Have a global change project? Start by understanding remote offices

Most failed global projects are rooted in a poor understanding between headquarters and the field offices.

Successfully implementing global change projects, whether they involve a massive worldwide software package or "soft" changes like a new process or policy, involve a unique set of challenges. Not only are you faced with the usual gauntlets of scope, timeline, and budget, but unique additions like language, culture, and the "headquarters dynamic" rear their heads, derailing the most well-intentioned efforts if they are ignored. The headquarters dynamic is one of the more interesting of these challenges and represents the relationship between corporate headquarters, which generally initiates a change project, and the field offices, which are usually on the receiving end of these efforts.

Sir, yes, sir!

Traditionally, most companies implementing large-scale global projects assume a command-and-control model, with headquarters marshalling resources, setting schedules, and essentially dictating orders to field offices. You don't need an advanced degree in International Relations to imagine that this usually breeds discord and resentment; field offices see the initiative as yet another grand scheme cooked up in the "ivory towers" at headquarters, with little regard to local operating, legal, and resource constraints. At best, regional offices begrudgingly comply with headquarters' fiat and promptly look for the best way to modify, work around, or altogether disregard the results of the change effort.

The opposite model is to issue what amounts to "suggestions" to local operating entities and hope that they follow through. Like the hundreds of e-mails we each receive offering advice and mild threats if some new policy or procedure is not obeyed, most of these end up promptly filed in the nearest rubbish bin. What is needed is a model that takes into account the unique assets of field offices and leverages the operational and administrative powers of the home office as an asset rather than an overbearing administrative headache.

Understanding the remote office

Using the headquarters dynamic as an asset rather than a liability requires some understanding of the conditions in the field office. Most field offices have less staff than headquarters and are more tightly focused on core operational activities like sales, marketing, manufacturing, and logistics. Since these offices are usually established as a beachhead in an attractive market, they are generally lean and mean and focused tightly on getting the maximum results with the minimum amount of resources. As such, creative ways of doing business are often developed, and models that could benefit the company as a whole may be lying about undiscovered.

Many remote offices take pride in the success they have achieved, without the additional perceived overhead that exists at headquarters. Key to leveraging the headquarters dynamic is to acknowledge the good work frequently done in the field and seek out any best practices that can be incorporated into a global model. In addition, rather than trying to deploy a "one-size-fits-all" solution to every global problem, consider two or three "standard" processes that accommodate a wide variety of statutory requirements, volumes of business, and varying staff levels. Usually what works at headquarters or a major regional hub is vast overkill for a local office that works in dozens of transactions rather than thousands.

The obvious way to ensure regional voices are heard is to incorporate regional personnel on the planning and deployment teams. Not only will their thoughts and field experience prove invaluable, but seeing multinational faces rather than yet another team of "drones from HQ" on the next change project will instantly instill confidence and credibility that local concerns are being aired and accounted for.

Making a friend of HQ

Perhaps the best role of headquarters in a global project is to serve as a global clearinghouse of knowledge, people, and dispute resolution. Most failed global projects are rooted in a poor understanding of the headquarters dynamic, usually with the home office underestimating the complexities of field operations or simply turning a blind eye to their requirements and attempting to implement an overly complex solution in the name of "global standardization."

When headquarters is seen as having an open ear and working to transparently resolve disputes that are bound to arise in the course of a global project, the field will eventually see headquarters as a trustworthy asset to the change effort, rather than a monolith bent on implementing ill-conceived projects that get in the way of local operational activities.

For more on the role headquarters should play in a successful global change project and other tips on global projects, please download the free white paper: "Conquering the World -- Delivering Globally."

By Patrick Gray

Patrick Gray works for a leading global professional services firm, where he helps companies rapidly invent and launch new businesses. He is the author of Breakthrough IT: Supercharging Organizational Value through Technology as well as the companio...