Based on an article by Bas de Baar
In the sales and leadership workshops we do with project managers and consultants a regular objective at the beginning of the programme is “I’d like to lead my offshore team more effectively” . Given the increasing prevalence of remote teams, it’s no surprise that there are plenty of books about this subject and we particularly like this article by Bas de Baar, who specialises in making ‘complex things less complex’ and is therefore a man after our own heart!
Many of Bas’ points are common sense, but may not always be common practice!
Whether you are managing an onsite project or an offshore one, getting the best out of your team takes effort, planning and tact. More so with offshore projects because of the ‘X’ factor – so much is unknown to you when you step out of your own circle. The offshore team can be based anywhere in the world but it is usually the developing countries that are the most tempting. The biggest motivation behind offshore projects is financial, therefore strong. The challenge is to convert this motivation into a successfully supervised project and we have 25 rock solid tips just to achieve that;
The most basic thing you can do while managing an overseas project is to understand the culture of your offshore team. There are words and actions acceptable in your culture that may be extremely offensive to your workers. Similar is the sense of humour of different cultures; what is funny to you may be offensive to them and there is not worse way to lose respect in another’s eyes than to appear as if you are laughing at him. Your job as the PM is to learn about the differences in culture, appreciate them and make sure you deal with your offshore team in a manner that does not offend them.
Now – there is culture and then there is work culture. There are nations known for their workaholic lifestyles and there are those that like to mix work and play. The traditional office job in most developing countries consists of work, a break for lunch and work again. There is no concept of recreation at work and once you introduce the modern office in these areas the actual ‘fun’ of working can be cashed in on. Teams eating together once in a while, a lounge where the team members can relax during breaks and a digression from the traditional tense and formal office environment can actually enhance the interest your offshore team will take when it actually comes to dealing with the work…and then there will be fewer quitters too.
Of course there are times when you have to put the foot down and make a demand of your offshore team, but commanding your team’s respect comes first and you can get that only by giving respect. They will naturally work for the money but you still can get the 110% loyalty from an offshore team if you motivate them so they want to work for your approval instead. Communication is the secret in all the above, and it will stay the key to your successful supervision of the project. Be clear in all you want to say; make sure not to digress when you communicate. You do not have to be dry in your communication, but beware that there are things that can sound perfectly normal, even considered generic humour in your culture that will be hard for them to pick up, and may even cause confusion. Brits watch out especially, a person from another culture may not catch the sarcasm!
If possible, visit your offshore team during the development phase and make an effort to blend in. That can work against you if your team finds you standoffish, so be polite, defer to their cultural practices and take interest in more than just the work you are getting out of them. Picking up and using a few words or phrases of their language works well too; it breaks ice like nothing else.
Identify a leader you are going to be communicating with regularly and make them responsible for all updates and reports so there is no miscommunication. This is a basic difference from the usual on site projects; you cannot micromanage your team and still come out on top while sitting so far away. Appoint strong team leaders or managers that work offshore with the team; a development lead and one for testing is not a bad option if you are testing the software offshore as well. The rule of the thumb is to keep the list as short as possible though so you have a single point of constant contact in the offshore team.
Be sure to work out communication lines before you start. Work out the means of communication; i.e. if you will use telephones to communicate, email, messaging, or video conferencing and other communicative tools such as that. Messaging and email can be detached; it is quite easy for your offshore team to interpret them according to their own perceptions. With no expressions or a tone of voice to help assess the meaning of what is said, those words can find new meanings different than what you intended. Communication through telephones / video conference can be tricky if you find it difficult to understand the accents, or your correspondent can not understand yours. When used, talk slowly, clearly and ask for the other person to repeat if you do not understand what was said.
Whichever way you choose for your communication, always support verbal communication with written correspondence. There is a lot said during even the informal chats between the PM and the offshore team lead that can be lost in understanding accents or can cause serious miscommunication. Make sure to back your verbal communication with written documentation and emails are ideal for this since they give you and your offshore team something to consult instead of trying to remember what was said.
Consider the language barriers because your offshore team will not always have perfect English skills. You will have to identify a team member who can understand you perfectly and communicate your points further. Make sure your offshore team is not disadvantaged because of the language hitch.
Communication of project scope has to be spot on for a successfully managed project. Make sure your offshore team knows exactly what is required of them down to the smallest details. Project goals should always be provided in a written form apart from the verbal communication, if there is any. As an added point, it is important to keep the deadlines practical, you do not want to hand out impossible deadlines to your team and cause a nosedive in their morale when you start out. Very few people can work well under constant stress. It works well for most project managers when they assign internal deadlines to their teams without giving them the final deadlines assigned. This means they have a few days to play with even if something does go wrong.
The bigger the better is the rule when getting projects made offshore; small projects are usually going to get you distracted workers who will be looking for their next assignment even while they work for you. It is best to award large projects to offshore teams and divide those into small achievable milestones so your team is not insecure about where they will be earning from tomorrow. Small projects drag when awarded to offshore teams. While someone in the US will prefer a small job to the long tedious projects, the work culture of the developing world usually includes preferring mid to long term projects while short projects will very likely be dragged in hope of getting more work and increased scope.
