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Ambidextrous Coping Strategies in Globally Distributed Software Development Projects

Strategies for enhancing flexibility and rigor.
  1. Introduction
  2. Effective Coping Strategies for Globally Distributed Software Development
  3. Ambidexterity of Coping Strategies
  4. Conclusion
  5. References
  6. Authors
  7. Tables
  8. Sidebar: How the Study was Conducted

Software development increasingly requires globally distributed teams as organizations seek to deliver high-quality software to global users and customers at lower development costs [10]. This globalization increases the complexity of coordination in the collaborative software development effort, which can in turn negatively influence project outcomes [6]. Geographic distance, time separation, cultural differences, language differences, organizational boundaries, and functional boundaries inherent in global contexts represent significant barriers for global software teams [4, 7, 9]. Thus, a key challenge for information systems organizations today is to overcome these global boundaries and barriers and deliver high-quality software on time and within budget. However, coping with this challenge can be a daunting task because organizations have a limited understanding of what makes global software development projects successful.

To shed light on how organizations cope with global boundaries and barriers to succeed in software development, we studied 22 globally distributed software projects. Similar to prior studies of global teams [10], we analyzed key inputs, processes, and outputs of interest to our study (see the sidebar on the next page for our research methodology). The main inputs of interest are the various global boundaries and barriers that software teams faced. The processes we studied are the task processes involving communication and coordination that are generally employed by software teams [6]. Finally, the outputs we focused on include software quality and on-time/within-budget completion that are important success measures in software projects.

Global boundaries and barriers hinder the efficiency and effectiveness of traditional task processes employed in software projects, which can negatively affect project outcomes, making it more difficult to succeed in globally distributed projects than in co-located projects. In this research, we found that effective global software teams adopted special coping strategies to handle the difficulties of global contexts and to mitigate their negative effects on project outcomes. Consistent with prior studies, global teams tailored task processes and project setups to fit the global context [5]. More importantly, we found that effective coping strategies used by global software teams exhibited “ambidextrous” properties [1, 2]; that is, the coping strategies established rigor and discipline in software development activities while they also built flexibility and agility to quickly sense important external environmental changes and respond to them in a timely manner.

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Effective Coping Strategies for Globally Distributed Software Development

We organized the coping strategies we identified in our interviews using a two-dimensional framework that emerged from our data analysis (see Table 1). The first dimension of the framework captures the timing of these strategies in terms of whether they were applied in the initiation phase or in the execution phase of the project life cycle. The second dimension indicates if the focus of a coping strategy is on task-related processes, people-related project aspects, or adoption and use of collaboration technology. For each of the six cells in the framework, we inductively grouped specific coping strategies into categories that emerged from our data. We named these categories Common Platform, Labor Organization, Education/Understanding, Technology Readiness, Doing More, Awareness/Teamwork, and Adaptive Use of Technology.

Common Platform refers to any frame of reference that provided a common ground to foster a shared understanding of how the software development task will be performed. Labor Organization means the special arrangements through which global software teams assigned tasks and team members across global locations. Education/Understanding includes the activities that increased team members’ understanding of unique challenges in global software development as well as effective coping strategies learned from past experience. Technology Readiness refers to the technological setup that facilitated global collaboration. Doing More refers to the increased frequency and intensity of software development activities and processes. Awareness/Teamwork means the processes and strategies that made a globally distributed team work like a co-located team by increasing awareness of who is doing what and by building trust. Finally, Adaptive Use of Technology refers to the evolutionary use of collaboration technology as software teams learned about which technology was best suited to which task. The specific coping strategies shown in Table 1 represent the most frequent examples in each category that we found in our field study.

The two-dimensional framework and specific coping strategies shown in Table 1 provide a comprehensive and integrative perspective that can help global software project managers to plan and implement effective coping strategies at different stages of the project life cycle. Although they are not meant to be exhaustive, these coping strategies can serve as an initial portfolio that practitioners may adopt in order to identify and select coping strategies that are effective for their specific global project contexts.

