Monday, October 4, 2010

Team players

Imagine that your company has this policy that makes every top manager change function every year. Crazy, no? Well, I know of a company that does exactly this. Each year the head of the Financial department becomes the head of the IT department, the head of the IT department becomes the head of the Marketing department and so on. Is there a purpose that justifies something a bit crazy like this is? There is, and they have two objectives: on one hand, to force interdependence between the top managers; on the other hand to grow each of those managers as professionals.
Why would a company want to something like this? What would they gain?
Curious enough? Keep on reading then...

First things first
The main thing when you do something as bold as this is to have an objective. Don't do it because some other company did it or even because some guru said that's what you should do. In fact, don't do it even if it is a best practice. Think first about what you want to achieve and then how to get there from where you are - "As Is" and "To Be" scenarios can be a starting point. Will these steps get you there where you want to be? There are a lot of things to think about when you want to change something. The truth is that's why we came up with Change Management, it is an area complex enough to have its own discipline.
This is really important because when you apply good ideas, processes or whatever in a different context you have to make sure that they will bring you the expected benefits. In most cases people apply best practices without taking into consideration the differences in context (even if it's just cultural differences) and at the end the results are not what they expected. And in some cases they may even get worst than they were initially.

Just like the picture above by M. C. Escher shows, the shape of each figure is defined by the shapes of the figures next to it. But at the same time it also defines the figures next to it - and that’s interdependence. That is, a shape defines and at the same time is defined by the shapes next to it. How do you do it in real live? Well, this company does it like this: Suppose you're about to lead the Human Resources department. Suppose you don't know the first thing about it, suppose your background is Finance. And suppose there's this guy who has a Human Resources background (and he's about to lead the IT department). It's clear for everyone that you need help with Human Resources, right? So you'd probably ask this guy for some help, right? And the same think happens to this guy once he doesn't have any experience on IT he has to rely on someone who does. Each person relies on someone else and at the same time there's someone else who relies on him/her. That's interdependence for you.

Now imagine you’re hiring a new Marketing director. And suppose you have one of these guys from this particular company that in the past 5 years lead the Marketing, Human Resources, Sales, IT and the Financial departments. Wouldn’t you think that someone with this kind of experience was a better choice over someone that was only on Marketing on the same period of time? I'd guess that much...
The knowledge, experience and maturity that each of these guys get is really amazing. And it's their benefit in the first place, and of course they know it. But the company also gets something for it, to name a few reasons:
  • reducing the impact when someone leaves the company
  • having very able people
  • having people that are not afraid of taking some risks
  • having flexible people 
This makes sense particularly in dynamic environments where you prefer flexible people over experts and risk taking over doing things by the book.
    There’s a price to pay when you this. Are you ready to pay? You'll face several new challenges in such an environment, but I'll just mention a few. First there's a big problem when you hire someone new for such a position. Recruitment is more complex because you want to check how adaptable to others functions people are and recruitment also has more risk because although you may think someone may adapt to this you'll never know for sure until he/she gets there.
    Then you have an attitude problem: what if someone doesn't see the benefits and takes on a new function not relying on anyone else? What if he/she doesn't give a hand to someone else when it's needed?
    Another problem is the learning ability. The younger you are the easier it is for you to learn. So you can be successful in such a workplace for sometime and get less and less successful over time.
    In short:
    • Recruitment is more complex and risky
    • Attitude
    • Learning ability

    What does this has to do with Project Management?
    Most projects have contexts that are dynamic and cross-function. Even if you are an expert team member in a particular field, let's say an SAP MM expert, you will do projects in several industries for sure so this kind of flexibility and adaptation makes sense. It also makes sense to strive for interdependency and growth in any team whenever possible.
    In most cases, it is a bad idea to put an expert on a field working on something else on a given project - most people feel diminished. But you may be on the look for experts on your team that show interest on other fields so you can take every chance you get to challenge them on that other field of expertise. The same benefits discussed apply but mainly you'll end up with a happier project team - and a happy team is a productive team.
    So if you keep this story on the back of your mind you may do some good to your current team and...
    ...Then you can be a better Project Manager.

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