In a software development project, test deliverables after every milestone because that tells you exactly where the project stands in terms of achieving the end aims. Putting off testing for long intervals will only compound problems, making the coders go back and forth to make corrections. That, of course, will cut down the efficiency of your team. Building on site prototypes of the development done offshore is also an option to ensure the project goals are being followed, but that only works if you have an onsite teams available for the job.
Take nothing for granted, nothing is obvious when it comes to communication, especially when your team is half way across the world trying to work on the ideas you present. More is less when it comes to explaining your requirements so go out of the way to state everything plainly.
Never underestimate the power of a good Q&A. Make sure your offshore team knows they can ask any questions about the project whenever they like. When you are working for someone it is vital that you get the client’s perspective on what is needed. Your project goals will become your offshore team’s goals only when they know what is required.
It will, at times, mean some downright dumb questions will be asked but take them as your team’s attempt to get everything clear. Appreciate it and never ever ignore a question. Answer every question and those you think can be raised because it will help the coding team at the other end to analyse what you want and sometimes even come up with ideas to improve the end product to suit your goals better.
With offshore projects, there is a huge chance you will be in a different time zone than your offshore team. The challenge is to manage time zone differences in such a way that the communication lines never break down. Even a 5 hour difference in the time zone can be detrimental to your project if you let it be that. Offshore teams will usually agree to work your hours or you can find a way to make sure you communicate with them during the overlapping work hours. The former is the better option though just to make sure no deadlines are missed because either one of the sides were not available and a day was wasted waiting for replies.
Scheduling status reports is of utmost importance; they will give you an idea of the progress on your project and will be indicators of how things are going. Make them frequent and detailed so the team lead can tell you what went right or wrong on a day to day basis, ensuring problems are sorted out as quickly as possible. Some offshore managers put off the bad news for as long as they can, sometimes making it impossible to meet deadlines. It is important to convey your desire to know about every problem, risk or delay clearly. This will help you get a better picture of what to expect later.
Monitor progress in detail. Just an ‘everything is going well’ is not enough to get results. You do not want to be overbearing but you want your offshore team to be aware that their results are important targets. Coding takes long hours and you cannot, of course, have significant progress everyday but there should be mini goals set that your team achieves in shorts periods. It is important that you track the important issues until they are sorted out completely, go back and forth with emails if you have to but do not let up.
Your relationship with the offshore team leader will be extremely handy when the going gets tough. The general impression of offshore teams is that even while they are capable of finding loopholes in your plans, they will stick to the conservative ‘yes sir/madam’ policy of accepting and implementing what you ask for without a word. While this gets you what you wanted, it is not always the best thing you can get because if there were any problems with your initial planning the team will incorporate the mistakes without questioning you. Those same problems would be brought up and discussed in a good on site team and worked out, so unless you want the difference to remain, make your relationship frank enough with the team lead for them to have the confidence to communicate any mistakes or hitches in your plans and get you the best results possible.
Use communicative tools like spreadsheets or online tools for reports, queries, or to ask for clarifications. This can ease communication and reporting to make everything clear to the management as well as the offshore team.
While the rule is to praise in public and criticize in privacy, clarity in evaluation is extremely important in letting your offshore team know exactly how well or badly they are doing. Collaboration between your on-site testing branch and offshore developers is equally important, because that can ease your projects’ growing pains with timely, clear evaluations. If you are testing the coding on site, it will help a lot if your team leads work together and report clearly because misunderstandings are what raise the most disastrous problems.
There should be deliverables planned for each phase of the project so you can watch for results, not words. If the team lead offshore reports a stage of the project as complete or in progress, make sure you have a way to view the developments. While reports would include team performance and any problems the offshore team is facing, and the best you can do is empathize and try to find ways to make things easier for your team, it is important to keep your offshore team leader on his toes when it comes to the status of deliverables, nothing but facts is a report on the deliverables.
Celebrate landmarks and make sure your team knows that their efforts are being monitored and appreciated. A little extra for a team dinner organized at your offshore team’s camp will not cost as much as a dinner would in your locality, but it still will lift the team when they are made aware of the significance of their achievement and these landmarks will effectively recharge your team for the next phase.
Don’t be short of a good word or two when you talk to your team. A scheduled team huddle puts you in the midst of the team even if you are not there physically. The workers may not talk to you directly but they will listen and anyone who has ever done anything that can be referred to as ‘work’ knows appreciation lifts the spirits and makes you want to do even better next time.
Have the end client on board in the development of the project and be open about its offshore nature. If you are outsourcing a project to an offshore team your team should know who you are reporting to at the client’s end – this will keep complications down to a minimum.
Finally, it is a PM’s downfall if he segregates between his team members, on site and offshore workers are all a part of your team so make sure a part of your team does not feel detached from the project. Ensure meetings between team leads on either side and make your offshore team feel just as much a part of the team as the guys sitting in the next office.
More about the author of this article: Bas de Baar makes complex people stuff less complex. On his blog The Project Shrink he uses metaphors, storytelling and visualization to help people get insights in difficult problems surrounding projects and online collaboration.”