Although the coping strategies were found to enhance project success, their utilization came with substantially more effort, stress, and burden on the project teams. One project manager we interviewed said, “I would think that it would be foolish to not take whatever mathematical calculation you have (for a domestic project) and start off with 1.5 times that budget and plan amount.” Some project teams established a 24/7 global communication channel that demanded exceptional time commitments and resulted in high levels of personal stress. Another project manager stated, “It [our communication channel] was always open for any issue. This was a must and not an option. The real communication between the programmers there and the users here was something that had to be constantly going on.” Increased project costs also resulted from creating redundant project roles and point persons in multiple locations.

Some global software teams were able to plan and implement effective coping strategies from the inception of their projects whereas other teams deployed coping strategies at later points in their projects but only after experiencing painful and costly problems. Several teams in our study experienced temporary failure at some point in time, but they managed to turn around their projects by adopting effective coping strategies. We found that prior global project experience makes a difference in how early in the project life cycle the project team was able to identify and apply effective coping strategies. Teams with extensive prior global project experience tended to implement effective coping strategies at the start of their projects. However, teams with little or no global project experience did not deploy effective measures until they faced failure during the execution of the project.

As organizations engage in more global projects, we would expect them to better manage global challenges if they develop and maintain a project repository where they accumulate and share global project experience and knowledge. A manager in our study emphasized, “So the advice that I would give is, in ensuring the success of the project going forward, to make sure the lessons we learned, which is all the domain knowledge that we have gained, not to be lost.”

The two coping strategies within the Labor category, namely minimized task dependencies and the follow-the-sun model, might appear to be contradictory. The follow-the-sun model might seem to require tight dependency between multiple locations. However, analysis and interpretation of the interviews suggest they are not actually contradictory. We found the follow-the-sun model worked well either when there was little task dependency, or when the management of task dependencies could be easily programmed and automated in the direction of the workflow. Therefore, minimizing task dependencies can facilitate the implementation of the follow-the-sun model. Furthermore, we found that simple, unambiguous, well-defined tasks fit the follow-the-sun model whereas complex, ambiguous, ill-defined tasks did not fit the model as well.

One of our most important findings is that successful global software development required not only flexibility/agility but also rigor/discipline in order to cope with complex challenges of global projects. For example, once certain strategies were adopted, the team had to comply with these strategies in a disciplined and rigorous way. At the same time, the team had to exhibit flexibility to adapt quickly to revised strategies when needed.

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Ambidexterity of Coping Strategies

Effective software teams demonstrated an ambidextrous combination of flexibility and rigor rather than sole focus on flexibility or rigor. Table 2 highlights how each category of the coping strategies from Table 1 contributed to building flexibility or rigor in global software development. These results help managers develop a deeper understanding of the mechanisms through which coping strategies enhance ambidexterity in software development.

All seven categories shown in Table 2 improved both flexibility and rigor. Furthermore, we found that specific coping strategies within the same category often played different roles in increasing flexibility or rigor; some strategies primarily contributed to flexibility and others mainly contributed to rigor. For example, within the Labor Organization category, the minimized task dependencies strategy resulted in loosely coupled global sites, thus increasing flexibility, whereas redundant project roles in multiple sites prevented single points of failure, increasing rigor and reliability of global software development.

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We found that successful global software teams applied common principles in deploying coping strategies to enhance both flexibility and rigor in software development. Specifically, the following three general principles emerged from our analysis and interpretation of the research interviews.

The first principle is that, in the initiation phase of projects, teams need to build a foundation for future flexibility in global software development. Common, standardized processes and shared knowledge/context established at the initiation of the project enable teams to make changes later in the project at a lower cost and in a more coordinated manner.

Coping strategies can serve as an initial portfolio that practitioners may adopt in order to identify and select coping strategies that are effective for their specific global project contexts.

Teams also increase future flexibility by embedding options into the initial project setup. For example, they establish a portfolio of various communication and collaboration technology options from which they can choose based on what works or doesn’t work for a particular stage of the project. Education plays an important role as well. As software team members develop a common, deep understanding of potential issues and problems associated with global boundaries and barriers, they become more effective in sensing and interpreting external environmental changes and less resistant to adaptation in the execution phase. Finally, the special labor organization that minimizes task dependencies across sites makes local changes less costly because no cascading changes are required by other sites.

