Multinational teams – Are they doomed from the start?

Jeane Brett in her book, Negotiating Globally,  writes the following:

Teams bring essential resources to big, complex tasks. Teams can produce creative ideas, meet deadlines with quality products, and negotiate decisions that generate corporate growth and prosperity. Research shows that when team minorities dissent, majorities are more likely to generate original and novel solutions to problems. Organizations grow faster when top-management teams engage in constructive debate. Companies with top-management teams that engage in debate have a higher return on investment. Cross-functional, new-product teams are more innovative when they have a lot of disagreement about task design if they have a norm for open expression of doubts or if they engage in collaborative problem solving. Constructive controversy, the open-minded discussion of opposing views for mutual benefit, appears to be the key to creating value during multicultural team decision making.”

As I’ve spent last year and this year working with groups that come from different backgrounds and different countries I can see the value in multicultural, multinational teams.  Yet in other settings, such as school projects, the team dynamic fails.  Educators hope to instill  the collaborative nature of multicultural teams only to find fiefdoms among the student body.  There are companies that write long diversity webpages, yet pit countries and regions one against another.

Brett mentions 3 reasons, but I believe that there are 2 main reasons above the ones mentioned by Brett.  Here are Brett’s reasons

  1. Task Conflict – Understanding what is being asked
  2. Procedural Conflict – Understanding how it should be done
  3. Interpersonal Conflict – Understanding how is being asked

So my reasons, and they go above those mentioned by Brett are:

  1. It requires resources hardly ever allocated to the team
  2. It is never required, but simply suggested the team collaborates


Multinational teams require time and effort, to avoid the problems mentioned by Brett teams require more time, and often more expensive resources than those needed by simpler teams.  I was in a team in which the controller was a woman from China; her understanding of the accounting practices in the region was crucial, but her understanding of the English language was minimal.  Another team member was in Singapore, so there was a timezone barrier.  The task required that we produced detailed documents prior to our meetings that could be read and understood by those with limited English knowledge.  Second our meeting were held late at night, in order to accommodate our friend in Singapore.

Many interpersonal conflicts are avoided with the use of video conferencing equipment, that allows groups to virtually meet face to face; reducing the friction that comes from emotionless email and IM. When companies want to benefit from multinational teams, they need to invest in the resources that will enable these groups to prosper.

Collaboration is Required

When collaboration is not required, no benefit can be extracted from multinational teams.  We already know that it is not an easy feat nor a cheap one.  Schools my create these multinational teams, but the work they produce many times only require the work from 1 or 2 team members.  Companies create cross-regional groups, but decisions are made by those with bigger budgets or more headcount.  Only when collaboration is required are the benefits really felt.

Cummins’ success today would not be possible without our deep commitment to diversity. At Cummins, we want to create an inclusive work environment where the diverse ideas and perspectives of our employees drive innovation for solving tomorrow’s business challenges. Diversity will help us better serve our customers around the world and deliver results that will sustain our future growth and success. In short, diversity is critical to our bottom line.”
-Tom Linebarger, Chairman and CEO

Only when a company puts it’s trust in the outcome of diverse groups are they able to extract all the benefits from multinational team.  So are these teams doomed from the start? Only if we deny resources and allow them to fail.

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