Some management archaeology from me today. Republishing a few posts after a recent site upgrade. This one seems even more critical in our current era than it did when I first wrote it…
When I started managing teams and projects for the first time I used to write down my most significant insights and lessons I’d learned in a little Black & Red A5 notebook.
A couple of months ago I pulled it off of the shelf and thumbed through my old notes. They’re almost all still as relevant today as they were over a decade ago.
Hiding among the notes on capacity planning, estimation, reporting, change management, innovation, reward systems, performance management, situational leadership and even a list of personal “observed best practices” was a single half-page of bullet points that simply read:
“How to ensure offshore teams are successful”
Since not long after I started writing publicly I’ve not needed to use those insights.
I’ve had the rare luxury of working with completely co-located teams (even “the business” sat with the teams in some of the the best cases). However most of us now face the challenges of working with remote, hybrid, distributed, offshore, and near-shore collaboration. These tips apply to any globally diverse team, not just “offshore”.
So that these insights aren’t lost to time, I thought I’d share and expand them here. I’m bound to have missed many others and this is my personal view from being UK-based and working with teams all around the world.
I have 2 requests for you as readers…
- What tips and suggestions would you add to this list?
- If you’re based in a remote or distributed team team, please, please, please share your insights from the “other side” – we don’t hear enough here.
1 – Management & Team Mindset
First – stop thinking “offshore” or “remote”. You’re a global team. Once you start treating your remote staff/suppliers/contractors as being “on your team” relationships start to build.
Pair team members and managers across locations. You’re working on the same goals, behave like it.
Manage all your team in the same way. Arrange 1-1s, feedback sessions, informal catch-ups, full team training. Have off-sites or outings for every site and share the pictures. Better still, do it together.
Your team includes your customers and suppliers too – involve them in your challenges and be rewarded.
2 – Shared Accountability
We often outsource to reduce effort, overhead, cost and risk. As soon as these become significant motivations, you’re already behaving in a flawed way. You’ll find your offshoring or outsourcing isn’t actively owned or managed.
You own the working relationship. It’s up to you to make it work. Find a counterpart on the other side to pair up with and make it successful.
A remote team will never be successful if your only reason for using them is cost. Figure out the unique strengths, talents and value they bring to you. Invest in partners and locations where you have better access to specialist domain knowledge, broader experience or better delivery capabilities.
A great example of this lies in the domain of one of my former employers – power systems. Power systems engineers are rare people at the best of times. In the US in particular, much of the power systems & networks domain knowledge is being lost through retirement. China on the other hand has a huge number of extraordinarily smart engineers in this space.
3 – Quality of Team
Perhaps it’s purely a capacity thing – staff availability in your home location may be a problem.
It’s a lot harder to hire a dozen amazing developers in Cambridge than it is in San Francisco or Mumbai. But given the size of the talent pool in those locations, it’s also a lot easier to hire mediocre or bad team members. Your bar should be set high wherever you are.
Expect the same from your partners or suppliers. If your supplier is competing on cost alone and not capability you’ll eventually fail – period.
4 – Selection Of Work
Don’t just farm out the dull stuff, the maintenance, support, and bug fixing. This is something very few people enjoy taking personal ownership of or pride in. I’ll admit there are exceptions (I love clearing down a massive bug backlog) but most technical people need a balance. All brown-field work wears people down eventually.
5 – Political Structures & Power Dynamics
Career paths and job titles are important. The “senior” in someone’s title may even be seen as acceptance to push others around or exclude team members from important conversations.
Halt “pecking order” problems early.
Be inclusive, publicly encourage collaboration, and transparent communication from senior managers and give direct private feedback when you smell a problem.
6 – Management Style
Some countries and companies have a more top-down formal style than others. It may be unacceptable to “question your superiors” despite the fact that nobody can be right 100% of the time.
Learn about how things run. Who’s respected, who’s feared, who helps things happen and who gets in the way.
Encourage questioning. Explain that everyone is making rapid decisions all the time. If someone doesn’t understand, is worried or unsure about a decision, make it safe to call out, ask or correct. This capability may take months to build but it’s worth the slog.
As a tech lead in one company I worked at I used to run a game called “Captain, you’re wrong”. We made calling out errors fun and engaging rather than difficult and negative.
Recognise that career paths, job titles and management styles differ from country to country.
7 – Respect cultural and language differences
I had mentee that would say “I have a doubt” when they had a question or needed support. That’s quite an interesting translation. “Doubt” in English reflects personal uncertainty. Be supportive, take time to explain things clearly and most of all encourage questions and discussion.
Work ethic may varies from place to place and person to person but sometimes you just don’t see what’s going on.
I had a team member in Hyderabad who consistently outperformed everyone else globally. She was truly amazing at everything but more than that she worked relentlessly.
I’d come into work in the morning at 8 and she’d have been in the office for 4 hours. I’d leave at 6 or 7 in the evening and she’d still be working. The irony was that even when working sensible hours she was still smarter, more productive and delivered higher quality output than a lot of our team. The excess hours weren’t healthy.
Having spotted the excess working I’d check daily around 4/5 pm and if she was still Online I’d call her up and just and encourage her to go home and enjoy her evening. (Her home life was great too so I’m pretty sure she wasn’t avoiding going home).
8 – Spend Time Together
Seek ways to bring your whole team together for a day, a week, a month or even longer. If this really isn’t possible, how can you do the same for individuals and managers instead?
Spending time together helps you understand the working environment, the personal subtleties and nuances and communication styles. After you’ve spent quality time face to face with someone, those offline interactions become much easier to understand.
It works both ways. Spend some time (at least a couple of weeks) in the remote environment yourself. Go see what working life’s like over there. I promise you’ll learn something every day you’re out there.
9 – Re-learn how to communicate
A lot of communication on a co-located team happens by osmosis.
If some of your team are remote they won’t get that benefit. Invest in tools like Slack and Github that support asynchronous collaboration but don’t just use them for “work” – dial up the chatter and small talk so that everyone can feel part of a human team.