The Secret to Agile with Offshore Teams

Agile Offshore Software Development

The secret to agile with offshore teams lies within the differences between low-context and high-context communication cultures. As many of you may have already experienced; focusing solely on developer skill and experience does not guarantee a successful offshoring experience. Agile offshore development performance requires “Agile at Speed”, which is difficult to accomplish without a certain velocity of communication. This article focuses on how this is accomplished.

“The biggest single problem with communication is the illusion that it has taken place.” 

-George Bernard Shaw

How appropriate this comment is for agile offshore development.  Language barriers and cultural communication differences can lead to misunderstandings that can hamper a development team’s throughput, foster mistrust between teams, and (worst case) contribute to disastrous consequences.  

But in the context of geographically dispersed, culturally diverse engineering teams, what do we mean by effective communication? We examine two important communication elements that are critical to Offshore Agile Software Development: Technical English Proficiency and Cross-Cultural Communication.

Agile Requires Technical English Proficiency

Effective communication clearly requires moderate English proficiency, at a minimum.  However, Conversational English Proficiency is quite different than Technical English Proficiency

There are many tests that can identify technical English proficiency, including the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages (CEFR), offered by Cambridge University’s Cambridge Assessment English (CAE) exam board. 

The Hidden Problem of Cross-Cultural Communication

The hidden problem of achieving agile with offshore teams is the difference between high-context and low-context communication cultures.”

Cross-cultural communication challenges are the root cause of many offshore/nearshore development failures.  This hidden problem causes mismatched expectations between customers and their offshore/nearshore vendors. 

Low-Context vs High-Context Communication

An excellent article detailing the cultural communication differences across the world, which summarizes Erin Meyer’s ground-breaking novel:  The Culture Map, can be found at Tech Tello.  A summary is provided below.

Low-Context vs High-Context Communication

Low-Context Communication Cultures

In low context communication cultures, effective communication must be concise, straightforward, and explicit for the message to be passed on successfully. 

“Low-context culture requires stating it as you mean it.”

The rule-of-thumb for low context communication is as follows: “Tell them what you are going to tell them, then tell them, then tell them what you’ve told them”

This process is designed to quickly identify and correct misunderstandings before they become problems.  It also serves to reduce pointless, time-consuming debates.

In low context cultures, communication occurs assuming that knowledge of each other’s histories and backgrounds is not present. Neither is most of the communication shaped by long-term relationships between speakers.

In low-context communication, the meaning of messages is more dependent on the words being spoken rather than on a shared understanding of subtle cues.

High-Context Communication Cultures

“High-context culture requires reading between the lines.”

In high-context communication cultures, effective communication is nuanced, layered, and sophisticated.  High-context cultures rely upon shared history and experiences to communicate. 

A high percentage of words can be interpreted in multiple ways, depending on how and when they are used.  This can be very effective and efficient if all members of a team have the same background, history and experiences to understand these subtleties. 

However, when this shared history and understanding is absent, as is the case when people from high-context cultures communicate with people from low-context cultures, the communication breaks down. 

In fact, the highest chance of miscommunication exists when two people from different high-context cultures try to communicate.  In this scenario, both parties try to communicate using nuances that neither is aware of. 

Communication Cultures by Country

Image source: Tech Tello

As you can see, the United States is the lowest context communication culture in the world, with most of the westernized countries leaning towards the left of the scale. 

All the countries that speak the Romance languages, including European countries like Italy, France, and Spain, as well as Latin American countries fall in the middle of the scale, while Asian and African countries are solidly on the right of the scale. 

Japan is the highest context communication culture in the world. 

Clearly, excellent software engineering can be found along the entire low/high context continuum.  This scale is not meant to measure communication effectiveness.  It merely points out how well people from two cultures can relate to one another. 

The Secret to Agile With Offshore Teams

If clear communication is the goal, multi-cultural teams need low-context communication and processes.

What matters isn’t where either culture falls on the scale, but rather the relative position of the two cultures that must work together, in this case on Software Development.  The larger the gap, the harder it will be to communicate with your Software Development Partner, on average. 

When US-based companies with low context cultures work with SW Development partners from high-context cultures, there is often little basis (context) for shared non-verbal, nuanced communication, causing frequent miscommunication. 

Agile development programs will suffer if half your team is communicating non-verbally, with assumed shared understanding, and the other half is not.  Even moderate time-zone differences between geographically dispersed teams can magnify this problem. 

Selecting an Agile Offshore Software Development Team with Low-Context Communication

The easiest way to ensure low-context communication is to pick a development partner from a low-context communication culture. 

But you may have other reasons to outsource from a country that is not low-context. In this case, pick a Remote Development Team that:

  • Understands the importance of crisp, clear, low-context communication
  • Has put in place the proper screening, testing, and training to ensure low-context communication
  • Understands it is the responsibility of the offshore/nearshore vendor to adopt a low-context communication style to aid in communication.

In our opinion, it’s the responsibility of the offshore/nearshore vendor to adapt to their US-based customers’ communication culture.  It’s not about who’s right or wrong, but rather about workability.   The high/low context communication combination usually does not work unless low context processes and communication are established.  This is especially true in Agile Development Environments.

About Cloud App Developers, LLC

With a team of 1,500+ Engineers from 6 countries, we provide multiple options to optimize what’s most important to our customers. Need to scale a large team rapidly? Need same time-zone development? Looking for particular tech skills? We have you covered.

We also offer IT Staff Augmentation Services for Software Development and Data Science Engineers.

Our Architects, Developers, Data Scientists, and Data Engineers are extensively screened and have domain expertise in several industries, including Telecommunications, Financial Services, Insurtech, IoT, Logistics, Industrial Automation, etc.

Developer Screening, Testing & Training

With the multitude of changes, dependencies & processes within Agile methodologies, a certain velocity of communication, interaction & concurrency is required. Our screening processes ensure our teams can deliver “Agile @ Speed” in your development workflow.

Technical English Proficiency

For Agile, “English At Speed” Is The Standard

Communication Excellence

Developers Trained For “Low-Context” Communication

Problem Solving Aptitude

Our Customers Expect Engineers

Code Testing

Code Quality

Code Reviews For All Developers

Need Agile Offshore Development?

If you need “Agile at Speed”, send us a message using the form below to schedule a meeting to review how we can assist with your offshore software development efforts. Thank you.