Four Challenges of Techie Teams
Some insights from a couple of guys (Rob Goffee & Gareth Jones) from London Business School based on research of numerous companies. Read our related set of articles – (here)
Once the preserve of high-tech companies, today techie teams are everywhere. They include computer game designers at Electronic Arts, software programmers at Microsoft, and the inevitable Googlets. But techie teams also occur in financial services companies, such as ING and Deutsche Bank, where technology increasingly resides in the organizational engine room. Indeed, IT and operations have moved from being support services in global banks to being at the heart of the business. For example, Deutsche Bank’s expertise at processing foreign exchange has given the bank a real competitive advantage.
Techie teams are prone to four distinct challenges.
First, clever techies have a tendency to be overly specialized. They are recognized as experts in their own field, and their clever status often rests on this. They have no wish to be led elsewhere.
Here is the consultant Paul Glen, drawing directly on his own work experience:
In general, geeks are rather ambivalent about joining groups. As introverts, they’re most comfortable working alone, concentrating on problems small enough to be attacked by only one person . . . The most common problem is the team that’s comprised solely of people who are strong at individual task skills and lack even a basic awareness of the other (relationship, team-work, process) skills.
Jonathan Neale acutely observes the following about the technically skilled engineers at the core of McLaren’s success. He describes the tension between shared mission and freedom to act:
The engineers like to be led by people who are authentic and gifted. The challenges are being able to give the technical team a sense of ownership about the mission. This has to be articulated in a language that describes their degrees of freedom to act and, simultaneously, the constraint or obligation to come back and report on it. So, they all want light-touch management, and they all want more funds and say, just trust us, it will be all right on the night. We don’t work like that. They’re accountable too.
This leads to a second, related problem: individual team members are typically obsessed by their own particular specialty, which can work to the detriment of the overall team objective.
If each team member focuses on their particular part of the jigsaw puzzle, they may never put all the pieces together to see the bigger picture. Two plus two does not necessarily add up.
We have observed many occasions in the pharmaceutical sector where technically excellent teams beaver away on their specialty and lose sight of the overall picture of drug development. At Roche we observed how CEO of the pharmaceuticals division Bill Burns’s deep knowledge of the marketplace helped to pull back technical teams from the danger of overspecialization. Similarly, in the IT world, it is commonplace to find IT professionals dedicating large parts of their spare time to IT-related hobbies and passions.
Third, where the technology is a facilitator of other business goals, as with a financial services company, for example, this narrow obsession compounds a tendency for techie teams to have a low level of identification with the mainstream organization.
Think back to Will Wright’s comments on his relationship with Electronic Arts: “You say Electronic Arts, but to me that doesn’t have much meaning.” So, while the leader may be under pressure to deliver on commercial goals, the team may fall in love with the technology for its own sake.
Part of the problem is that though there are very clever people in IT, often they cannot translate that into the business. You have a language problem. But you also have it on the business side— guys that are very clever on the business side, but have no clue on the operations side, on how to do it,” observes ING’s Neil Buckley. “How do you bridge that gap? That’s part of what we struggle with constantly, and until companies realize that technology is something they can’t live without, need to embrace, keep control of, understand, and make work for them, it won’t change.
The fourth, and somewhat clichéd, problem is that many techies have weak interpersonal skills.
One programmer we spoke to admitted that the commonest means of communicating with his colleagues in his open-plan office was instant messaging rather than conversation. This is the stereotypical view of the computer geek, of course, but as with many stereotypes, there is a large grain of truth to it. Here’s how self-confessed geek Paul Glen sums it up:
The image of the lonely nerd is now firmly established in our culture. And although it’s not true for all geeks, it does carry a kernel of truth . . . given a choice between spending time with technology or with people, they generally choose technology . . . Geeks aren’t interested in teasing apart the complexity of another person’s strengths or weakness and how to leverage or mitigate them. They just want to judge and move on.
It should be added that this isn’t the sole preserve of clever people in this particular sector.
A lot of clever people are not clever in social dynamics. They lack emotional intelligence. They lack a repertoire of social skills to influence things. Because they can’t figure out how to influence things this way, they sometimes look for rules to protect them.
Neil Buckley of ING tries to encourage his team toward greater self-reflection:
Before you can do anything in any role, you have to really understand who you are, what you bring to the table— your own strengths and weaknesses. Until you’ve done that, you don’t know how you can blend and mix with other people.
One of our interviewees told us about a senior analyst who was simply not a good people manager.
It kills me to have me say that, but he is a bad manager,” she told us. “His idea of solving a problem is, oh, I won’t tell the analyst who read it. I’ll do an all-nighter and fix it. So you wind up with people thinking that they’re doing great, and then they’re hearing on the outside that maybe they’re not and nobody’s giving them that direction. So opening that communication is a big challenge of mine.
This compounds the separation and specialization issues, and can cause clever people to be isolated from their colleagues. Often they speak their own language—“geekspeak” in the IT world— which makes it difficult for the team to connect with other parts of the organization.