan often fail to go well. It is important to communicate with intent, and not to simply assume that others will understand what you want even if you do not say so directly. It is therefore crucial to choose appropriate communication methods based on your objectives and the people involved.
Cultural attitudes surrounding discussion and documentation can differ based on the country or region. For example, in the Japanese business world, decisions are often made based on a tacit understanding, with minimal discussion, and word-of-mouth agreements are often considered sufficient. On the other hand, in many Western countries, companies tend to place greater importance on lively discussion and detailed documentation. For global projects, it is therefore essential to use visuals to provide an overall view, and also to put all important concepts and agreements in writing and share them with the relevant parties.
Although English has long been used as a common language for international business, it is important to remember that not all participants in a given project will speak English as their native language. In projects involving multilingual stakeholders, small considerations can go a long way in building trust. For example, project members from the Japan head office can show consideration by not simply entrusting translations of Japanese documents to machine translation, but ensuring that the necessary nuances are accurately communicated in the English version. At the same time, native English speakers can facilitate understanding by avoiding idioms and slang, and choosing simple and straightforward language, as well as expressions that have the same meaning, for example, in both US and UK English. In both verbal and written communication, it is important to remember to be detailed but crisp and clear about the message we want to convey. By being careful in our communications over the long term, we can build relationships of trust with the other stakeholders.
To summarise these nine tips as one, stick to the basics. To do that, it is vital to pay attention to the details and to make thorough preparations at the start-up phase. As Sun Tzu says, ‘If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles.’ In the case of an international business project, the ‘enemy’ is the problems that can arise if we don’t take the necessary precautions. By knowing this ‘enemy’ and by taking an objective view of yourself and your company, you can become better prepared to face and overcome these challenges. At PwC, our project management consultants and other professionals working in over 150 countries around the world, are ready to help you understand both the ‘enemy’ and yourself, and to succeed in in global project management.