As a Project Manager (PM), outsourcing has opened up a seemingly never-ending number of possibilities; from delivering products that satisfy the demands of an ever-changing landscape to leveraging the wider skills and services required to complete projects. There’s also meeting the need for higher quality deliverables at a lower cost that allows for greater profits.
But I realize now that outsourcing is not a be-all, end-all solution. In fact, it requires a new set of rules and procedures that must be adhered to by all teams involved. It’s far more than just “chucking requests over the wall” and expecting success. But let’s be honest here, chucking it over the wall and hoping it all sticks is something we’d all do if we were on the other side of that metaphorical wall. Why? Because agencies – like the clients they work for – still need to meet their own budget expectations, harsh deadlines, and still deliver projects within scope.
Outsourcing allows for this, albeit with some tact, accountability, and common sense.
So, how does a PM navigate project expectations vs. the reality?
Talking to your team about expectations and estimations before committing to the client is a good way to manage any problems that may arise throughout the course of a project. Since they’re responsible for the work being done, you need to make sure their voices and concerns are being heard, or else the project will always go wrong in one way or another.
If you agree to complete something that’s designed to overburden your team from the get-go, then your client won’t be any wiser to the situation and continue to press and rightfully get frustrated with extending timelines and deliverables that don’t match their expectations. And if this happens, then everyone fails. It’s not just the client or the outsourcing team. It’s everyone.
The 3 Keys to Success
The first, and most important key to a successful client-agency relationship, is transparency.
Sure, it’s a buzzword you see pop up on most company communications, but while those are (typically) for show, here it really is the ticket to low-costs, quality, and speed coming together as closely as possible.
Now, let’s be clear. It’s never been about the inability to deliver amazing work. It’s usually about a lack of communication and the misunderstanding of common priorities that usually leads to the derailment of a project. To successfully navigate this, everyone must work from the same playbook.
This starts with a CLEAR scope document. Make sure to:
- Specify the number of revisions allowed. This will help keep projects in scope.
- Dictate future meeting expectations ahead of time. This will cut down on wasted hours.
- Make everything a line item.
- Something you can refer back to and check off as the project moves forward.
With all this being said, communication is also key.
You have to sync up regularly — and agree in advance — to be kept updated on a regular basis with your client and the outsource team.
Once you’ve established open dialogue consistently, you’ll find issues are quickly resolved. You’ll also realize that trust in your team and trust from your client will follow suit.
- Overcommunicate rather than assume everything is understood.
- This will save you many headaches and task recaps.
- Let them know that they can’t chuck stuff over the wall and expect success to happen.
- Clear goals work two ways. As a PM, I can’t help my team meet expectations if the client isn’t clear what they themselves are looking for.
- If there are questions, make sure to ask them.
- No question is too obvious or redundant when there are deadlines and dollars on the line. Plus, sometimes your team doesn’t want to ask the questions.
Flexibility. The third key.
No relationship is alike. While one client may want to take a hands-on approach in the development cycle, another may put up their hands and say, “Do what you gotta do.” There are plenty of permutations of client-agency relationships, which means…
There are just as many when it comes to the relationship between an internal team and an outsourced team. If you’re working with a very active client, you’ll need to prioritize outsourced team members that can work on their schedule and are confident with some level of communication that skips right over the PM. But if you have a very hands-off client, you’ll want to make sure self-starters are assigned to the project and that you’re on-call.
Remember, the relationship is not a straight line. It’s not A to B, it’s A to C, curves, comes back around, skips the occasional letter, and sometimes goes off the page. That is what delays items. So, make sure they’re flexible with their time at the start of any project.
And always humanize the work. It’s unfortunate that this needs to be said, but sometimes workers are seen as numbers in a line item rather than individuals with their own home life, multiple projects, communication barriers, and emotions. A quality PM will get to know their team and anticipate any hang-ups that may come up.
The Balance Between Control and Flexibility
The notion that outsourcing will cut down on your project time is a common misperception. Yes, it saves you time given that your off-site team has more talent on-hand to work with and can likely complete a project faster than a one-man team. But on most projects, these tasks are still assigned to one or two individuals, thus it’s no different than walking over to your internal team and asking them to complete an assignment.
Conservatively, there are only 8 hours in your working day, which means there’s also only 8 hours in their day. While they may be working while you’re sleeping and vice versa, it is by no means a complete work around the clock scenario. It’s far more productive than not working with an offshore team but relying on that talking point alone will back even the best PM into a corner they won’t soon get out of.
To mitigate this, you may need to adjust your schedule to meet with them at midnight or pre-dawn and still leave enough hours to handle the usual office time you’re responsible for. Easier said than done, of course. Since this isn’t ideal for everyone, managing an outsourcing team may not be for you. Unless you’re confident you can make it work, it’s probably best for all parties if you stick with the most manageable scenario.
Yet, there’s a caveat; these situations vary depending on where the outsource team is located. Sometimes it’s a matter of adjusting your own daytime by a couple hours, logging in for a little while the rest of the office checks out, or really burning the midnight oil by jumping into a clarification call as your team just starts their day.
No matter what, once you’ve found a schedule and cadence of communication that works for everyone, make sure to stick to it. Otherwise, you’ll find the work-life balance near impossible.
In the Grand Scheme of Things
As a PM, I am but a small cog within the much bigger picture. But that means two things: 1. I need to keep the project moving even if I’m not always hands-on and 2. if my team fails, I fail. And if they don’t meet expectations, which will happen in some cases, then you have to re-evaluate your processes and procedures. Remember, it’s a learning curve every time. But don’t let that scare you from being a PM. It’s no different than starting any project whether you’re the creative, the accountant, the client, or the production artist. Once you get the hiccups figured out, you’ll find it becomes easier and more rewarding.
Because if my team succeeds, then I succeed. And I’ll be looked to as a leader moving forward.
I typically start with a few questions:
- Is there a better way to explain what needs to be achieved?
- Is showing them better than putting it all down in words?
- Depending on cultural sensitivities, how will I pivot to accommodate?
- How well will my team be able to interpret what the client is asking?
- Am I being conscientious of regional holidays, project burdens, etc.?
As you can see, it’s not about the skillsets and talent. If you’ve vetted your team, you know they have no shortage in talent and capabilities. It’s the art of bringing everyone together to build and develop a relationship, then leading it to an ongoing and long-term mutually beneficial one.
Communication, empathy, and respect are disciplines that must be honed. It’s not just about budgets, deadlines, and scope creeps. Cultural differences, time zone differences, even language barriers are all obstacles you’ll need to navigate around.
To deliver great work, you need a great team. They’re not just light switches you flip on and off without accounting for the very real fact that they’re just you in another location. You from a different path. They have heart and logic and stressors that make up their day and affect their productivity. So, maybe there’s actually one more key to a successful relationship… empathy.
At the end of the day, we’re all just human beings, susceptible to the same agony in times of failure and the same thrills amid success. How you decide to coordinate these dynamics is what defines you as a Project Manager.