A Business Technology Place

Pick your team.

I have fond memories from my youth when I was with a group of friends and we picked teams for a game. The games varied; baseball, kickball, capture the flag, football, or war. But the act of picking teams usually followed the same process. Two captains were selected and then each captain would take turns picking team members from the rest of the group. The order of selection was based on skills and the kid the captain thought provided the best chance to win. Sometimes it was based on friendships and alliances made outside the field of play. Then we played.the-sandlot-crew

When I select members for a technology department today, I have a different perspective. I like to look for team members that can contribute beyond a specific technical skill set. A base technical skill is required, but it is not enough to be on the team I would pick. Daniel Pink writes in his book A Whole New Mind that technical skills are increasingly being replaced by someone who can do it cheaper (think Asia) or a computer that can do it faster. Pink argues knowledge workers who can contribute beyond direct technical output will find more options for employment and a higher likelihood of career fulfilment. These workers can detect patterns, see opportunities, and combine results into new inventions and stories to connect with customers and coworkers.

This past week my wife interviewed two candidates for a position on her team. She asked me for advice on how to approach the process and make a distinction between the two candidates. I recommended looking for the candidate who showed interest in the mission of her workplace. Did they ask questions about the business, the workflows used by the team, the current challenges, etc.? This employee would become more fully engaged in looking at the big picture and trying to help find solutions and make improvements.

In another conversation this week, I was asked about replacing a member on our technology steering committee. The basis for the question was the new prospective member was younger and more comfortable with technology solutions. I reminded my colleague the primary purpose of the committee was to discuss the direction and impact of technology solutions on the business more than any specific technology used. The skill set I want on the committee requires more institutional knowledge of the business than it does technical knowledge.

Picking teams today is different than when I was a kid. I want team members who are engaged enough to ask clarifying questions, to ask why, and to suggest areas of improvement. I want team members to make an intentional effort to understand the whole solution and not just the tasks assigned to them. When we play the game, these are the skills that will help us win. You in?

Onward and upward!

Team chemistry – learning the mix

Can you describe team chemistry with words?

20 years removed from undergraduate college work and I’m still learning about team chemistry. It’s one of the simplest and yet most complex concepts. You know good chemistry when you have it because you can feel it. But yet, you may not quite be able to describe it with words. Good team chemistry keeps you motivated and involved. Bad team chemistry leaves you frustrated and looking for a way to leave.

I’ve been on teams with a good and bad mix. When it’s good, team members respect each other. They accept the faults in others and help find ways to look past weaknesses. Where there is good chemistry there is trust. You don’t have to ask for something twice. You don’t worry about how a task is completed because you know it will be completed. When there is good chemistry you recognize that each team member has a role that contributes to the whole. With good chemistry the individuals value the output of the team more than their individual output.

Teams with bad chemistry show the opposite characteristics. They disrespect each other and focus on one another’s faults. They don’t trust others to complete a task and would rather do it themselves. When the chemistry is off, the team members value their own output more than that of the team. With bad team chemistry the team members selectively hear their teammates with a filter that immediately gets defensive or says ‘no’.

Good chemistry happens when the results are more important than the credits.

Star athletes competing in a team sport often say their individual performance isn’t as important to them as the team winning. Charles Edward Montague wrote “There is no limit to what a man can do so long as he does not care a straw who gets the credit for it.” Many variations of this principle exist in quote, but the concept is the same. Teams accomplish more when individuals work together.

In one of my first software project management experiences, team was developing a B2B website for bankers to use. There was tight cohesion on the team from analysis, to requirements gathering, to design, and programming.We succeeded together and failed together and everyone knew it. The team focus was all about the goal of software releases. I felt good chemistry.

Bad chemistry happens when individuals are more interested in being “right” than in finding a solution.

I once made the mistake of always wanting to be “right”. I had a filter applied towards a manager based on past disagreements. No matter what they said, I found fault. When we disagreed about the direction to solve a problem or how complete a task, I argued to be “right” or to win the argument. It cost me a position and a relationship.

I’ve seen groups of people take sides in an office environment when disagreements and differences of opinions happened. They stopped listening to each other. They stopped working together. Solving problems for customers became less about the customer and more about their specific solution. The “right”solution. That’s bad business. That’s bad team chemistry.

There is a time to disagree and start over.

Sometimes as imperfect people we let ourselves devolve into bad chemistry. Sometimes the chemistry is there from the very beginning of a team due to personalities, individual goals, competitiveness, egos, or strong wills. There reaches a point where it’s not beneficial to go forward. It’s like trying to put the square peg in the round hole.

In the book of Ecclesiastes in the third chapter it says “For everything there is a season….a time to keep, and a time to cast away;”

Good chemistry isn’t something you can force on people. In some ways it just happens. Yet it’s also something that people have to intentionally work to keep in good balance. But there reaches a point when a team has bad chemistry that it’s time to agree to disagree and part ways. For the betterment of all involved it’s time to start afresh. I’ve been a part of a team that was disbanded because it wasn’t producing solutions. I’ve also been the new entrant to a situation where team members were not getting along and new players were needed to reset and refocus on business goals. When the chemistry isn’t good, the solution may be to re-rack the people.

Cross Departmental Teamwork 101

Information Technology departments are often criticized for their lack of collaboration with other business departments. Is IT needed since technology equipment and software is a commodity? Everyone has access to buy equipment and software in the open market to help run their business electronically. But what you can’t buy in the open market is teamwork and collaboration. That comes from within the organization with people not with bits and bytes.

