Offshore project success often comes down to communication. Chances are, you could be doing it better.
Whether your offshore project succeeds or fails often depends almost entirely on your communications with your teams.
It was the first time my friend Nour, a founder of an innovating on-line services company in Canada, saw the demo of the system that was being developed for her by a team in India. She spent over two months in face-to-face sessions and Skype discussions with the team communicating the requirements for the site and now was looking at the first batch of functionality. After 15 minutes into the presentation she was about to scream or burst in tears. “It’s not at all what I told them to do. They misunderstood every basic concept! My requirement documents explicitly spelled out...” Sounds familiar?
Outsourcing success depends often almost solely on the ability to maintain effective communication channels between your local and offshore teams. Given that the communication abilities of your offshore personnel are at best unknown and their tenure will be brief, the responsibility for maintaining communication lies squarely with you.
To build communications that enable you to use your offshore team effectively and efficiently, you need to learn how to navigate the five seas (Cs) of communications. These five Cs are:
Let’s take a closer look at each of these Cs.
Concise communications are both time- and cost-saving, they radiate respect for your audience, and they leave less room for misinterpretation.
Contrary to the common belief that over-communicating is better than under-communicating, the fact is that every element of communication is a potential liability. The flabbier your communication is, the greater the chances it will be misinterpreted. The cultural, organizational, and language differences of your offshore team will exacerbate the possibility that any additional instruction that was intended to add clarity or act as illustration will only cloud the issue.
Here are a few guiding principles for staying concise:
Limit email size—recipients should need no more than 10 seconds to read it.
Aim for no more than two lines per sentence in printed documents.
Use one page for install instructions, checklists, system diagrams, and other technical instruction.
Use no more than seven bullets to communicate / support your idea.
Limit presentations, recurring meetings, and conference calls to 30 minutes.
To make your communications more concise, expand this list to cover the communication media you employ, and enforce it across all communication channels with your local and offshore teams.
The first steps towards improving Clarity are brevity and focus. Try, for example, the “one point per email” rule. If you want to thank your team member, request that he review some piece of code, and ask for advice on shopping in Mumbai, you’ll get much better results by sending three short emails instead of one.
A critical step to providing clear communications is using vocabulary that everyone understands. Even if your outsourced team is located in another English-speaking country, don’t use complicated words when simple words will do.
Be aware of language differences. English probably isn’t the mother tongue for most of your offshore team, even if the team is based in India, so be extremely careful how you communicate. Avoid slang, even professional lingo. Most novice language users tend to interpret / translate language literally, as if they were reading the first entry in a dictionary. Just imagine how using a dictionary to understand “Please bounce the server” would work.
Minimize the use of proverbs, sayings, euphemisms, and idiomatic expressions. They make understanding your speech for non-native speakers tenfold more complex. Look at it from someone else’s point of view: what would you think if your manager told you to stop “putting noodles on my ears?” That’s a common Russian idiom for “feeding me a bunch of baloney,” or “misleading.”
Finally, be concrete. Stick to facts, specific figures, and metrics. In particular, this is important when you give directions to your team, do a root-cause analysis, or provide feedback.
No matter what communication channel you use, you must provide your audience with everything they need to comprehend your message and take appropriate actions. Not doing that is probably one of the most common mistakes of rookie managers—and overdoing it is probably the second most common. “Guys, we need to kick off this project. Get the stakeholder buy-in, requirements, and... You know the drill!” Well, chances are, they don’t.
One of the difficult aspects of being complete is maintaining the balance between providing “not enough” and “too many” details. You do not want to assume that your audience knows the subject as well as you do.
Skipping over items that your local team takes for granted may turn out to be a lethal mistake with an offshore team. (“Oops! We didn’t know that we have to put code in a source control.”) On the other hand, nobody likes the guy who starts telling you how to build a watch when he’s asked what time it is. So, how do you give your offshore team enough rope to do the job but not so much that they hang themselves?
To ensure that your communications are complete, try using templates. Think of replacing an email-based bug submission process with a dedicated defect-tracking system. One of the best aspects of that is a strict template with a number of mandatory fields. That ensures completeness.
Using a similar approach in every aspect of your communications will do wonders. For example, create a template for a status report you expect from your team members. Start your email with a simple outline that enforces the completeness of the message.
For high impact, complex, or large-audience communications, ask for help. A fresh pair of eyes could review your drafts, provide feedback, and eliminate ambiguities. Think of code reviews or pair programming—there are good reasons we use those tools. And the cost of misunderstood communication could be far more significant than clunky code.
Even working with a team from your own city may introduce “cross-cultural” challenges—just think of communications in startups compared to large corporations. Stretching your communication channels around the world makes these challenges far more significant. Understanding a few important concepts will help.
One important idea is Geert Hofstede’s concept of the Power Distance Index (PDI), presented extremely well by Malcolm Gladwell in Outliers. PDI measures the extent to which the less powerful members of an organizational hierarchy accept and expect that power is distributed unequally.
In low-PDI cultures, boss and employee communicate as if they are at the same level of a corporate pyramid. As the value of PDI grows from country to country, the boss moves into a corner office or to the top floor, becomes master and commander, even royalty, and at some point, a divine authority. In cultures with a small PDI, an entry-level employee can chat with the CEO in a cafeteria. But in cultures with high PDI, even a single step on a corporate ladder can create a master / slave relationship.
Implications of PDI on communications are difficult to overestimate. If an employee is at the same level as her boss in terms of cultural hierarchy, they tend to collaborate. A straightforward question gets a straightforward answer. When the boss is wrong, the employee has no qualms about pointing it out. That is unacceptable in cultures with high PDI, where open disagreement with a boss hovers on a border of a crime.
