The honeymoon is over. Looking to deliver more while spending less, just about every large company has engaged in distributed offshore projects over the last several years. But organizations are discovering that outsourcing carries more pain than was promised. More projects are suffering from quality issues, language gaps and woefully unmet expectations. So what can we do? Here are some ways that Offshore Agile projects are overcoming some of these side effects:
Agile project management places a strong emphasis on collaborative communication. Using written English can sometimes mitigate language issues, but email takes too long, and large documents can be stale the moment they’re sent. Instead, we augment project communications with standard processes like a daily call, team chartering, and working agreements. To make that more feasible, teams are using modern online collaboration tools such as Google Docs, instant messaging, discussion boards, and Skype. Some teams have always-on webcams so each side can see what’s happening on the other. You can’t have successful projects without some kind of interaction. If time zones make that inconvenient, share the pain, with each worksite taking a turn after-hours. In short, agile methods expect you to work hard to communicate in real time. You’ll develop stronger collaboration, which will yield greater understanding and more innovative results.
Get bad news early
A mentor once told me, “Never surprise your boss.” Similarly, a good project manager wants bad news as early as possible. One of the greatest pain points for distributed projects is unmet expectations. Sponsors can spend significant time and money generating rigorous requirements, wait a year to see any output and then receive a single large deliverable that simply misses the mark. If iterative-incremental delivery is a good risk-management practice for local projects, then it’s absolutely vital for distributed projects. A monthly demo using a virtual meeting platform can reveal problems and opportunities earlier in the game. If it reveals a slew of defects, the sponsor can reprioritize debugging over adding new features. If an incremental deliverable is built to off-target specs, the sponsor still has the opportunity to swap some of the pending features for the needed refinements.
Formalize Problem Fixing
Conventional offshore projects rely heavily on up front planning, to minimize the pain associated with distance, silos, and time-zones. However, no amount of planning can account for surprises and mistakes. This is why Agile methods formalize policies around fixing problems and changing course. Demos give a chance refine the scope for optimum value. Retrospectives give voice to issues that need escalating. Transparent metrics reveal issues that need to be analyzed further. In short, agile processes require you to pay attention to the issues that crop up on virtual projects.
Now It’s Your Turn
As it turns out, I’ve written a whole minibük on this topic, which you can download for FREE here. It goes into more detail on both insights and tips. Check it out and then post a comment or send me a line: What has worked for you in making the most of offshore, distributed, virtual project situations.
[NOTE: This post was originally published as part of my recurring column, “The Agile Project Manager”, printed in PM Network magazine. Other installments and more info can be found here]