Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Distributed Scrum - Integrating Offshore Resources

Tranistioning to distributed scrum with offshore resources is hard. It requires significant change in the way teams are run and how members interact. There is also potential for dramatic improvement with productivity and ROI in general.
There are plenty of articles written about offshoring projects, significantly less written on distributed teams, and a trivial amount written on distributed scrum with oursourced and offshore teams.

In my view, the best option when working with offshore resources is distributed scrum. I have faith in Agile as a framework for development. With all of the risks associated with software engineering and the added complexity of team members distributed across the planet, I want control over how projects are executed and the emphasis on continuous improvement.
With that said, here are a few things to consider when considering distributed scrum with offshore resources:

Team and Agreement Structure
  • Limit resource distribution: The more distributed the team the more complex the work becomes. Limit the distribution of resources as much as possible.
  • Aim for long-term partnership: When you find the right partner, don't be afraid of arranging a long-term partnership, e.g. 1-2+ years. This allows for you and your outsourcer to concentrate on team building and continuous improvement without distraction of the next agreement. This does not preclude a 30-90 day exit strategy built into the contract if the partnership goes south.
  • Measurable results: I'm on the fence with this one. It is common to insert milestone-based payments based on deliverables. This is common for any project that is completely outsourced regardless of whether it is software, buildings, etc. But in this structure, any performance incentive is more akin to a performance-based bonus for employees. I keep harkening back to a book I read by B.F. Skinner where he postulated that most incentives are actually disincentives. Agile principles, when adopted fully, make it clear when resources, or outsourcers for that matter, are failing. Payment schemes typically provide incentive to maximize financial reward not necessarily maximizing productivity and effectiveness.
Build a rapport with your outsourcing partner
  • Stay close at the executive level: The best situation is one where you have access to the executive level of the outsourcer. When you really need something done, you want to be able to reach out at the highest levels.
  • Find a true partner: It's important that your offshore partner be your business partner too. The organization that you choose should be an advocate for your vision.
  • Trade players for a few weeks: It cannot be overstated how important it is that the team members get to know one another on a personal level. The affect on a team when dispartely located people finally meet each other face to face and work together for a period of time is stunning.
  • Maximize overlapping working hours: Both sides should help to extend the overlapping work hours in a day. It's easy to say "your my vendor, you should bend to my wishes". Altough yoru oursourcer may acquiesce, you should expect more to get accomplished when both sides are engaged and working together to solve this particular proximity problem.
Expect Proficient Communication
  • One language: Pick a single language for communication and make sure everyone one on the team speaks it well. Seems obvious but I've heard of translators being hired to bridge language barriers. With that said, don't be afraid to learn a few words and phrases in their native language. It will help to add character and color to the team.
  • Good communication skills - Communication is more than language, it's also proactively alerting the team of potential problems, sharing knowledge, willingness to disagree, recommending improvements, etc. As with onshore resources, have high standards with each person's ability to communicate effectively.
  • Video conference: For good reasons, we don't conduct telephone meetings when everyone is in the office. As humans, we prefer in person conversation. It is important to emulate the behaviour of colocation and video conferencing is the next best thing to holograms. It's a bit awkward at first but becomes very comfortable very quickly.
Treat Offshore Resources Like Employees
  • Expect profient professionals: Just as with colocated permanent employees, look forward to the right balance of intelligence, creativity, passion, dedication, and all of the other traits we look for when adding to our teams. Don't lower your standards!
  • Fit people to jobs: The best team is made up of people who are in positions that accentuate their strengths and marginalize their weaknesses.
  • Career pathing and mentoring: Check-in with your offshore team mates to make sure they are experiencing job satisfaction. Provide mentoring to advance their careers and expertise. Just as with colocated permanent employees, this helps to build a stronger team.
  • Work/life balance: Expect that your offshore resources have families and lives outside of work.
Be Patient
  • Coalescing a team takes time: It takes longer for distributed teams, especially when they are offshore vendors, to coalesce. Many people on the team were hired not by you but by your vendor. Don't underestimate this obstacle. Team building is hard enough when everyone works for the same company and is in the same building. This structure is orders of magnitude more complex.
  • Encourage coalescence: Agile is inherently one of the best methods of coalescing a team. Let that process of direct communication happen naturally. Assuming good quality team members, the only obstacle is you if you act as a proxy between team members.
  • Facilitation is key: There will be a lot of change immediately and stability can feel very far off. The person who is in charge of building and motivating the team must have good facilitation skills.
Yes, there is risk and some parts of this are down right scary. But don't lose site of the fact that distributed srum work. When it does, most organizations will find themselves fundamentally stronger than they were before.

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