The art of outsourcing projects
Outsourcing may look financially attractive, but working with companies in far-off lands introduces challenges that, if not considered properly, can drive any project to failure. Let’s explore some common pitfalls when working with offshore partners and a common-sense approach to work around them.
In my career, I have outsourced work and managed teams in India, South Africa and Ukraine mainly.
IT offshoring is a big business these days, but despite looking financially attractive, working with companies in far-off lands introduces challenges that, if not considered properly, can drive any project to failure.
In my experience, the common obstacles that I have encountered when working with external teams located in far-flung locations are:
· Timezone: Part of the sales pitch for offshoring projects is that the team can work while you sleep, making for a round-the-clock workday. Reality is that the time difference often results in one team waiting for answers from the other one, and meetings organised out of hours for addressing urgent requests.
· Communication: People working in other countries may not be speaking their native language when attending meetings or writing emails with members of the other “local” team. Misunderstandings are common, humour is off the table and sometimes translation is even necessary, making up for longer conversations.
· Culture: Crossing borders means crossing cultures. Eastern-based people tend not to say “No” or are hesitant to highlight problems in front of others. Well... East is a relative concept; now that I live in Australia, East for me is the US J. But in this specific case, I’m referring to East of Europe, hence Asian countries. Also, so-to-said emerging countries look at us “European” with additional authority respect, deferring or even refraining opinions and decisions when perhaps they should be questioning assumptions.
· Experience: You’ll probably be working with people that have a different experience than your local team, may not know your own specific technology stack and will certainly have an initial learning curve. With high competition and turnover in these offshore vendors, expect people to “disappear” from your project with nearly no notice. Make sure you have a proper backup plan, especially for senior positions.
To make it work successfully, however, is not difficult and just requires some good practices and good sense.
· First of all, cherry pick the projects that you want to offshore: not all projects are “outsourceable”. Select projects that are self-contained, not overly complex and do not require too much communication. For example, better to work when requirements are already gathered and documented, rather than exposing the offshore team to potential communication with the business stakeholders.
· Vet your offshore partner, make them sign a Non-Disclosure Agreement (NDA) and periodically review their work. This includes also onsite visits and face-to-face interviews of the people who will be working with you.
· Select the right onsite team. Not everybody is able or willing to co-operate with other team members that are not sitting by their desk. You need to make everybody feel part of the same extended team with a common interest, the success of the project. There is no competition, no rivalry, no “us” vs “the others”. Also, both teams should have a local coordinator (aka Scrum Master) and the two of them should have frequent conversations.
· Monitor progress, in the same way as you do with your local team, expect the offshore team to play with the same rules. If you have regular daily Scrum stand-ups with your local team, expect at least a daily update from the offshore Scrum Master, rather than a weekly report. Set SMART goals in the same way you’d set for your own team members and do have performance reviews (preferably in person). These are to address project performance and not necessarily personal issues concerning their local working environment, for which you may not want to be involved.
· Last but not the least, have a single and shared project plan that entitles for everybody’s tasks and time as part of a single team. Dependencies on deliverables from one team are easier to track when sitting within the same plan.
There are also good news J.
Offshored jobs are often some of the best and highest paid in the host countries, which means that people working on your project will usually be highly motivated. There are often willing to work long hours to meet deadlines.
Outsourcing does work. Project managers just have to figure out the right techniques to master the obstacles.