Monday 8 June 2009

So who is in a team anyway?

I caught up with a friend the other day; he’s in the system integrator business and is struggling a little with recent growth. Long story short, things are a bit a disorganized and efficiency is low. They’ve got some kind of consultant in, and we were talking over his advice.

So how does their guy propose they fight the first battle in the war for organizational effectiveness? Setting aside certain days when people in one team aren’t allowed to talk to another. No, you didn’t read that wrong, the ‘big plan’ is to actually create barriers to communication.

I just hope that wasn’t expensive.

In the reseller/systems integrator game it’s all down to the cooperation between sales and their technical teams, and so I really struggle to see how driving intentional wedges between them is going to help. So my theory? Perhaps the wrong people are teamed up together in the first place…

In any mission there are multiple people with different skillsets doing different jobs all coming together around a central project/customer/business problem. Isn’t that a team? The people who actually need to work together on a daily basis for the direct benefit of the customer? I don’t know why we keep insisting on grouping people by job or by skillset (sales team and technical team, or dev team and test team) because the cold, hard facts are that these teams can’t achieve anything end-to-end for a customer on their own. Maybe it just appeals to our human need to nicely categorize things.

When you put people together in a team, you create a tight loop of communication and cooperation between those people (it’s one of the reasons we do it in the first place) – but you do something else too – you also create a little organizational fence between them and other teams. A fence that we absolutely should work at keeping as low and friendly as possible, but a fence nonetheless. To me it just comes down to where you want to put your fences – does it make sense to create boundaries between the individuals whose effort must by synchronized daily to complete units of work?

In what I do, the unit of organizational delivery is the project (or, as a superset, the product). That’s that unique object around which we all gather and apply our individual skills and experience to create tangible value for the company. So by default, I have a nice, simple method for grouping my guys together in a way that creates the fewest barriers to the most common communication and coordination lines that they’ll be following each day. I suppose I could put all the developers in one team, all the testers in another team, all the project mangers in another team again etc – but if I did, then what’s the very first thing I’ll have to do as soon as I want to do any work? That’s right, pull them back together into virtual or temporary teams based on the projects they’re delivering against. Hmmm.

From my experience in the SI and reseller game, I’d suggest that the unit of organizational delivery is the customer. That’s the internally-ownable entity which performance and profit is measured against, margin is made against, and time is billed against. Yet almost every one of these companies is, at best, a matrix management organization. So you group people together into a sales team, a tech team, a presales team etc – and then wonder why, whenever they all have to get together around that common indivisible business problem (the customer) there are all sorts of communication issues, competing priorities, complexities planning time...

Perhaps a team in this type of organization should be something like a sales guy, some sales support, a presales guy, a couple of engineers, and a share of some administration – all grouped together around a set of similar customers that they own the end-to-end P&L for.

The inevitable argument against this kind of cellular organization is the same one I’m used to elsewhere – developers like hanging out with developers, infrastructure engineers like hanging out with infrastructure engineers and so on. My only response to this is that I don’t see how organizing your people into the teams which best reflects the true structure and purpose of the company precludes communities of interest, and again, just ask yourself where you want to put the barriers, and whether you consider the upside of keeping people grouped into teams of similar individuals worth the downside of trying like mad to make them work together efficiently and effectively whenever you have to get anything done.

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