The characters in your Agile offshore team
Does your organization have an offshore Agile team? Do you find they behave the same as your colleagues around you?
Teams, not individuals, drive performance and delivery for any project. No single person can match the power of the team combined. But managing teams, especially from afar, with their complex interplay during collaboration for various agile processes can be a challenge.
Agile teams do not have a project manager, but instead a ScrumMaster who serves the purpose of guiding the teams towards making important decisions (the “empowered team” concept)ScrumMaster and serves as the champion of the process. When the team makes a decision, it “owns” the decision – and feels responsible to deal with the fallout of the decision and any unanticipated consequences as well.
In my experience of working with Indian offshore (and non-offshore) teams, I've noticed a pattern of behavior emerging. Here, I have tried to showcase some typical patterns by building characters that you can expect to have on your teams, and how to you can deal with them.
The Leader- the person you tend to hear on the audio bridge. You may have 10 other offshore team members on the team, but the Leader one is the one you hear the most. He/she will likely ask for opinions from their team, but more often than not ignore the suggestions that come up and with no meaningful reason or data tend to reject the idea from being considered.
This seems to happen when the ScrumMaster and the manager in your organization (or your vendor’s org) are the same person. Thanks to their position in the organizational structure, or by simply being senior, this person will likely ensure that the morale of the team goes downhill, eventually leading to a cynical team.
The Politician – the person who may or may not have contributed, but makes it sounds like they made it all happen when you listen to him in the retrospective. The Politician's focus on grabbing credit overrides all other considerations. As long as this person gives credit evenly across all the contributors, it may give a positive impact. However, normally they just want everything for themselves.
To neutralize the effect, the ScrumMaster must work across the team, possibly even calling out to individuals to speak up about how they feel about the incident mentioned and how it impacted them. This quantification of credit brings up contributions across the team and can give a more collaborative nature to the retrospective.
The Echo Effect – this person comes from the school of “the customer is always right”. Getting him/her to be objective or disagree or even discuss an issue can be a challenge. They simply agree with everyone. Sometimes, they agree with people who hold opposite views on the same subject.
To gain effective participation, ask them for the thought process behind their line of argument, or data to support it. If they cannot provide this, they might step back from the conversation and allow others to present viewpoints – and in this case, it may be the best possible option.
The Value Addition – This person is the “SME” or “expert” – someone who is not hands-on (and therefore a “chicken” in Agile parlance) – and gives their opinion about everything. By virtue of being an expert, their opinion tends to add bias - but if the contributor is truly an expert, they should be able to base this on experience and data.
The team should consider such suggestions for backlog grooming, and willing to run Proof of Concepts before the sprints start. If it works out, it can be used. If not, discarding it is easy.
The Creepy Quiet Member – this type will be quiet – so quiet – that you will possibly hear a mumbled hello at the start of a call – and a thank you before the hangup beep. He/she will make you wonder if they are actually on the call in first place. In fact, you may end up wondering whether by acknowledging them, you may be talking to a black hole. While they may be amazing listeners, getting them to participate in the discussion can also add a lot of value.
Try and understand why the person is so quiet in first place. It may be that someone jumped on them the last time they said anything in a forum of this type. Or maybe their suggestions were adopted and went badly wrong. Or maybe they prefer to not have an opinion, or just like to follow orders (not a good fit for agile!). Maybe have a one-to-one call with them to help them discard this behavior and be more participative. Call them out and acknowledge their contributions. Everyone likes to recieve praise!
The Scared Team Member – hierarchy within offshore teams runs deep – culturally, much deeper compared to the USA. Teams at offshore operations do not tend to challenge their managers. Rather than try to break this phenomenon, it may be easier and more productive to pull the manager out of the conversation altogether.
Getting participation from offshore teams (not just the leads) – is imperative in an Agile delivery model. The sooner people and collaboration issues are sorted out, the faster the team will be happier – and more productive they'll be.
What experiences have you had with your offshore team? Do you recognise any of these characters from your own work? Let me know in the comments!
Jayathirtha Rao has worked in a variety roles as pre-sales consultant, project manager, ScrumMaster, program manager and delivery manager in a career spanning 14 years.