The second principle is that effective global software teams flexibly deploy coping strategies as needed during the execution phase of projects. Since many external changes are unpredictable, rapid sensing and response becomes a key coping mechanism. Effective software teams are able to sense important environmental changes quickly and make timely responses. Frequent communication and increased team/task awareness help global software teams to effectively sense and respond to problems and issues. For example, the “24/7 command centers,” “project dashboards,” “weekly corrective action meetings,” and use of point people play pivotal roles in sensing and responding to emergent problems on a real-time basis. Global software teams also learn and adopt the technologies that best fit specific tasks and, at the same time, quickly eliminate the use of technologies that do not work.

The third principle is that, while building and maintaining flexibility is critical, successful global software teams also exhibit disciplined adherence to the agreed-upon strategies and processes. Teams with global boundaries and barriers require rigorous software development processes because people cannot always communicate frequently and spontaneously to make adjustments when members depart from the agreed-upon processes. For example, detailed, accurate documentation and user requirement specifications reduce ambiguity and misunderstanding. Redundant roles in multiple locations reduce the presence of single points of failure. Assigning point persons to offshore sites improves the effectiveness of communication. Common technological environments also allow global software teams to develop and test software efficiently. These rigorous, disciplined software development processes serve as the foundation for positive project performance.

Because the coping strategies we identified in this research are intended to enhance not only flexibility but also rigor in software development, some of them may seem inconsistent with the conventional agile software development approach that focuses primarily on flexibility. According to the Agile Manifesto and Principles, the conventional agile software development values people over processes/tools, working software over comprehensive documentation, customer collaboration over contract negotiation, and responding to change over following a plan [3]. Furthermore, in agile software development tacit knowledge is more important than explicit knowledge and informal communication is more useful than traditional formal communication [8].

These agile principles appear to be incompatible with such coping strategies identified in this study as detailed, formal documentation, emphasis in common, disciplined processes, and tight project control. The convenional agile software development approach, however, has been developed and operated best in small and collocated projects. We typically see difficulties arise in attempting to scale agile methods to fit large or globally distributed software development projects [11]. In particular, global boundaries and barriers such as time separation and geographic distance significantly increase the complexity of software development activities, making the conventional agile approach less effective. Our research with globally distributed projects helps shed some light on this challenge.

Our frindings are not contradictory to the agile approach, but rather they extend agile methods by demonstrating how flexibility should be partnered with rigor and discipline in order to achieve success in global software development projects.

Our findings suggest that for globally distributed projects, the conventional agile methods must be adjusted and modified by embracing more rigor and discipline in software development. In small, collocated projects, rigorous, disciplined software development processes may hinder agility and flexibility. However, without rigor and discipline, software development can become chaotic and inefficient in globally distributed environments. For example, common, rigorous processes become important when multiple global boundaries exist because people cannot easily substitute for processes as they can in small, local projects.

Detailed, comprehensive documentation as well as codified, explicit knowledge are critical in global contexts because communication is problematic and tacit knowledge is difficult to share. In addition, in globally distributed software development environments, formal communication is also important because informal communication is often less effective due to cultural differences, language barriers, and organizational boundaries.

Based on our findings we propose that the conventional agile software development approach must be modified in globally distributed environments to overcome the daunting challenges of time separation, geographic distance, and cultural differences. The coping strategies identified in tables 1 and 2 can help adapt the conventional agile methods for global projects by pursuing both flexibility and rigor. Therefore, our findings are not contradictory to the agile approach, but rather they extend agile methods by demonstrating how flexibility should be partnered with rigor and discipline in order to achieve success in global software development projects.

In conclusion, while information systems managers who lead globally distributed software development projects must be forewarned that global boundaries and barriers increase project risks, the application of coping strategies that enhance both flexibility and rigor in complex global projects can help global teams meet their goals and succeed. Understanding how to achieve ambidexterity in software development is an imperative for global managers and developers.

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T1 Table 1. Coping strategies for globally distributed software development.

T2 Table 2. Coping strategies for flexibility and rigor in software development.

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