It was 6:30am in the morning. I had a start and jumped up from the fluffy hotel bed before the alarm woke me. The big presentation would start at 9am, where I would present the 3 months of hard work of my entire consulting team to 20+ director level client stakeholders. Did offshore finish his part?
I checked my blackberry – no emails, which may or may not be a good sign. I quickly opened my laptop in bed. As expected, an email from the offshore team with a 9-megabyte attachment was sitting there. After our 3-hour meeting close to midnight last night, it should contain all the incorporated feedback and finalized design ready for the 9am presentation. Slide 1 looks good, 2 looks good…Hold on. What happened to slide 15 and onwards? Where did all the content the offshore team agreed to add go?
I could literally feel a surge of blood flooding to my head. It was one hour before I needed to head out of the door, half an hour if you count the time I needed to get ready. After quickly running through all the options in my head – me re-doing all the slides myself included – I took out my phone and decided to make an international call to my offshore team lead Ashish in India. It must be midnight in his place. Which number should I call? Would he pick up? We never used a direct phone line before. It was always a scheduled conference bridge where everyone called in. If he didn’t pick up, what’s my plan B? Mentally, I already started to draft the explanation to my own engagement lead when he questioned me on this incident, in case this fire was not put out soon…
If you have worked in an onsite-offshore global delivery model before, you are probably familiar with the early morning fright. During the day, the onsite team members – consultants in my case – have meetings, discussions and interviews with the clients in the U.S. During the night, the onsite team hosts a 2-3 hour knowledge transfer with the offshore team, giving them a download of what happened during the day so that they could take over during our sleep time, and send back what they did before our morning starts. When they send their work over, there would often be no time to send it back to them for improvement.
In my 7 years of working in this onsite-offshore model, I have worked with many brilliant offshore team members from India. However, the “unpredictable work quality” has always been an issue with any India teams I worked with. Five out of ten times, the work that’s agreed upon did not come back in the expected form: it was either not completed (even if a list of detailed instructions and to-dos was sent right after the midnight call), not delivered as promised (missing a few design details here and there) or not on time; Opening my inbox in the morning and seeing nothing in it was the biggest fright of all. Such “incidents” were so common that nobody called them “incidents” any more. They were referred to as “well, that’s offshore.” One has to wonder (often not out loud), are our Indian teams just sloppy? Is it cultural difference? Or did we do something wrong that made this collaboration so painfully uncollaborative?
I was fortunate to have these beliefs proved otherwise early on in my onsite-offshore career, which probably saved me from years of wrong stereotyping and false judgment. On one project 5 years ago, our India team lead Suraj spent the first half of the project working remotely offshore and the second half in the U.S, sitting side by side with us. In the onsite-offshore period, he sounded aggressive in our meetings, did not deliver work as promised and probably made enemies with half of the U.S. onsite team. When we finally met in person, however, the U.S. consulting team was completely amazed, and not a little surprised, by this utterly brilliant, thoughtful and pleasant person working side-by-side with us. He was genuinely devoted to the project success and the team around him, and had a balanced communication style in client scenarios much unlike himself over the phone. He was also much older and more experienced than we thought, which was another surprise. How on earth did a reckless Mr. Hyde become a sophisticated Dr. Jekyll when he simply traveled from India to the U.S.?
Sue Newell, Gary David and Donald Chand, in their case study of globally distributed teams might be of help to demystify this phenomenon by adding a lens other than cultural differences and work approach efficiency: the lens of trust. In reciprocally interdependent work – where remote teams have to join force in discussions as well as deliverables, three types of trust are crucial to the effectiveness of knowledge sharing and learning:
- Commitment trust – where teams trust each other to be committed to the project equally and deliver what is promised
- Companion trust – where every remote team feels as an integral part of the project community, instead of an Them VS Us mentality
- Competence trust – where teams trust each other to be capable enough to deliver what is promised
As the case study revealed, onsite-offshore teams often suffer from a compromised level of trust in all three categories. Since offshore teams often get “unwanted” work handed down by the client-facing U.S. team, commitment trust is low. Many cultural trainings achieved little more than “sophisticated stereotyping”, worsening the “Them VS Us” mentality instead of improving it, which leads to little sense of community or companion trust. Cultural difference plays a big part in terms of competence trust, where India teams value credentials as proof of competence while American teams value experience and innovative thinking.
It seems that such collaboration is doomed for failure. No wonder those who are experienced with the onsite-offshore model often have a jaded view towards it. Is there truly no solve?
