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The magic of teamwork

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The warning came through loud and clear in our recent Regcast, Future-Proofing the Data Centre: if you want to build a private cloud, your teams must work together.

That, HP’s David Chalmers told us, means creating a service delivery team: some of you from the server team need to work with a small group from the storage team, and a group from the storage team is going to be hanging out with the networks team, and so on.

More than that, though, they don’t just communicate from time to time. Everything Chalmers recommended in the Regcast was based on his experience of what worked, and often what didn’t work, for his customers. They told him that it wasn’t enough just to have the teams in communication.

For next-generation data centre projects, you need dedicated cross-functional teams with complementary specialisations, aiming for a single service-delivery goal.

Easier said than done, says Freeform Dynamics’ Dale Vile, our other panellist. Having researched the topic in 2011 – also with Reg readers – he recently blogged about the problems of what IT departments are calling “unified management”.

The benefits to users of coherent project management may be obvious, but as anyone who has tried to do it knows, it is not easy.

Vile’s colleague Andy Buss, who did the research, said the investigation “uncovered a strong correlation between the presence of a coherent multi-disciplinary team structure and the overall level of responsiveness and performance of IT. This is understandable when you consider that hand-offs, power games and finger-pointing between teams is a frequent cause of wasted time and effort”.

When we build a team, establishing a common goal is the easy bit

You may be shocked, shocked I tell you, to find that cross-disciplinary teams occasionally form a circular firing squad. Wanting to work together productively is not a surprising goal, but it can seem surprising when it actually happens.

When we build cross-functional teams, establishing a common goal is the easy bit. What follows will determine whether that goal is realised effectively.

1. Trust keeps the team together

Cross-functional teams break a management structure. You are reporting both to a team leader and to a line manager. If you are in several teams, you suddenly have many bosses who may want to pull you in all directions, and many new colleagues who don’t have the same world view.

It is a myth that combining people from different backgrounds inevitably improves the team. People need to trust that your contribution is valuable, and trust needs to be built.

Sheila Simsarian Webber, a specialist in team working from Concordia University, Montreal, says: “The fundamental differences between individuals from different functional areas create barriers to effective team processes.”

There is little evidence, she adds, that creating a more diverse team improves teamwork.

2. Reward the same things

That is partly down to culture, but not always. A cross-functional team may have the same overall goal but recognise different aspects of it as desirable. There may be a tension between speed of deployment (which the users or an understaffed line manager favours) and security, for example.

This tension has always existed, but we naturally expect teams to resolve the problems by compromise. We even go on trips where we build rafts together out of unused copies of Windows Vista, or fall backwards into the waiting arms of our sysadmins, as a prelude to negotiations on how to achieve team goals.

This might be a waste of time, points out Bob Frisch in the Harvard Business Review. It is quite possible that the problems in diverse teams can’t be resolved by voting, or by the intervention of management.

“They miss the real problem, which lies not with the people but with the process,” he writes.

If everyone below the team leader represents a competing interest, each unit in the team competes with every other unit to get more recognition and resource in the project. The final allocation may simply leave everyone unhappy, resentful and demotivated.

Frisch recommends two ways for teams to achieve more harmony. The first is to negotiate in private, away from outside influences (such as departmental managers). Then the team can be honest and feels free to make its own deals on goals and resourcing.

Second, allow time for the whole team to study the competing arguments about how to succeed, rather than impose a swift judgement from above.

3. It is not all or nothing

You can grow teams. “It is actually better in larger shops to establish a beachhead using some of your best people, let them establish policies and practices on a models scale, then gradually move people into the converged team structure over time,” says Vile.

In his forthcoming report, A Vision for the Data Centre, three out of five Reg readers say that in a perfect world they would be taking a unified approach to operations and management. Sixty per cent of “movers” among Reg readers (the rest of you are “dreamers” and “traditionalists”) are building by the “expanding beachhead”.

4. Protect your valuable specialists

If it is hard to build a cross-functional team because everyone’s different, then surely the alternative is less specialism?

Don’t do it, Vile says. “You will still need your server, storage, networking, security and application specialists. The aim is to get them working together in the same way as a Formula 1 team,” he adds.

Drivers, start your engines. ®

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