Wednesday, February 4, 2015

A Story of Communication

We had a pretty good offshore team! Our team members who have been on rotation to the remote site all came back very impressed. The offshore team was talented, knowledgeable, and smart. One had to wonder how come our client didn't think very highly of them!
During one sprint, our offshore team had signed up for a story that was prominent on the client's radar. They started by reviewing the story notes, huddling on the technical design, and coding away the solution.
Meanwhile, the client team was happily receiving updates during standup, and sending messages of support and encouragement.
Soon, the team started getting some feedback from the solution they implemented. The results weren't promising. It seems they were heading to a dead end. The team convened and decided on an alternate approach. Diligently, they started fixing the problems right away.
The fix took a longer than anticipated, but the team can now see the end in site. They doubled down their efforts to get the story done.
On another continent, the client was getting super nervous. The sprint was drawing to a close, and they still had a story in flight. It would look bad on their reports if we missed this story. They started inquiring whether we think we'll be done on time.
Our BA initiated many conversations with the offshore team. Trying to understand what's holding them back. The team explained where they are, and the message went back to the client: we'll get it done on time.
The team ended getting the story done in time, but with elevated levels of stress. They felt the client didn't allow them enough breathing room to get their tasks finished, and caused them to waste time and energy on useless meetings, instead of the needed focus on the task at hand.
The client, on the other hand, was displaying signs of loss of confidence, and even began to wonder whether the offshore team was incompetent.

What went wrong?
You may have concluded while reading this story that:
  • The offshore team was not being transparent enough, by not sharing their status earlier with the client.
  • The client wasn't proactive enough, by asking more probing questions.
  • The offshore team was just trying to save face: why send a message of being late, while they could, soon enough, they believed, send the message: "we are done."
  • The client wasn't supportive enough. They should have offered to help sooner.
  • It's all because of cultural differences.

The answer is a little bit of all of the above. A direct consequence of working in a distributed setting is a lower quality of communication. None of us is perfect. We are bound to make mistakes, and something will always get lost in translation.

What's the way out?
It's easy enough to say "over-communicate," but that doesn't give enough guidance as to what we should do. Here are some concrete advice that may help:
  • Build trust with the offshore team. Make sure you are seen as an ally. If the offshore team perceives they have lost your trust, they will be that much less likely to share potentially bad news.
  • Seek opportunities for communication outside normal work sessions. It's amazing how much work related knowledge you can attain during a non-work setting. You get better context, better understanding of the team dynamics, and learn better ways to communicate fruitfully.
  • Spend face time with the offshore team. Connections you build on a personal level will help immensely when you're physically present.
  • At the same time, avoid at all cost attempting to micro-manage remotely. Not only you'll lose trust, you'll also slow the team down, introduce process friction, and become a bottleneck.
A better process flow in a distributed setting starts with building awareness of the situation. Start with the mindset that you are already losing information, and build mechanisms to counter.