Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Winning with offshore

I recently had an opportunity to speak about being successful with offshore partners. Having worked with several partners in my career, I was fortunate to be able to have some experiences to draw on. There were three themes I eventually landed on:

  • People versus resources
  • Relationships versus transactions
  • Collaboration versus isolation

People versus Resources
The language we use is a reflection of our thoughts and shapes future thoughts. So here's a simple question: Do you report the number of people or the number of resources you have offshore? You see, resources are interchangeable and anonymous. People are flesh and blood.

Several years ago, my former manager began penalizing our team every time we referenced our partner either by their country ("I don't know how that happened, Antarctica tested that feature") or by their company name ("I can't believe Igloo Offshore would have coded it that way!"). She forced us each to examine the way we viewed them. Were they simply a group of disposable parts? Or were they committed and loyal people, just like us.

And guess what? Things changed. Professional respect across the two teams emerged. As people visited (every try to buy a round trip air ticket for a 'resource'?) back and forth, we began to learn names of our counterparts. Phone calls, instant messaging, and web cams became the preferred method of communicating.

More importantly, we built trust. My manager was on to something those years ago. She knew that when a person has a name, they are real.

Relationships versus Transactions
Once we began to see our partner as a collection of people, this next distinction sort of fell into place. You can't have a relationship with a resource. You go to an ATM and withdraw money from a machine, not from Bob. Once we began to know each other as people, we evolved to a new relationship. We became interested in career development on both sides. We deepened our relationships with their families during visits.

OK, you might be asking what this has to do with costs and productivity. And that, I assure you, is my point. Sure, you can get what you negotiate for in terms of transactions (do project X by March for Y dollars.) But our product isn't piece meal. It is a living, breathing product that evolves over time. I can't afford to have people coming on and off my project, all the while keeping the "resource count" level.

That's the punch line.

Our relationships are the bond that allows for continuity. We have wonderfully low turnover and deep experience with our offshore team. I fundamentally believe that is a result of the relationships among people from both sides. It's more than just a cool project on the resume. It about being on a world-class team with people you care about.

Collaboration versus Isolation
This too is a natural extension of the previous point. We don't distinguish between whether a person is here or there, with the exception of a few key customer facing positions. In other words, if a test lead is better situated there, then so be it.

We often have feature (scrum) teams comprised of people from both us and our partner. And because of the strong relationship, they work well together. Not only in a "feel good" sense, but in a hard core results delivered sense. People work hard for each other because they know each other. They have shared a meal together. They know about each other's families and celebrations. They have worked side by side together.

So when we need that push, we get much more than compliance because we are the customer. We get the energy, the passion, and the loyalty that is the difference in being able to deliver great software.

Ironically, these themes are exactly the way you should be treating your onshore team members already. Ultimately, it's about being able to look across your two organizations and see one team.

No comments: