Talk delivered at Lean Agile Systems Thinking (LAST) Conference in Melbourne, 30 Jun and 1 July 2016.
Collaboration is a key component of agile development, and one of the greatest challenges to that occurs when part of your team is located off-shore. This interactive talk will discuss how to build trust, improve communication and boost the profile of off-shore testers, in order to nurture collaboration across the whole team.
This talk will be of most interest to those working with distributed and/or offshore team members. Bring along your questions, ideas, challenges and stories and let's have a conversation!
My name is Michele Cross and I’m the test manager at Sandstone Technology, a Sydney-based fintech company specialising in digital banking and product origination systems.
I would like this session to be as interactive as possible, so although I obviously have slides set up here, please feel free to jump in anytime you have a question, suggestion or discussion point and let’s share some knowledge.
Or specifically face to face at a whiteboard according to Alistair Cockburn.
What a marvellous utopia!
We have to play with the cards we’re dealt.
In my case, all the testers in our company are offshored in Manila, yet many of our projects are run using some variation of Scrum.
It seems like there are many articles and posts out there on the internet that have the ultimate solution for this scenario...
Too easy, right??
The real answer is of course that there is no silver bullet and hard work is required.
Of course communication is part of the way to attain the goal of a collaborative team but I think the base of effective communication in this scenario lies in understanding the cultural context of those you are working with
- Danger in discussing others’ culture – observations not intended as any criticism but information for me to gain understanding and learn how to adjust my approach when communicating with my offshore colleagues.
When you are working with an offshore team – “Cultural Differences” is something that everyone is aware of but probably don’t spend a whole lot of time thinking about in detail. - different language, customs, whatever... - expectation even if unwritten, that the offshore staff will be expected to adjust to onshore rather than the other way around.
I came across a Blog post from 2014 that was recently reposted on LinkedIn - "Why Scrum does not work here in Asia" by Joshua Partogi who is a scrum coach and trainer working in Australia and Asia (https://medium.com/software-craftmanship/scrum-does-not-work-here-in-asia-72d7bccccb4d)
Here are the points from Joshua’s article First one from Ken Schwaber that those who are culturally attuned to predictability may have issues with the way Scrum doesn’t try to enforce a predetermined outcome Boss is always right, etc. No hierarchy and no fixed order of things implies chaos and a broken system. Lack of social status is unappealing. Conflict is avoided, critical thinking and questioning are seen as undesirable. People don’t like to bring up problems/issues Rote learning and doing as you’re told is ingrained. “Asian education system is all about high grades and ranks, not about experimenting, self-discovery and making mistakes, which is what Agility is all about.” Companies who offshored or outsourced to save money are unlikely to invest in the required training to make the shift to Agility.
I have noticed some of these differences and this really got me thinking about cultural context – factors to consider when working with my colleagues - Started on some research of the differences between Filipino and Australian cultures
Harvard Business Review article (https://hbr.org/2015/12/getting-to-si-ja-oui-hai-and-da) on cross-cultural negotiation
Guessing that Australia is between US and UK According to this the Philippines ranks very high on avoiding confrontation. Some have pointed out that the US author has used her culture as the frame of reference here – is that a problem? All these things will be relative...
In my particular context, this quote is rather apt... The cultural unwillingness to engage in conflict can definitely affect collaboration as wrong thinking may not be challenged, or conversely full understanding might not be reached if people are unwilling to question what others are saying.
So this is something that needs to be specifically worked on in my case.
From their website: “The hofstede centre offers valuable tools to help you visualize cultural differences and their impact... The model of national culture consists of six dimensions. The cultural dimensions represent independent preferences for one state of affairs over another that distinguish countries (rather than individuals) from each other. ” There’s other tools such as one to work out your own personal preferences relative to your or another country.
HOFSTEDE 6-D MODEL – Australia vs Philippines. Focusing on the biggest differences in the relevant areas of Power Distance & Individualism. Power Distance is defined as the extent to which the less powerful members of institutions and organisations within a country expect and accept that power is distributed unequally. Philippines is hierarchical society, this is acceptable and normal. Australia has a less formal hierarchy, more consultative.
Individualism - the degree of interdependence a society maintains among its members. Philippines is a collectivist society - close long-term commitment to the member 'group', loyalty is paramount, employer/employee relationships are perceived like family links. Australia is individualist – people look after themselves. In business, employees are expected to be self-reliant and display initiative.
- This leads on to how trust is formed in different cultures - Putting the countries on this list in the Hofstede model there is a definite correlation between high individualism on the left and low to the right cognitive – based on intellectual factors, respect for “someone who knows their stuff” affective – based on relationships built by shared experiences, emotional closeness, empathy in cultures such as Australia that rely on cognitive trust, many of the relationships and activities that would build affective trust are seen as ‘unprofessional’ Many of the countries that we offshore to from within Australia would fall towards the affective side of the spectrum – this effectively is a barrier to trust!
I don’t know about ‘easy, instant and effective’ – probably easiER, FASTER and MORE effective.
It’s pretty universally acknowledged that one of the major difficulties in working remotely across countries is communication. Time differences Language barriers Cultural differences Technology challenges (bad phone line, internet bandwidth) Challenges around informal conversations
Expensive meaning requiring EFFORT and also COSTING MONEY
Quite a well-known observation based on information from Alistair Cockburn & Scott Ambler Note the PERSISTENCE REQUIRED COMMUNICATION TAKES EFFORT!!!
