February 2013
By Arnold Burian

Image: © Oleg Kozhemyakin/123rf.com

Arnold Burian has ten years of experience managing teams that delivered documentation and training materials for various enterprise hardware and software developers. Currently he manages global deployment projects for Deloitte. He is also the founder of Technical Writing World, the social network for technical communicators.


arnoldburian[at]gmail.com
www.technicalwritingworld.com


 

Managing projects effectively in India

Managing project teams can be a juggling act even within one locale, but of course, the issues become even more complex when dealing with team members across the globe. Arnold Burian shares some of the techniques he has used to deliver projects successfully, particularly involving team members in India.

Over the last ten years, I managed a number of concurrent enterprise-level global projects for various organizations. While each project offered a unique set of challenges, they all came with the same benefit – the opportunity to work with a diverse group of individuals from around the world. In my case, most of the members on my team resided in India. We supported numerous products intended for use primarily in the enterprise legal software industry, including document management systems, enterprise search, and electronic discovery.

Every release of every product required a full suite of documentation and training materials intended for system architects, deployment teams, administrators, end users, and support personnel. Although the projects were as unique as the individuals on the project teams, a common set of best practices began to emerge over the years. In sharing these, I hope they help you work more effectively with your team members in India.

Start your offshore team with a strong manager

A few years ago, I interviewed for a management position at an organization that was simultaneously attempting to staff the team. I asked them to hire me first, and then let me use my expertise to build the team appropriately. They did, and everything worked out well. This becomes even more important when building an offshore team - the "remote" manager will embody and project the values of your organization in tangible ways. And yes, I placed remote in quotation marks for a reason…

Treat the offshore team as an extension of the local team

Eliminate the concept of us versus them, or local versus remote. The easiest way to do this is through vocabulary. Get spectacular with your vernacular! Use language to unify, and avoid creating a divide between teams through what you say or type. All team members are part of the same team, whether they reside in India or anywhere else.

Centralize information

Knowledge is power, and each member of the team should have equal access to knowledge. Hallway conversations may be easy and convenient, but consider the impact on members of the team that are not around to participate. For several years, I worked in the same office as a development team that was supported by several members of my team in Bangalore. These developers in Chicago communicated amongst themselves with little regard for who was not participating in the conversations. I tried to make them change their ways, but eventually settled on gathering as much information as I could, emailing it to the team in India on a daily basis, and archiving it in a content management system. In retrospect, a wiki would have been very useful here.

Distribute the pain

Collaboration opportunities are sometimes only available at inconvenient times. The interesting thing about global projects is that they are sometimes global in nature (surprising!). I had to learn that the world does not revolve around me, the office where I worked, or my time zone. If you need to schedule a call or meeting that is very early or very late for someone in India, schedule the next one at a time that is convenient for them and less convenient for others on the team.

Everyone gets to work on cool stuff

As offshoring became increasingly more popular, I saw a disturbing trend. There was a separation in the types of work assigned based solely upon geography. Many organizations delegated development of new features, functionality, and products to the local office and maintenance work to remote teams in India. This trend has shifted – we now see products developed and managed entirely in India.

Still, avoid falling into this trap. Maintenance work, software updates, and ongoing product support will remain important and needed functions in any organization, but ensure you avoid any form of geographic discrimination when distributing development responsibilities. There is an inherent sense of satisfaction in contributing to new revenue streams, and everyone wants to contribute.

Over-communicate

We all know how fundamental communication is to successful project delivery. In the United States, there has been a strong shift in many projects towards self-direction and autonomy. The uptick in agile development has resulted in an explosion of self-managed teams. We want to be pleasantly surprised by a creative solution from an empowered team member that would otherwise have been stifled. Unfortunately, I have found this approach to be less effective when working with team members in India.

Project ambiguity frequently results in a misalignment of deliverables, even when project objectives are clear. I'm not sure why this occurs - perhaps there are some unaccounted cultural differences I failed to consider. Regardless, an increased level of interaction and communication helped me mitigate these issues. Avoid general micromanagement – instead, consider adding additional checkpoints or milestones to confirm everyone is in alignment.

Manage scope carefully

I found the enthusiasm of team members in India to be refreshing. They possess exuberance and a willingness to take on and overcome any challenge that can be very inspiring. With the seemingly endless ability to absorb an extraordinary amount of work, team members in India may become overwhelmed from carrying an excessive load or trying to maintain an exhaustive pace. This puts additional responsibility on the project manager to ensure that commitments are realistic and attainable, and that coworkers in India are working at a reasonable pace. I initially misinterpreted their enthusiasm for accepting new assignments as an endless bucket of capacity, which caused a visible strain on the team. Clear, open, and honest communication will help everyone understand what is really achievable for any release.

Assign local representatives to support remote team members

Without proper planning, geography can quickly become a barrier to success. Collaboration technologies like Skype, WebEx, GoToMeeting, and instant messaging are important and necessary tools when working with globally distributed teams. I recommend going one step further – designate at least one individual in each office that provides inputs or outputs to team members in India to serve as their local representative. A physical presence in an office serving as an extension of the remote team can be much more effective than any collection of software tools. It’s easy for someone to dismiss an email, but a tap on the shoulder will always get an immediate response.

Be “all in”

You have to believe in the system, and you have to be willing to do what it takes to see the project succeed. I have seen project team members not fully support their teammates in India, and then turn around and complain when issues arise. Stop blaming geography, time zones, or cultural differences, and start focusing on solutions. Do not let inefficiencies linger. Create a culture of collaborative process improvement where team members have a vested interest in helping each other succeed, and your projects will follow.

To conclude

I personally had a tremendously positive experience working with project team members in India. We started with a strong, confident manager. He built an aggressive and energetic team. We worked together to reduce geographic barriers, we functioned as a single global team, and we delivered many complex projects on time and with high quality. We were a true global project team success story.

In a recent interview, Ugur Akinci, the owner of the Technical Communication Centre, asked me about my views regarding globalization and outsourcing. My answer: Globalization exposes you to different cultures, expands your network, forces you to use new techniques in time management, project coordination, and communication, and may even allow you to see the world. It did all that for me, and I hope it does the same for you.

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#1 Anupama wrote at Thu, Feb 07 answer

Great article Arnold! Very refreshingly open and broad-minded views. Although I appreciate the article mainly because I am from India (:)), I think your philosophy can be applied to all cross-geographic teams worldwide. I really subscribe to the "Be all in" mantra.