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The Art of Managing Offshore Technical Teams

The Art of Managing Offshore Technical Teams

Managing offshore technical teams is an art, as opposed to a science, because you're dealing with people. People are the everchanging variable that can make management of any kind a challenge; managing technical people can be particularly challenging for many reasons.

Getting the most out of offshore teams requires clarity in desired outcomes, the right team composition, daily engagement, and frequent updates. While a high-level approach is provided below, you should expect that some level of tweaking will be required for your specific situation.

Clarity in Desired Outcomes

Whether offshore or onshore, if team members and stakeholders aren't on the same page with desired outcomes, disaster is inevitable.

  • Define what success looks like. This shouldn't be a surprise, but stakeholders, managers, and individual contributors aren't always on the same page. What success looks like needs to be clearly defined and articulated by team members and approved by stakeholders. Ideally, your key users define what success looks like, but sometimes reality comes into play and things such as doing a job "well enough" for "25% less cost" is a win when executive leaders are trying to control costs. Similarly, a product can be of immensely less value if it isn't launched by a critical date (e.g., products for school kids that are launched by the summertime have a higher likelihood of commercial success than products launched in the middle of the school year).
  • If you're building and/or implementing, develop a plan. Every project needs a plan that states how and when you're going to get from where you are today to where you want to be (See "Define what success looks like" above). Even if there are "unknowns" in how specific tasks will be completed – plans for complex projects will have changes, and many times can be in a perpetual "work in progress state" – there is value in understanding the roadmap to success. Please note that having a plan doesn't impede you from working in an agile manner. Agile shops also benefit from thinking through the journey from 0 to 1. Some pro tips: Make sure anyone who owns a task is part of the planning process, and socialize the plan to team members and stakeholders.
  • If you're in support mode, develop a priority list. Some requests are more important than others; make sure your team has guidelines on prioritizing their likely full plate. For higher-volume shops, the priority list may need to be adjusted near-daily.

The Right Team Composition

The optimal offshore team composition comprises offshore technical team members and a supporting cast with a mix of onshore and offshore resources.

  • Technical team members (offshore). These are your hands on-keyboard doers and technical experts. Make sure you've completed an inventory of what technical skills are required in your environment.
  • Offshore Lead: The offshore Lead is responsible for assigning and managing day-to-day assignments and ensuring the team's overall performance is within expectations. Depending on your team size, this person may be a technical lead or project manager.
  • Offshore Escalation Point: When things aren't going to plan, and when you and your day-to-day offshore team members can't get on the same page, you need an escalation point to own performance improvement. If your offshore team is an outsource vendor, ensure your escalation point has P&L responsibility for your account and is financially incentivized by your happiness as a client!
  • Onshore Technical Program Manager and Business Systems Analyst(s): The highest-performing offshore teams always have the support of an onshore Business Systems Analyst (BSA) and a Technical Project Manager (TPM). The TPM is responsible for ensuring the offshore team stays aligned with business team execution priorities; they also help engage other teams and management support when their tasks depend on other teams. BSAs play a liaison role that ensures any technical solution is aligned with business requirements. Whether you use a TPM, a BSA, or both, your onshore lead must be ok with a very flexible schedule because of time zone differences.
  • Onshore Executive Sponsor and Champion: Transitioning to an offshore team is a significant cultural shift, so having the support of an executive sponsor and champion is critical.

Daily Engagement

While no one loves meetings, daily engagement with your offshore team is critical for their success. These can take the form of daily stand-ups; however, they must be moderated (typically by a Technical Project Manager). At the daily stand-up, team members with critical tasks need to provide meaningful updates concerning how their tasks are tracking towards completion, and this is the right forum for anyone who needs help or has questions to raise their hand.

In addition to a daily meeting, real-time team member conversation must be supported via chat through platforms such as Slack or Microsoft Teams. Project-focused channels are critical for offshore team success.

What about time zone issues? These are real – to get the highest performance out of your team, engineers should work during "typical" business hours in their locale. Your onshore lead (TPM or BSA) will need to work across both the technical and business team time zones; this is burdensome for the lead but manageable.

Frequent Updates

Keep your key stakeholders and sponsors engaged and updated about the offshore team's progress. Brief daily updates via email or a collaboration platform are helpful and appreciated, more detailed weekly updates are appropriate, and monthly management steering committee meetings are essential. Keep in mind the success of the offshore team means success for sponsors and stakeholders. Even when things don't go well, your key stakeholders should never be surprised; typically, your stakeholders will want to figure out ways to help.

Are you considering going offshore? Need to get the most out of your current offshore team? Book a complimentary one-hour consultation with our team to discuss your goals via contact@safeboxllc.com or (310) 823-7560.