Outsource: Onshore, Offshore, Nearshore…Think Agile Partner-source!

I’ve had more than my share of outsourcing challenges. Time zones, culture conflict, communication issues, lack of creative problem solving, poor teamwork, lack of domain experience, etc. Typically there are solid business reasons for going offshore, budget being a primary consideration, but if you don’t get the results, then what has the cost savings done for you?

I remember sitting in a room with the senior IT development team of a very large, multinational financial corporation. They had literally spent billions of euros on IT outsourcing the previous year. The question one of the senior directors asked was for 20xx:

How many compelling, innovative, and memorable projects were delivered

by our offshore IT teams?

On the surface it was a simple question. And the annual portfolio in this case contained a hundred or so major projects. What do you think the answer was?

It was none. There was not a single project that delighted the customer. That was memorable in how it solved basic customer needs or challenges; or in how it was delivered and deployed. Sure some of the projects were “on schedule” and/or “within costs” and/or “within scope” from a triple constraint perspective, but they weren’t memorable or noteworthy.

The discussion then went on to consider bringing much of that IT budget back from outsourcing. To create internal development centers that would focus on agile development methodologies to deliver not only on time and budget, but that would deliver the WOW, the VALUE, and the IMPACT that their IT customers so desperately needed.  There was an overriding perception that agile:

  1. Couldn’t be done effectively offshore and
  2. That it would naturally (automatically) bring the “wow factor” and customer value back into their projects

You see, even in a staid, global financial firm, customer value and satisfaction mattered. Imagine that? But their perception of agile was wrong on both counts. You see you can effectively deliver agile projects via offshore distributed teams.  And simply applying agile methods does not deliver wow or customer value. In fact, agile done poorly can deliver disastrous results. And while not a Silver Bullet, agile done well can deliver on the goals this company was looking for. It simply requires finding experienced agile partners and, dare I say it, some collaborative hard work.

WOWing the Customer

Why does agile do such a good job of wowing the client or customer? Well, “out of the box” it doesn’t.

First, it attempts to engage customers and stakeholders in the delivery of their requests. Instead of setting up an adversarial process of requirement writing that is thrown back and forth over the wall for implementation, agile teams instead try to partner with their customers. They focus on usability and observation. They want to understand the problems the customer is experiencing rather than being told how to solve it with a preconceived implementation.

As I said though, this requires some engagement and hard work on the part of the customer. They can’t simply hand wave or write a few comments on a napkin and expect to be delighted. Nor do we want them to write a requirement treatise of a hundred pages. Instead, we want the customer to engage in each iteration with the team. To share their challenges and goals with them and then to collaboratively construct a backlog of high value features to meet those goals.

The beauty of agility is the iterative feedback loop. Each iteration the team delivers the highest value features to the client (working features) for evaluation and acceptance. Feedback is embraced here and, if changes or adjustments are needed, they’re made immediately. It’s this give and take that creates products and projects that truly “hit the mark” for the customer.

James Surowiecki, in his book, , speaks to the power of a collective group in solving problems and activating creativity and wisdom. Illustrating how that approach is much more powerful than an individual no matter how experienced or bright that individual is. In many ways, agile teams are activating the wisdom of the crowd.

Now the rub is you need teams with the right attitude, experience, and cultural underpinnings to effectively engage the customer.

In Essence, Partnership & Attitude

Culture comes into play as well. It requires experience and skill to effectively partner. But it also requires the right cultural dynamics. Agile teams need the courage to show working software during the development life-cycle. They need to be mature enough and confident enough to take no, re-do it, or I changed my mind for answers. They need to be willing to listen and then collaborate as a team (swarming) around the customers’ challenges and feedback. They also need to be comfortable putting forth their own design and approach ideas and becoming an equal partner with the clients’ onshore teams.

Attitude also comes into play. There is no perfectionism in agile teams. There is no need to get it “right” the first time. Instead, there is a relentless iterative pursuit to the simplest possible solutions, just enough, just-in-time, that exceed the customers needs.

Not all cultures can easily do this and wide time zones differences often prevent this from happening. That’s why the nearshore model is so attractive out of South America. Teams there exhibit the right cultural mix and attitude, skill sets, and passion for the customer that it drives the Wow results that many are seeking from their agile approaches and expect their teams to achieve.

Wrapping Up

The company in my entry story was essentially flip-flopping between offshore and onshore development—looking for a Silver Bullet. I believe they missed an opportunity for a flexible extension to this strategy. They should have also looked for a nearshore partner that:

  1. Had the deep agile experience that they were looking for. Not just saying they were agile, but having agile principles deeply embedded in the teams and culture, and
  2. Had the cultural chops and courage to become an active part of their team that sought to understand how to delight their product/application users.

This is a powerful combination that creates a partnership and allows for flexibility when product delivery in an ever-changing landscape is your playground.

At the risk of sounding like a salesman, Velocity Partners has repeatedly achieved this balance while working with their clients. Their focus is on building great teams, connecting them with great clients, and then driving great results. Easy or cookie-cutter? No. Attainable and powerful? Yes!

Stay agile my friends,


Bob Galen

Bob Galen

Bob Galen is an Agile Methodologist, Practitioner & Coach based in Cary, NC. In this role he helps guide companies and teams in their pragmatic adoption and organizational shift towards Scrum and other agile methodologies and practices. He is a Principal Agile Evangelist at Velocity Partners. Contact: bgalen@velocitypartners.net

Leave a Comment