Drawing Parallels: Principles of Distributed Agile Teams and Global Capability Centers (GCCs)

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Global Capability Centers (GCCs) aren’t a new phenomenon. They have been around for over two decades and have evolved from being a source of cost arbitrage to a core part of organizational strategy and innovation agenda. The GCC model has particularly been successful in India, so much so that they contribute to 1% of the country’s GDP. 

Agile methodologies have greatly been adopted by organizations as a means to improve collaboration, especially during the pandemic, when flexibility and agility have so often been vital to success. In a recent conversation with a global CIO of a large retailer, we were talking about the basic tenets of agile. Agile development teams traditionally have preferred co-located employees with close-knit groups, all working in the same place. Co-location allows frequent in-person contact, quickly builds trust, simplifies problem solving, encourages instant communication, and enables fast-paced decision making. If only this worked, then it’s an anti-pattern to organizations looking to set up a Global Capability Center or global teams in talent rich hubs or setting up distributes agile teams.

Drawing parallels between distributed agile teams and GCCs, also known as Global Inhouse Centers, we found several similarities between them. They have both have continued to perform well during the pandemic but what does the next normal look like for them, especially when organizations are focused on building a people-centric culture? Let’s find out.

A New Form of Agility With GCC-as-a-Service

In the wake of the pandemic, people globally have had to inspect the foundations of working, adapt to a new way of remote execution, and integrate their personal and professional lives more than before. Agile teams, in contrast to other functional units in companies, were well equipped to adapt to the change during the pandemic. They quickly pivoted to remote and distributed agile, which helped them achieve flexibility, scale, and efficiency.

If we were to look at the world of GCCs, there has been a 30-40% increase in the number of GCCs set up during the pandemic. Successful GCCs favor empowerment of people. The core tenet of GCCs is the focus on communication, collaboration, and growth with empathy. Hence, GCCs are poised to pioneer the new way of team agility in the post-pandemic world.

Flawless Execution Across Global Capability Centers

Most distributed agile teams consist of people from different cultures, working from different locations. However, they have been using proven remote collaboration strategies that have helped them minimize cultural and geographic barriers.

GCCs today are a core part of the enterprise and not an outpost. They have set clear remote collaboration strategies, share the same vision, goals and culture with the HQ, and have the right context to create impact. Progressive mindset, daily stand-ups with the onshore teammates, periodic offshore and onshore visits help GCCs break the geographical and cultural barriers.

Seamless Collaboration with GCCs

For distributed agile teams, especially where team members choose their own hours, open and seamless communication is of the utmost importance. There isn’t opportunity for informal hallway conversations or water cooler moments in a remote world, and this necessitates implementing virtual alternatives of these social activities.

Effective communication and collaboration should be the cornerstones of a GCC because shared ownership and common purpose cannot be achieved without adequately fostering the enterprise’s values among teams, particularly when they work in different time zones.

One of the primary reasons behind setting up a GCC is to allow global teams across the world to quickly respond to change, and it is possible only through consistent and effective communication. Daily stand-ups, planning sessions, and sprints are some ways to help teams keep communicating and collaborating across Global Capability Centers.

To make global teams work, leaders need to ensure proper collaboration between team members by organizing daily scrums, planning sessions, and discussion virtually.

Employee Empathy

Activities that nurture the morale of co-located agile teams—such as casual lunches, impromptu coffee breaks, or after-work social activities—are not practical in a virtual environment. So distributed agile teams need to make a more conscious effort to be social, polite, precise, and tactful—to ensure everyone feels just as safe contributing remotely as they did in person. Leaders of global inhouse centers should communicate their expectations with empathy, enable people to focus on their loved ones, and emphasize the importance of psychological safety for team members.

Looking at the GCC ecosystem across the world, I have been amazed at how an empathy-focused approach to technology and business can help pay down technical debt, build trust among team members, and contribute to the overall health of the enterprise. GCCs have been doing this successfully over two decades, where the handoffs between the HQ and the center in Bangalore or Poland have been seamless. Since GCCs are set up far away from HQ, they require a more deliberate focus on empathy, openness, respect, and courage.

Leadership Approach for GCC Operations

While looking at distributed agile teams, the core mission of leadership stays the same. However, leaders need to be more deliberate when engaging with teams, especially when you have limited in-person interaction. Working in the same location, agile team leaders of GCC models often empower teams to push work forward. Working in a distributed manner, they need to be closer to—and more proactive at—guiding their own team members.

Today, there is an increased trust in the leadership capabilities of GCCs. We have seen global leaders, including CIOs, head of global service business and HR leaders based in the GCC. They are purposeful at engaging external customers and stakeholders. They are highly transparent and reassuring in their communication about team performance and objectives which are tied back to HQ. Increasingly, GCC leaders have been able to display, in their tone and approach, that everyone is in this together. They engage in regular check-ins, virtual sessions with focus groups, social media, intranet boards, surveys or polls that provide deeper insight and one-on-one conversations with key stakeholders.

If there is one thing that the pandemic taught us, it is that work can be delivered from anywhere and not necessarily from the HQ or the home country. But in the distributed agile approach, when multiple locations are delivering work that needs to be integrated at some point, there is a huge risk of things falling apart. GCCs-as-a-service mitigates this risk by taking a purposeful approach to sustaining an agile culture and by recalibrating processes to support agile objectives while working closely with HQ.

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