A SaaS startup had a South Asian outsourced offshore team as its primary application development team. The team had a project leader, who, while very capable and reliable, was a bottleneck for communication with the rest of the team. Stakeholders simply threw requirements over the fence to the project leader and were not interacting with the developers during the development process.
There was also a cultural barrier to communication. The offshore team was not accustomed to challenging requirements or those that gave them, sometimes leading to misunderstandings. Clarifying questions weren’t being asked by the team before and during development, leading to lost time and added expense. These factors compounded to lower the company’s confidence in the team’s productivity and effectiveness.
Even with an offshore team which is outsourced and half a world away, direct interaction between stakeholders and the developers building platform enhancements is critical to success. Following agile best practices, I insisted on regular touch points between product stakeholders and the offshore developers, both synchronous and asynchronous. We settled on workable meeting times for all participants for sprint planning, sprint review, sprint retrospectives, and daily standups. With rare exception, most members of the team were able to participate.
I kicked off the new processes by emphasizing to the whole team how important interaction would be to the team’s success. In sprint retrospectives, I used positive reinforcement by calling out instances where developers spoke up to clarify requirements and questioned approaches to problems, regardless of the outcome. I ensured that stakeholders answered questions in a timely fashion. Developers were encouraged to engage with stakeholders not only during planning phase, but also to show work-in-progress and get feedback.
While it’s important to be sensitive to cultural differences, it’s vital that development teams be active participants in refining requirements to ensure the best outcome possible. Letting the team know that it’s alright to break free from self-imposed barriers to communication reduces misunderstandings and tightens the feedback loop.
The outsourced offshore team’s velocity increased by 63% within 6 months of the change in process. The team started seeing product stakeholders as collaborative partners in product development rather than micromanaging superiors shouting instructions from their glass tower. While their cultural norms dictated what might be considered excessive deference to status and gender, a female developer ended up being the most assertive and productive member of the team, resulting in greater opportunities for her. The reputation of the team improved as collaboration increased, and their status changed from a necessary evil to that of a valuable development partner.