PDI is particularly relevant to outsourcing projects since the “buyer” countries tend to have relatively low PDIs—for example, the USA (ranked 40), UK (35), and Germany (35), while “provider” countries are predominately on the high side—for example, India (77), China (80), and the Philippines (94).
To minimize the damage that a PDI difference can inflict on your engagement:
Educate yourself and your staff, especially employees with low-PDI background.
Develop communication vehicles that inhibit PDI-related miscommunications.
Adjust project lifecycles to minimize potential damage and insert elements minimizing the impact.
Another of Hofstede’s concepts is comparing the measurement of the degree of Individualism to Collectivism—that is, the degree to which individuals are integrated into groups (IDV). In cultures with a higher value of IDV, people stress on personal achievements and individual rights, while people from countries with low IDV tend to form strong, cohesive groups that shield or mask individuals’ contribution and performance—and distribute rewards to the group.
As with PDI, we find a significant difference between IDV value for “buyers” such as the USA (91), UK (89), and Germany (67) and “providers” such as India (48), China (20), and the Philippines (32).
The most important impact that IDV has in offshore outsourcing is in the way the teams are perceived, built, and managed and then how individual performance is recognized and how employees are motivated.
Hofstede describes three other cultural dimensions that are worth researching as well: masculinity (which measures gender role in society), uncertainty avoidance (which measures tolerance for uncertainty) and long-term orientation. The last one has significant implications that go far beyond instant gratifications or ripping long-term benefits.
Probably rooted in one of Hofstede’s dimensions is how the approach to delivering bad news is stunningly different in different cultures. In the States, giving bad news—such as telling a patient, “you have cancer”—is considered normal medical practice. In some Eastern European countries, this declaration is highly unethical and even could be illegal.
The difference in approach to delivering bad news plays a significant role in offshore engagement. When things go wrong, don’t expect your provider to rush to deliver you the account of events. Chances are you’ll need to apply modern torture techniques to get even a hint of what happened. No matter how often you tell your offshore team that “bad new doesn’t get better with age,” you still could be the last one to know.
One of the incarnations of “bad news avoidance” is reluctance to confront the issue or to say “No.” You ask your offshore coordinator a simple question: “Can you get this task done in time?” You hear “Yes” in return. Don’t jump to assume that “yes” means that the task can be done in time. “Yes” is just a brief way of saying: “I heard you. I’ll take your request into consideration, and I’ll see what we can do.”
Your best bet in communicating with an offshore team that exhibits strong signs of “bad news avoidance” is to:
Identify the risks and risk mitigation techniques. Then create an environment where the risk mitigation, problem prevention, and early warnings are considered a great achievement.
Do not ever get visibly upset about bad news. Accept it as an exciting challenge instead. You can significantly reduce the perceived severity of the blow that bad news delivers by exhibiting troubleshooter mentality.
If you must ask a closed-ended question, always follow up with an open-ended discovery: How will you go about it? What resources would be involved?
Finally, think about who is responsible for the message. In Western cultures, it’s the speaker. We tell our conversation partner what we think, and we assume that our message is understood. In the East, the speaker gives the conversation partner the courtesy to process the message by themselves. In an offshore scenario, this idea is particularly important when you are the listener. A simple hint on the difficulty of a task could mean that the listener is really giving you a resounding No—so a comment like “This task may require some research” could translate as “No way it could be done in this time!!!”
In communications, “consideration” means understanding and considering your audience and implies that you need to step into their shoes and see things from their point of view. Several points are important here.
Working remotely has plenty of challenges. You might be annoyed with the accent of your developers from a faraway country, or how they misinterpret everything you say. But the same thing happens on the other site of the Skype calls—your perfect English is a foreign language to them. Time differences, convoluted requirements, vague statements, conflicting messages—your offshore team has to cope with all that, and they can’t even complain, since you are the customer and thus always right.
Remember that your team is “the servant to two masters”—they have to keep you and their own bosses happy, and yes, sometimes that causes serious conflicts of interest. Just consider the most obvious one: you want your team to get the project done faster. The vendor wants to extend the project to get more billable hours. And your developer is squeezed in between.
One more aspect of Consideration deserves further discussion. Your offshore team comes from a different culture that has its own rules of conduct and behavior. It is important not to push your team members to break these rules or put them in a position where they are affected by your behavior that could be considered unacceptable. To illustrate, think about the cultural phenomena we know as “saving face.”
Saving face is a core social value in many offshore provider countries, particularly in Asia. It is a drive to avoid humiliation or embarrassment, to maintain dignity or preserve reputation. For those of us who have not been exposed to this concept from early childhood, crossing that boundary and causing someone to lose face is easy to do. An innocent joke or off-the-cuff remark can turn into a significant issue for someone on your offshore team. As a result, you could lose a valuable team member or—even worse—gain a hidden adversary, who will strike back when you least expect it.
To minimize the chance of causing someone to lose face, never point out anyone’s mistakes or accuse anyone of lying or wrongdoing in public. Err on the “higher respect” side, especially with elders, and people of rank or authority, and stay professional even in casual settings.
Giving ongoing attention to the five Cs of communications—Conciseness, Clarity, Completeness, Cross-cultural aspects, and Consideration—will help you increase productivity of your offshore team, reduce risks of engagement failure, and greatly improve overall outcomes of your outsourcing initiatives.
Nick Krym is a technology professional with more than 25 years in the IT industry—20 of those in offshore outsourcing with companies and freelancers from Asia, Latin America, and Eastern Europe. His experience spans a broad range of technologies in delivering mission-critical systems to Fortune 500 clients, commercial off-the-shelf products, and applications delivered under an SaaS model.