How to overcome main challenges when collaborating with teams from different countries?

In one of his latest articles, Filip Ryba describes the specificity of working on on-site projects in the USA. Let's compare his experiences with similar projects run in other parts of the world.

Let's take the US first.

What Can We Learn From U.S Work Culture?

Teams in the USA are very customer-oriented and everyone knows their users. Ask your teammate about some functionality in the product. In Poland you will usually get a technical answer, something along the lines "Oh, it is because we need to get additional data from..." and you have to ask some follow-up questions, to get to actual functionality needed by customers and in many cases, you won't get that answer at all. In the USA you will most likely get "Oh, it is because our customers need to know if...", which puts you in the right business context from the start. I find it really positive since instead of just focusing on technical parts you are focusing more on the actual usability of the feature for the customers.

The teams that I worked with always had a flat structure. Sure, there was a PM and a PO, but they were sitting with their team at the same desks. It's another factor that makes communication super easy and effective.

We are actually closer culturally to the United States than you might think. We have Hollywood movies in our cinemas and on TV, we listen to news involving the US, and Netflix becomes popular worldwide. It gives us something to talk about to break the ice.

Obviously, everyone there speaks English, although its level differs from person to person. It is pretty common especially in IT that teams are multi-cultured and you will have teammates from India, China, Mexico to name a few. This might be challenging at first, but you will catch up pretty quick. Being constantly exposed to a foreign language is the best way to learn.

Another aspect of American culture that is especially contrasting with our culture is that when you share something you will always get positive feedback. You will hear "Oh, that's great!" or "Oh, that's so cool!" and it does not matter if they really think that. What matters is that it encourages to share more and it works.

Differences Between American And German Working Culture

How do they compare to our neighbors from Germany? While the teams here also have a flat structure there is also a more rigorous division of responsibilities between teams. There are parts that belong to the architecture team, testing team, CI/CD teams, etc. This inevitably leads to more internal dependencies and generates more meetings. The Germans are very polite and open to discuss everything. Even if they do not have to agree with you, they will at least hear you out. Even when a decision comes from the top, they will still seek consensus within a team.

While working with German companies your PO/PM will be more technical than their US counterpart. Firstly, it helps to translate business goals to engineering tasks. Secondly, the goals that do not bring immediate business value like code refactoring or improvements to the development environment are better understood, and easier accepted. All of that makes projects more technical with teams having less influence on the business side of the product.

Collaboration with Italian Teams

The US might be 7000 km from Poland, but we are culturally closer to them than let’s say Italy. If you add to it that not many Italians speak English, the communication may be a bit challenging. The project I worked on was managed in a more freestyle manner. When seeking some information about a project all you have to do is to walk around the office and ask around until you find someone who has that knowledge. Of course, sometimes you also have to find someone who can help you as a translator. Due to the same reasons communication with an end user is next to impossible. Trying to change the way things are done is even more challenging. Let’s say you finally encouraged your PM to agree to change things a bit. You go back home happy that things are finally moving into the right direction only to discover next day that there was another meeting with some other PM’s and everything is going back to how it was. Sometimes it requires time to work out a way of running projects that suits both sides - when you deal with the early struggles the job becomes more effective.

Collaboration with people from other countries sometimes may be demanding but when you invest some time in better understanding their work culture, a way of communicating, and daily routines it becomes easier. Despite all the differences and challenges at the beginning, on-site projects can be a valuable lesson and helpful experience. There is one more aspect of working abroad that I really like. You can of course visit the same countries by yourself during vacation. However as a tourist you don’t have to figure out what is the best way to commute, where to go shopping, where to eat, what to do on Friday evening etc. This allows you to experience how it is to live there without actually moving there.

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