By Soo Somerset, Green Mars CEO
We hear this a lot as we get to know our clients: “We’ve had bad experiences with outsourced engineering in the past.” We learn that so much can and does go wrong with the work of outsourced engineering that it’s hard to have faith that it’s worth the effort to delegate.
It usually turns out that a lack of communication and transparency is at fault. This challenge is a hard one to solve, in that it requires diligence from both sides to work: the vendor must be proactive about progress and any issues that arise, and the client must be inquisitive and collaborative to find solutions. This is generally true of any vendor relationship, but especially so in software.
What can a client do to minimize the risk of an outsourced engagement? There are a few key steps to take from the outset:
Schedule and attend regular check-in meetings
There may be no other element of a vendor/client engagement that is more critical to the success of any project than the periodic check-in meeting. They are often small, simple meetings that can take fewer than 15 minutes, but I make a point never to miss a meeting with clients or vendors, and in the rare cases that I must, I prioritize the next one above everything else.
In these meetings, we communicate more than what is actually discussed in the course of the agenda — a commitment and a priority for the work being done, the value of that work to our success, and the importance of clarity and transparency with our vendors and clients.
When vendor meetings are missed, or routinely cancelled, it says to the vendor that you don’t care what they’re doing — that you trust them, perhaps, but also that they are on their own to resolve any issues. In the worst case, the vendor makes a long series of decisions about your engagement that may not align with your expectations, and this naturally results in some pretty nasty surprises on both sides.
When client meetings are missed, it communicates that we are not organized enough to communicate our progress, that we may be hiding something minor or major, or that we are not prepared to allow the client to help support the work and necessary decisions that need to be made in the course of its progress. By missing these opportunities, we create an atmosphere of mystery and suspense, which is obviously not what one looks for in a client/vendor relationship.
Set expectations to see two-week plans
Any seasoned project manager can tell you that a project plan beyond the next two weeks is progressively more likely to be fiction. Therefore, beyond the initial “reality check” that the work as estimated can fit in the overall timeline, the most important information about a project is what is happening right now, and in the next two weeks.
A two-week plan may or may not involve a “release” — and there is a whole philosophy of project management devoted to such “sprints” — but regardless of the labels and nomenclature, any vendor should be able to articulate what is planned to happen in the next two weeks, and allow the client the opportunity to ask questions, understand objectives, and clarify priorities to avoid misdirection.
In some cases, an engagement is quite fast-paced, and a strong vendor company will help triage and plan as far as the pacing will allow. These scenarios call for more transparency, clearer engagement processes, and quick response times, but still lend themselves to a rough plan.
The plan itself sends a message of set expectations from both sides of the engagement. For the client, it clarifies what to expect and hopefully identifies areas of high risk to the budget or schedule. It also makes clear to the vendor and its team what the client considers the highest priority. The focus stays on the work for that period, and as issues arise, or risks are identified, the client can support the vendor to mitigate.
Even in cases where the client prefers to be hands-off, the plan provides a sense of protection for both parties in preventing surprises. Without it, confusion, frustration, and disappointment can lead to contractual debates and long-term damage to the relationship between client and vendor.
Establish Balanced Communication
I have a friend who seems to only call me when they’re in trouble. I dread seeing their name pop up on my phone, because I know it’s going to be bad news, and it almost always is. However, when I have more regular contact with people, that emotional response doesn’t happen. The balance of good and bad news prevents any anxiety.
The same holds true for client/vendor engagements. The check-in meetings must cover positive (progress), negative (issues) and neutral (plans), establishing a steady balance of communication and reinforcing the importance of transparency.
This balance is harder than it looks, because when problems arise, it becomes more challenging to maintain open communication. If an error was made by the vendor, the client is justifiably unhappy about it, yet avoiding mention of the error undermines trust and confidence between them. It is important for the client to be open to bad news and respond with constructive efforts to resolve the problems, rather than expressing their anger with the vendor. This is easier to do for the client when the vendor has been clear about progress and efforts all along, and harder when the client only ever hears about problems.
Likewise, the vendor can more readily give the information the client needs if they have confidence that the client will support them to resolve it rather than to assign blame and react emotionally. When both client and vendor trust that news, good and bad, will be managed collaboratively, you can be confident that surprises will be few and progress will be expedient.
Perhaps most importantly, if you are considering an engagement with outsourced team or you already have one, we encourage you to have a candid conversation with them about your concerns, your expectations, and your priorities, and listen to what they have to say in response. Likewise, if you are a vendor, please do the same with your clients. The discussion will reveal valuable insights and bear fruit that will fortify your relationship for a long time.
Let us know if this resonates with you, and share your experiences in a comment!