At the PMI UK Chapter’s flagship conference, Synergy 2013, last month, one of the presenters spoke about his role in working with an international project team of 30 people based in Saudi Arabia. Nick Fewings’ brief was simple: the team had so many cultural and communication issues that they couldn’t make any progress with the project. He had to sort it out. In just 2 days.

The project team was made up of 3 groups: French, UK and German team members, and there was no clear leadership. They were operating with a silo mentality, each sticking to their own group, and there was poor communication between individuals and groups. They didn’t even have a common understanding of the project goals, and there was no clear common vision for the project. On top of that, as there wasn’t much else for the team to do in Saudi, they were working long hours and struggling to maintain a work/life balance. As a result of all this, morale was very low.

If you have worked on an international project, or one with communication problems, or with a team with low morale, you’ll probably recognise some of the issues that Fewings was facing.

Getting the team together

The project sponsor had decided that what the team needed was some away from the office time, so he had tasked Fewings with taking the project team members into the desert to a Bedouin tent 2 hours out of Riyadh. It was 50? during the day and dropped to only 40? at night, so without air conditioning, the tent was stifling. They were also accompanied by an armed guard in case a group of bandits passed through the area. He also explained how the toilets were raised on blocks to stop scorpions making it in.

Communication with the team is essential

So, the team environment was pretty harsh, and Fewings had to bring them together and solve all their issues in 48 hours.

He started on Day 1 by introducing the team to the theories of Jung. If this sounds pretty heavy, you might be surprised to know that you’ve probably been exposed to them already. It’s the basis of the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI) profile, and many project managers go through this in their workplace as a way of establishing their own communication and work preferences. Fewings took the Saudi project team through this exercise and explained that misunderstandings related to personal preferences is “the biggest cause of miscommunication.”

Communicating with others

On the second day, Fewings led the team through some exercises about how best to communicate with other team members, taking into account their natural preferences. It was a revelation for many, and if you’ve ever been through a similar exercise with your project team you’ll know that it can result in many ‘light bulb moments’ as people realise why their dealings with someone have been so difficult.

Fewings made the point that we audit and monitor our budget, schedule and risk on projects but not the team – and as the most common issues on projects are due to the team, this is a big oversight. He wanted to give this project team some tools to assess their confidence in each other, the project and the team overall, and then they could use them on an ongoing basis to check how things were going.

The results

Fewings’ desert experiments were a success: the stakeholders later responded that the cultural barriers had been broken down, the team had identified a leader and there were communication routes established that had not been there before. They also had been given a language to be able to use when coping with personality differences. They also created a common vision and set up social activities to help address the work/life balance problems. “Things started to get back on track,” Fewings concluded. “They could manage themselves going forward.”