Face to face – travel *both* ways Video, try always on video so that you can just discuss things immediately without needing to schedule a meeting Conference calls – work on ways to improve these Chat – it’s not just about the tool, but how you use it; Slack won’t solve your communication issues
Communication should be a shared responsibility across all team members but if you’re in a Scrum team, your SM should be driving the communication initiatives. Otherwise in my experience, the teams at each end let things slide until silos redevelop.
If you don’t have an SM, is there someone else who can take on the responsibility of ensuring that there are no blockers to communication?
So what kinds of behaviours can we be asking the SM to encourage within the team??
It’s so common to have things discussed and decided in a ‘hallway meeting’. Regardless of whether its an onshore or offshore hallway, it’s absolutely critical to either stop the impromptu meeting until you can call in the others (either by phone, wandering over to the always-on video monitor, whatever) or else you MUST inform them afterwards of what you talked about and whether any decisions were made, and encourage their feedback. Yes this may seem like a lot of effort but it will be repaid in spades when everyone is on the same page and knows what’s going on. Not only will this result in improved quality but better morale as the whole team will feel more valued when they’re included or at least informed.
This is what we miss out on when working remote from team-mates. There can be feelings of guilt if you use chat message, or a even part of a phone call for non-work related topics but we wouldn’t hesitate to do that in face to face conversation why not just ‘check in’ with the team, or at least have some introductory chat? This is part of building trust! Because of the ‘guilt factor’ there may be a need to specifically encourage this!
You can have a non-work ‘channel’ in Slack or a chatroom or such but this doesn’t replace the need to have real conversations
“Science may never come up with a better office communication system than the coffee break” If you have access to a webcam and video link, why not actually schedule breaks at the same time Not for a work meeting, just a social chat over coffee or a meal Sharing a meal is a great way to get to know people
It will be weird at first!! But work at it!!
There’s a lot of resources out there to help with remote communication, one of my recent favourites is COLLABORATIONSUPERPOWERS.COM
What else can we try??
I’ve embraced the “unprofessional” idea of being FACEBOOK friends with many of my team mates from our Manila office. The Philippines being the SELFIE capital of the world (and Gene there on the right, our in-house Selfie guru) there are always plenty of photos to celebrate the good times (and even the not so good times can be good times... The shot on the middle right was taken on a Saturday afternoon when we were all in there working to meet a deadline!)
If you know what’s going on in the lives of your team, you have more to talk about
One of the greatest benefits of Agile is the emphasis on collaboration: According to the 12 manifesto principles “Business people and developers must work together daily throughout the project.” or even more clearly from Alistair Cockburn’s Heart of Agile: Collaborate, Deliver, Reflect, Improve.
When your three amigos are separated this can be difficult to achieve as the physical (and potentially cultural) distance automatically creates a silo effect that we have to work hard to overcome – using your communication skills that are grounded in a cross-cultural understanding of your colleagues!
I spend a lot of time “encouraging” teams to involve the testers in as many ways as possible
Behaviour Driven Development, or BDD, is a good example of the type of collaboration I am talking about – building a shared understanding upfront before any code/documentation is written
I really love these two diagrams which were done by John Ferguson Smart, I have found them extremely helpful in explaining to upper management the difference in the process. Here’s the ‘traditional’ process with its wasteful handoffs
And here we can see our “three amigos” working together on a shared understanding of what should be built.
Essence of BDD - To deliver software that matters using Collaboration Use of examples at multiple levels Common language to build a shared understanding – perhaps even more important when you’re at a distance AND don’t have a shared native language
One technique we’re trying to gain that “shared understanding” is Example Mapping from Matt Wynne
Rather than trying to write Gherkin (Given/When/Then) scenarios in the meeting, use coloured cards to get to a shared understanding.
Start with a story and think of rules and examples that apply. Focus on business goals, not syntax.
Story under discussion – yellow. Known rules/AC – blue. Examples – green. Questions – Red. Discuss until scope is clear!
Currently we’re trying this remotely by documenting cards at both ends during discussion, taking photo and comparing to make sure we got the same outcome. Tried webcam but it was too hard to see. Works OK but looking for an online tool – about to give realtimeboard a crack
Even if we don’t have the exact outcome, the important thing is that the testers are included in the upfront discussion!
Pair programming Pair testing Mob programming – why not mob testing??? Cucumber Pro is being built by remote mob programming across various European countries - https://cucumber.io/blog/2016/05/23/cucumber-ltd-story-so-far
Screenhero -> Slack allows control for each participant (with own cursor). The tools seem to be improving all the time so why not give it a crack?
It would probably be easier to start the pairing/mobbing in realtime with a site visit, then when people are used to each other, continue remotely. Pairing up testers with developers especially in working on coding tasks like automated checking, is one of my current goals
Hopefully this presentation & discussion has given you some ideas of how to use cultural context, communication and collaboration to improve your working relationship with your remote colleagues!
Thanks everyone for coming to my talk, I’d like to thank LAST conference for this opportunity and also acknowledge the sponsors for this event!
“Scrum does not work here in Asia”
• Cultural expectation of predictability
• Everything should have a hierarchy
• Keep things in harmony
• Education system drives school of thought
• Lack of investment in training for offshore