Mike Stiles, from Oracle, blogged about 5 Secrets to Marketing and IT Collaboration. The list includes “understanding the perspective of your peers” which is not something you can buy. Robert Thomas, of The Harvard Business review, calls collaboration an intangible asset.

For some workers collaboration comes natural. For others, it’s like pulling teeth! In my career I’ve learned three simple things about working together with others. I consider it a list of basics although it contains concepts that were not always apparent to me.

1. It’s not what you say, but how you say it that makes all the difference.

My goal is to talk in terms of ‘we’ and ‘us’ instead of “you’ and “I’ when working with others. Create a team feel from the onset of a conversation. Stay consistent.

About 16 years ago, during my first week of a new job, I sent an email to my new team members with some requests for information. I was working on a task from my new manager so it seemed harmless. But the email was not received well with others because it was filled with statements like “I need”, “I’ve been asked”, and “I will”.  That’s not team friendly! Thankfully, a team member worked with me offline to explain how the message was received. Lesson learned.

2. When reporting a problem, communicate with the person directly before sending an email and copying multiple people.

An easy way to put co-workers on the defensive and irritate them is by copying their manager and several other people on a communication to complain about something that needs attention. I’ve seen this approach repeated hundreds of times in my career. I’ve been an observer, a reader, and an initiator.

About a year ago I errored by replying-all to an email that did this very thing with me. Someone was complaining about services not given to them from the team and copied several executives. By me replying to all and acting a little defensive I only exacerbated the problem.  The good news is that I knew I had made a mistake as soon as I sent it. I called the recipient directly and apologized. It made a huge difference in reaching a solution.

In the book of Matthew (18:15) we find it written this way “”If your brother or sister sins, go and point out their fault, just between the two of you. If they listen to you, you have won them over.”

3.  Do you want to be part of the problem or part of the solution?

It’s easy to complain about something you see. But it takes a different level of commitment to offer solution ideas and to help solve the problem. A collaborative approach builds unity and teamwork, so offer to participate. Mike Stiles from Oracle recommends in his blog post, “Be the role model”. Be the one who reaches out to start communication. Be the one who offers to be part of the solution.

Here’s a good example: “We noticed that X is happening, can you help us to find out why” rather than “X is happening and your process to fix problems needs to change.”

Organizing a Hack-a-day at work

I’ve always been fascinated with the hack-a-day or hackathon events that promote groups of people getting together for a short burst of brainstorming, prototyping, and coding to create something useful. I decided to organize such an event at my place of employment to see if I could provide value to the business with it.

The Objectives

  • Result of the work is something the business could use to grow revenue or cut costs. Some of results of the competition should turn into project and tasks.
  • Cross departmental collaboration.
  • Team building.
  • Spirited fun through competition and learning.

The Idea
Create teams composed of members of the IT group that work with a business partner from a chosen area within the business (Finance, Operations, Marketing, etc.). The IT members interview and watch the business partner work for two hours so they can see the business processes and tools that each member uses to do their job. After two hours the IT teams huddle to brainstorm, prototype, and organize ideas to help improve the work flow from what they observed. Then at the end of the day all the teams and business leaders assemble for the team presentations. Three neutral judges that are SMEs are drafted to judge and prizes are awarded to the winners.

I targeted a particular work area within the business to partner with the IT group during the event. I setup a meeting to explain the idea and concept and to see if they could support the event by providing a business liaison to work with each team. To keep the playing field even, I wanted each business liaison from an area in which they performed the same business function (i.e. accounting, procurement, estimating, etc.)

I also invited HR to the pre-planning meeting to get their buy-in. I was taking team members out of their normal jobs for a day!

After I obtained buy-in from a business group, I sold the idea to the IT team. Well, I should say I presented the idea to the IT team. They loved it of course. It’s a free day to compete with each other and do something a little different. Techies love to compete with each other.

We set a date and I emailed invitations to reserve the calendar spot.

I split the teams by having a member from each area of IT so that I could create equal diversity in skill set. For example, a programmer, a data analyst, a project manager, and in infrastructure member for each team. I looked at tenures and genders to create and equal distribution in company knowledge and diversity as well.
I did not announce the teams until two days before the event. This was to keep it a surprise and build some excitement.

On the day of the event, I had breakfast delivered for the participants. Everyone gathered in the break room to be paired with their business partner/liason. The teams left together and for the next two hours they asked questions, watched, and learned about a business process they may not have been exposed to in the past.

After two hours the teams were assigned a conference room to huddle and hack. This lasted for five hours (we brought in Pizza for everyone). Then for the last two hours of the day, the team assembled to present their ideas.

The presentations
There was a definite energy in the room as the teams presented. I had previously given them rules about how they would be judged (value to the business through revenue generation or cost reduction). Some teams elected a spokesperson while others had multiple team members present.

The presentations included everything from observations of challenges and problems, to specific suggestions for improvements. Some of the presentations included screen mockups for software updates. Other presentations included quick hit suggestions to help with automated workflows.After the judges selected the top two teams I awarded gift cards to winning participants.

Mission accomplished. Now the real work.
The feedback I received from employees was 100% positive. There are a few tweaks we’ll make before we do it again. The day was full of cross departmental collaboration that would otherwise not happen. I know the participants learned more about the business and felt like they could present ideas to help the business operate better.

It’s important to turn some the suggestions from the event into real work. Team members need to see that the event was useful to the business to drive their participation in future events like this. It has to be credible.