The past decade, I’ve been learning how to manage distributed teams in a productive way. In 2004, I made a trip to India and fell in love with the country. I had decided to start my own company and one of the ideas I had was to offer outsourcing services to Dutch companies (I’m from Holland). In the early 2000s, it was mainly US enterprises outsourcing to India. In Europe, just a few pioneers were taking their first steps. When I walked around in India, I was amazed by the energy the IT industry had at that moment. I did see that as a Dutch, there’d be some challenges in working with people from such a different culture.
When I started out in 2005, there was no scrum and agile (they were there, but not used by many companies yet and I was not aware). Everything was fixed dates, price and traditional project management, waterfall based development. I had decided to work with teams in Ukraine, because it felt a bit closer and was easier to travel to for Dutch people (no visa, short trip, 1 hour time difference). My company started taking off in 2006-2007 and I was getting more work than my partner in Ukraine could serve. So in 2008 I decided to move to India and setup our office there.
I had no corporate budgets available to setup my Indian office, so I did everything bootstrapped. A simple office, hiring programmers one by one based on customer demand. Apart from the challenges in learning how India works, my main challenge was to make Europe-India collaborations work out. Two big challenges I faced:
1. Cultural alignment
Most countries vary in the degree of hierarchy that governs families, society, companies. In India, hierarchy plays a big role. People are used to having fathers, teachers and bosses give ‘instructions’. Because of that, the level of ‘proactiveness’ is often low. Questioning authority and challenging superiors assumptions is not done. In the US and Europe, many countries have a ‘flat’ structure. In the Netherlands for example, people are expected to question assumptions and encouraged to come up with their own ideas. It doesn’t matter what level within an organization the idea originates from. Another example is the level of openness. As a Dutch person, if I have a problem with the way you behave, I will tell you what’s on my mind. My belief is that by sharing my concern, we can find a way to solve it together. In India, people are not used to this. They’d rather polish a story, speak around the concern they have without addressing it heads on. Or they’ll say yes in all cases. As a Dutch I might not understand the message the person is giving me because I am used to getting it unpolished, straight into my face.
All the above made it challenging for us to create stable relationships between our European clients and our Indian teams.
2. The black box
When we were doing projects, the second big challenges we faced was around customers see your development organization as a black box. They don’t know who’s working on your project and they don’t know how the work gets done. Because the contract states when things need to be delivered and at what cost, they often don’t care to connect with the team members. The distance between the customer and your team are very big. Now this is the case in any software project, but the distributed nature magnifies the impact. Because the distance is big, teams often don’t have an emotional bond with the product they’re building. They don’t interact enough with the customer and are busy with the tasks assigned to them.
Things started changing for me, when we started working in teams that were ‘one’ with our customers teams. To achieve that, we used scrum. One of the biggest benefits of agile for distributed teams is the close collaboration with the product owner (who should be on the customer side in my view). If product owners are engaged, join the scrum events and make themselves available throughout the work, things change for the better. Relationships and understanding evolve from this, which leads to better quality and smoother work.
Fast forward a decade. Agile India is the biggest Agile conference in Asia. I see more agile coaches and agile transformations going on in India than anywhere else. I’m currently living in Indonesia and India is miles ahead with agility. I have learned the hard way that without agile, it’s very challenging to make distributed collaboration work. What you want to achieve is self organizing (collocated) teams in India who are empowered to use their minds to come up with their own solutions. Teams that have the freedom to do what they believe is best instead of the traditional command and control that is common in India (and many other places). You want collaborations between onshore and offshore team members that are based on the idea of ‘one team’. True partnerships instead of ‘us versus them’.
I believe India has come a long way in the past decade. Many companies have gone through the challenges I faced and have learned how to deal with them. The IT population grew more mature (and with that the availability of senior developers and leaders). It’s not only the ‘outsourcing destination’ of the world, but it’s a tech powerhouse, producing valuable products for companies across the globe.