Teams in the (Troubled) Cloud

Not all team members are created equalI’ve had some really interesting briefings/meetings lately. If you want to understand where software executives, industry leaders, etc.
Written by Brian Sommer, Contributor

Not all team members are created equal

I’ve had some really interesting briefings/meetings lately. If you want to understand where software executives, industry leaders, etc. are going/thinking, then read on.

Let’s begin with a conversation I had with Maynard Webb. He’s the CEO of LiveOps and former CIO of E-Bay. Maynard’s running a huge virtual call center and outsourcing operation these days but these businesses lack the miles of cubicle walls and background noises we hear in so many other call center operations. His workers are home-based contract workers. The better the level of service a worker provides causes that worker to be rewarded with ever greater call volumes. Therefore, the better reps get more pay while bad reps get shunted off.

Maynard and I got into a great discussion about how difficult it is to do project work in any situation and how much harder it is when the team members are physically disconnected from one other. Sure, teams can access online white boards, chat rooms, etc. but these technologies cannot replace one requirement of great teams: people that know and want a team to succeed.

Technology cannot do a number of things. It can’t make people share information. Hoarders and those who use knowledge for power can really screw up a project team. Technology cannot change the personality makeup of a lone-wolf worker. If they don’t want to play with the team, they won’t. At least when a person is in the next cube, you can check up on them or ask them a question. That gets really difficult when they’re 1000 miles away. Technology can help the person who’s communicative, social and team oriented become a great team worker even when no one is physically co-located with other team members.

Yes, process work flow technologies can help a (project) manager identify who is a bottleneck or who isn’t co-operating. But, these solutions pre-suppose that firms want this kind of worker in the first place. They don’t.

Earlier in my career, I had the pleasure of working with hundreds of individuals who:

- put the client’s interest ahead of their own self-interest - did what it took to honor commitments - were career-focused - wanted to continue to learn and grow professionally - helped teammates especially when one was floundering or adversely impacting the critical path

Since then, I’ve seen a lot of other kind of workers. They are:

- self-interested. If it doesn’t impact their compensation directly and immediately, they cannot be bothered - of the opinion that if they personally didn’t commit to something then they feel no reason to move their schedule or life around to honor someone else’s timeline or commitments

- more concerned about their immediate needs & commitments (e.g., attending a concert) than meeting a client’s commitment or deadline - disinclined to help a colleague as there is nothing but downside in it for them - expecting you to pay them whether they deliver value or not - certain that they possess more skill and knowledge than you (and others) believe them to possess - mercenary. If you don’t pay them plenty now, they’ll walk. Loyalty is dead to these people. So, is commitment.

In many professional services firms, lone wolves are either loved or hated. In some law firms, lone wolves are expected to hunt and deliver their own work. In systems integrators, executives may be expected to be great team members and team leaders. Moreover, they may be expected to include many others in a prospective deal. Team selling and lone wolves do not go well together.

Teams in a cloud world have challenges that warrant a lot discussion. The first issue you should surface is: “When staffing a cloud-based team, are the personalities (i.e., lone wolf vs. team orientation) of the team members appropriate for this environment?” I’m not sure some cloud technology purveyors have thought this through but it should be a big discussion item for their HR department. The fact that Maynard is thinking about this issue is a comfort.

Now, the lone wolf, mercenary, self-interested individual is not indicative of any generation of worker. They exist in all generations. Lone wolves are great in many sales, trading or broker jobs. They may not excel in virtual projects.

Another issue to consider is how decisions get made in a distributed team environment. In a research piece I read last week from an Ivy League graduate student, this person identified some interesting team behaviors in audit and consulting teams. One observation was that junior team members deferred to the more senior team members. They deferred even when the senior team members may lack specific technical knowledge that the more junior people possess.

Why did this occur? Well, it seems that the more senior team members were decidedly more experienced in other, non-technical matters. The senior teammates knew: - how to deal with persnickety clients - how to navigate complex client office politics - how to develop winning value propositions/proposals - how to manage client expectations - etc.

The highest functioning teams were those where the most senior team members knew when to back away and let more junior members step up. But how does this work in virtual teams? How do the most junior members know what others may or may not know? Likewise, how do the most senior people know when to let others take over? Many of the clues/cues in face to face project team interactions are absent or diminished in the virtual or cloud based project. This is another area that warrants additional research.

Small projects might be more manageable in the cloud but more study is needed on the ability of really large projects to work well in the cloud. To date, I know of many projects where large groups of team members in one location are co-operating with other teammates in other locations. These many to many or many to few combinations are working but can large numbers person to person connections in a very large project really work well? I'm optimistic it can be done but there are likely to be hundreds of best practices, personality issues, etc. that need to be documented and promulgated in new project management technologies.

These are only three of the numerous cloud-based team issues that Maynard and I discussed. Our conversation was spirited and energizing. He clearly knows of the challenges and the issues to be explored. And, it’s great to speak with someone who’s thinking about the business (and not their golden parachute).

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