I put my money on a well-established internal, global social network to make trust easier. Here is how:
- Create a Virtual Family with Visible Common Interest
Create a virtual community the moment a global project team is established. Make member profiles mandatory with pictures. Allow members to tag keywords to their profile and make it fun (e.g. automatically create colorful word jumbles or generate personal logos based on the keywords). The idea is that it might be hard to connect with or trust a faceless male voice over the phone that’s named Suraj Rao, but it would be a lot easier for a Suraj with a picture and a list of interests and keywords, personal and professional: “Have 2 kids”, “cricket”, “World Cup”, “SAP guru”, “Virtual Reality”, “Android beats IOS”, “ecommerce retail trends”, “Bangalore”, and “road trip in the U.S.” Wherever there is commonality, there are conversation starters. Wherever conversations start, personal connection, benevolence and companion trust is built up, leading to a much more effective collaboration.
The community should also give people a channel to show their life stages and the specific challenges tied to them. This is because research shows that it was the age barrier, not cultural differences, that drive people apart in virtual collaborations, as it is difficult to see people’s age over the phone. One way to do that is to have informal forums set up where people can publicize and get help on crucial aspects concerning their lives outside of work. One forum could be “New in Town in the U.S.”, where topics about moving, finding apartments, and navigating the social / cultural challenge of meeting people in a different culture. Another forum could be “How to enroll my kids in schools who came with me from India.” People may not remember those who sent them the work information they need, but will appreciate those who helped their sons and daughters get into a school.
The trick lies in mingling these topics with relevant topics for the American teams, such as placing “New in Town in the U.S.” under the group of “New in Town” in general, which applies to people in the U.S. as well, and the “enrolling my kids” in the discussions about “finding a school”, “public school VS private school” groups. That way, the risk of creating yet another layer of segregation, that certain topics are only for the Indian teams, is mitigated.
- Explore DIVERSITY; Don’t Single Out Cultural Diversity
Whenever global teams discuss diversity, it is often in the classroom of cultural trainings, where diversity means people from different cultural backgrounds, or gender and sexual orientation differences at best. Such categorization creates “sophisticated stereotyping,” and works against the “one-community” goal that boosts team collaboration and knowledge sharing.
One way to correct that is to celebrate true diversity, with the assumption that every one of us is different in a way, eliminating talks about cultural difference altogether, as it is a shortcut not a solution. My own cross-cultural experience tells me that it’s much easier to relate to someone in my age range, life stage and with the same career interest than to someone who’s different from me in those aspects but happen to come from the same country. Equipped with the personal keywords from the virtual community, I would encourage team leads to devote their first virtual team meetings to collaboratively explore ALL the individual differences, such as introversion versus extroversion, an organized, sequential work approach versus an emergent, “think on my feet” approach and preference for clear directions versus preference for independent management.
A virtual extension of such discussions would then take place in the online social media community, where people @-mention each other on information that is relevant to their unique traits, such as articles about “how to work with a manager who is not organized” for a team mate known to prefer methodical approaches. People should also be routinely reminded to review how someone with a different work approach covered a blind spot they may have or added value that they could never add. These discussions online need to be intentionally facilitated and promoted at the enterprise level, so that each project would embrace it as a given company culture.
- Make Reciprocity Visible
A problem with remote collaboration is that the potential for reciprocity is less visible, which makes remote teams less motivated to go an extra mile to help someone who they have never met, and might never get a chance to be socially rewarded for their effort. This problem is particularly accentuated in a consulting setting, where a global project team usually only collaborate with one another during the project duration, and then go their separate ways to other engagements.
This problem can partially be solved if the social media community can put in place a “friendship credit” system similar to the “user review” function on Yelp, Uber and AirBnB, but with a visible amount of “credits”. People put nominal credits into other people’s profile as a token for appreciation over the duration of working together on a project, and accumulate credits when they help each other out. There is a visible record of how much credit one has received as well as given. The credit given will be a great indicator of how reciprocal this person is as a team player.
Credit can be deducted, too, when someone truly let others down and failed to deliver as promised. At the end of each project, build the review and reward of “friendship credit” as an informal but highly recommended wrap-up step with suggestions on itemized credit value of certain preferred actions: e.g. Helping out a teammate voluntarily at the last minute, covering for someone on vacation, etc. Keep it voluntary, so that people truly learn to appreciate others, especially those different from them.
Once the system is fully in use, the leadership team at the enterprise level can determine the best usage of the friendship credits, be it an informal evaluation metric, a project staffing criteria, or something that can be traded amongst the employees for vacation, information or other goodies, much like a currency.
What do you think?
How did my pre-presentation nightmare end that day? I called 4 other people in the India team, one of whom reached out to the team lead on his home number that I did not have. I spent my entire shuttle ride to the client company hastily redoing some slides as a Plan B. Ten minutes before the presentation, the India team lead finally reached out and sent me the right version.
If we had a social media network, my morning fright would have an easy solve: A post flagged with “SOS” with everyone onsite AND offshore @-mentioned, asking “WHO HAS THE LATEST DECK AND WHERE IS ASHISH?” Those who saw it would be motivated to respond, thanks to my reputation of rewarding people generously for such last minute help with friendship credits! At the very least, people will be informed of the fire that needs to be put out, and I wouldn’t be freaking out about it alone.