Why culture is as important as skill for outsourced agile teams

team leadership 3
Credit: Stephen Sauer

Mature enterprises should look to culture and communication style as significant factors in outsourcing IT decisions

For years, software engineering experts have warned of relying on individual rock star coders and stressed the importance of team delivery. Recently, software engineering has evolved from being used primarily in the back office to run the business to being core to business transformation and innovation. This transition, and the maturation of agile in large enterprises, has put intense focus and importance on the performance of teams.

For these teams to be successful, there must be behavioral alignment with the line of business in which they work and with the organization as a whole. In short, the success of software developers and agile teams, especially outsourced or embedded agile teams, depends as much on their cultural fit as the skills of individual team members.

Just to be clear, I'm talking about mature organizations, with developmental depth and expertise. I'm not talking about fledgling operations that are struggling to attract skilled talent. Nor am I referencing outsourcing organizations that purposefully compose teams with one advanced developer and fill in the rest with novices. At mature enterprises, culture is most definitely as important as skill for the success of agile teams.

Cultural alignment builds trust

Are development teams perceived as outsiders or interlopers who don't look, act or work like or, presumably, understand the rest of the organization? Or are they perceived as equals and trusted partners, as people who "get" what an organization is all about?

If the answer is the former, there will be a corresponding lack of trust, which will lead to diminished success. It's a natural human reaction to not trust "the other." If someone looks, acts, works or communicates differently, there is the impulse to reject them, regardless of his/her skill level.

"I can't work with this person/team," is often the complaint when there's no behavioral alignment between an agile team and an organization.

Connecting at a cultural level builds trust between outsourced teams and the organization as a whole. They gain an insider status and credibility.

This credibility leads to confidence in the team's work. Because of the cultural fit, these teams are seen as trustworthy. This allows the team to offer not just solutions for current problems, but also suggestions for new features and/or products, leading to growth, innovation and business success.

Choosing the best fit

How does this play out in the real world?

Take an example of a development team at a cutting-edge sporting goods company and one at a health insurance provider.

The sporting goods company has a culture of relaxed, casual individualism. Reporting structures are heavily matrixed and building support through relationships is very important.

The health insurance provider is a more traditional suit and tie organization. IT teams report directly to one manager, who has a direct report all the way up the chain of command in a siloed line of communication. Teams are focused on their line of business and rarely interact with other areas of the company.

Different outsourced agile teams would find different levels of success in these two company cultures.

The sporting goods company's culture is more likely to see success from teams that are comfortable forging their own path and creating features that might not have been included in the original project specifications, but could provide great value. These developers/teams share a common perspective with the greater organization on the role of IT and how work should be done.

This team's exuberance and disregard for rigid corporate structure would be seen as subversive and counterproductive at the insurance company. Teams that are more heads down and that produce great products directly to original specifications would see greater success. They can put the appropriate focus on turning out quality software faster rather than building relationships in other departments.

Resist group think

Selecting outsourced teams that have a behavioral alignment with your organization's culture will produce greater success. However, if taken too far, hiring everyone who acts, works and thinks alike can stagnate a company's development efforts. If all developers are from the same background (gender, education, nationality, professional experience, etc.) the team can miss new perspectives and ideas and fail to challenge flawed assumptions, all of which are key to innovation.

The balance is found in separating how work gets done with how each developer thinks. Developers on agile teams, and agile teams within the company, need to be in sync with how they approach and accomplish projects.

As with the examples above, an organization's culture reveals the behavioral characteristics that are important in selecting development staff. Are they reactive or proactive? Do they communicate through the proper channels as established by company protocol? Do they align themselves with larger business goals and structure rather than their individual proclivities?

As skill levels of top developers flatten out, mature enterprises should look to culture and communication style as significant factors in outsourcing IT decisions. Ensuring this behavioral alignment at the beginning will save time, resources and frustration of clashing work styles and behavior. This alignment will also produce greater success as teams spend time creating the best possible product rather than fighting against or not understanding company culture.

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