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Offshore outsourcing projects: Seven things every PM should know

Project managers handling offshore outsourced software projects face extra challenges. PM expert Bas de Baar explains how managers can work with and learn from their foreign partners and employees.

Bas de Baar
Bas de Baar

It's hip, it's hot, and managers still think it's cheap: outsourcing software projects offshore. In any case, it is the wave of the project future. Every project manager has to deal with offshore outsourcing sooner or later. Here are seven things you really have to know before you get started.

1. Stereotype!
All Americans carry a gun. All Dutch people are cheapskates. All French waiters...well, don't get me started! We humans love to stereotype. We simply need to. If there is one part in our brain that is "unknown," if there is a spot in our universe we have no clue about, we go mental. We have to fill in some "stub" information if the real information is not available to us. Even when we know that the information we use is not correct. We are more comfortable with false information than with no information.

When working with cultures unfamiliar to us, we use the stereotypes to put our mind at ease. Although it is incorrect, we simply have to. Just give in. But be aware of the stereotype you choose. Instead of going for the "unreliable, money scamming foreigner," why not use the image of a "hard-working, kind family man." It will make your head happier.

2. You are wrong!
Everything you think you know is plainly false. Assumptions are the number one offshore project killer! You think they understand. You think you are clear in your communication. You think that it is only natural that deadlines are absolute. I should not say that you should stop thinking, but with every aspect just think, "I am wrong!" When working with Indian teams, for instance, you have to keep the pile of work large. You need to have lots of small pieces to complete. The more work they have to do, the more relaxed and efficient they are. Your employees expect to work and when the work is running low they get nervous. Just the opposite of the average North American and European teams.

And then, the next Indian team where you keep the pile large will require small piles of work. Remember: You are wrong. Always.

3. It's different!
You go the extra mile by really expressing some genuine interest in your offshore partners. You dive into their culture. You understand now that it is different. This is typically a moment that point two should be remembered: "You are wrong!" It's not "different" different, it is WAY beyond different. But you should give it a try, though. Try to view the world from a different perspective. A great way to train for this is to view this episode of "30 Days: Outsourcing." Here is part one and part two. In this episode an American programmer spends 30 days in Bangalore, India to work over there. He is laid off in the U.S. because his job was outsourced to Bangalore. He starts out with a very angry attitude ("Dude! Give my job back!") and returns with a more mild perspective on things.

4. Communicate!
With the risk of starting to sound like a real shrink, you should communicate with your partner. If every assumption is a potential killer, if every assumption is almost guaranteed to be wrong, there is only one way to resolve this: communicate. By exchanging the smallest chit chat you are building up a shared reference, a common understanding of each others business world. A project manager needs to hold regular checkpoints with his overseas partner, he needs to be sensitive to warning signs of slippages and ask the questions to identify pain points and work together to find a proper solution. It is important that the communication is just to clarify wrong assumptions and not to fire up a large scale blame game.

5. Embrace overhead
Within outsourced projects, communication has to be over the top. You have to exchange more information and you have to document more -- in width and in depth. You have to specify as much as you can. Go overboard on this kind of overhead. This is why it is not worth it to outsource offshore on one small project. You have to invest in this overhead. For longer and bigger projects it pays itself back because you can enjoy the benefits for a longer period.

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6. Baby steps!
Even if you talk a lot, even if you admit you are wrong, it is good to get feedback as fast as possible. By showing software or design or other products you can verify if you are correctly understood. Faster and smaller. The feedback you get should be as fast as possible and as small as possible while still making sense. By thinking "baby steps" you crawl together through the dark, always feeling with your fingertips that you are still heading in the right direction.

7. Be swell
Everybody wants to be treated nicely. It is amazing how insensitive people can get when other people are thousands of miles away from them. "Who cares? It's not as if I am ever going to meet them." For this purpose, the universe created karma. You get what you give. Especially when working globally. You think the IRS is targeting you because they are jealous of your expensive car. Think again. Try to remember which employee across the world you gave a bad vibe to.

About the author: Bas de Baar knows all about the wacky world of project management. He is a project manager in the publishing industry and is editor of a popular Web site devoted to project management, His venerated instructional book on sudden project management, Surprise! Now You're a Software Project Manager was published in September 2006 and is based on real-life experience.

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