One of the things I focus on is building “diverse teams”. Whilst there are clear commercial reasons for this - there’s a number of studies demonstrating a clear link between greater productivity and diversity - that’s not the point. I’m not shy of saying that my own motivation comes from a drive to do the right thing by people first – when you create a structure that supports people, then you can achieve greatness.
It’s very easy to lose sight of people with a day to day focus on delivery and revenue. People drive our business – from the consumers who purchase goods or consume content, to the people striving to make a difference in their business or the larger world.
Given we invest vast sums of money into customer-centric design, user testing and building strong models of human behavior, surely it makes sense to turn that lens and ambition inwards as well as outward?
Dotting the I’s and crossing the T’s
We often talk about the ideal candidate for a business or a team. That person who shares our Cultural Values and who is “our kind of people”. Sometimes, companies strive to quantify this and pigeonhole employees through a variety of different lenses. From Myers Briggs to True Colors assessments – they are convenient labels to understand behavior and can be useful when used sparingly.
There’s also the concept of “T-Shaped” people which has been championed for some time. David Guest first floated the term, but the concept is much older. Contrasting ‘I’ shaped people who have deep but narrow knowledge, with T shaped people who pair that knowledge with perspective, is not a new concept despite how readily we have embraced it in recent times. Thomas Edison, notably in his Invention Factory, was a formidable champion of breadth of knowledge with his infamous tests to ensure his employees were widely read as well as strong specialists. Anyone scoring less than 90% on these tests was turned away.
People versus Paradigms
Personality type comes into play here – there’s some interesting paradoxes and I’ve come to realize that people aren’t that static or easily labelled. One of the strongest, most organized project managers I know are scatty and easy going at home. Equally, I know very disciplined and ordered designers in their personal lives who are wildly unfettered and creative at work. We’re often quite contrary animals.
We also don’t even behave consistently in the same scenario - a key factor to this is the level of direct stress the individual is under. In this case, a more useful model understands the amount of flexibility in a person before they start to exhibit unmanageable stress. Most people are willing to venture outside their speciality - regardless of how deep that is. In fact, the inverse is often true, in that the deeper someone’s specialist knowledge, the greater the inertia created from the comfort of that expertise. Hence the saying that “you can’t teach an old dog new tricks”.
I personally believe the reality is that people are reluctant to learn or attempt new things the more skilled they become in one area. The programmer who leads her company in Java and has done for ten years or more, doesn’t need to look beyond her expertise. She becomes safe in the knowledge of the value she brings. In comparison, the intern who has yet to build his skill set is typically willing to try anything that might be useful, even if the role changes from one month to the next.
From the comfort zone in existing personal knowledge, there is also the comfort zone of knowing you can call quickly on books, Google and other experts out there. Some people thrive in knowing they can perfect their craft based on best practice versus those who like to tread the fresh snow, carving out new paths in areas yet to be defined.
There is a strong connection between how close to production level work you are too. The easiest disconnection that many people fall foul of is that of becoming purely strategic, pure management without being close to the output. The less input you have into the product of your business, the harder it is to stay relevant.
The importance of human connection
Probably the most important aspect of building a resilient team,is to build and support the interpersonal relationships between the individuals on that team. What sustains a team through the periods when things get tough and the team needs more than pep talks – is the sense of camaraderie that comes from collective achievement. The best thing a manager can do at that point, is be the glue that holds them together – the shield from changing scope, the facilitator that removes the little problems hindering them from creating and the enabler to provide anything at all that can help them get on with the problem at hand.
Lastly, it’s often far too tempting to throw more people at a problem when the pressure increases – indeed, the larger consultancies are known for “de-risking” projects through the virtue of scale. There is some comfort in the idea that if things get tough, there’s 200,000 consultants at their disposal. I believe,however, there is a smarter way – and one which ultimately results in greater products.
Understanding the fluidity of your team and their tendency to certain roles, particularly under pressure, is how you build teams that can adapt successfully to a variety of situations. By balancing skill sets and preferred approaches, the team is better placed to weather the storms that beset any project and build tightly knit relationships and interpersonal bonds as a result.
Andy Dunbar is the Chief Operation Officer at Mirum and has worked at the forefront of the digital industry for the last twenty years, starting out as a developer before moving into project and program management. Over his career, Andy has worked on some of the most innovative projects for the biggest and brightest platform deliveries. From the first tablet application long before the advent of the iPad and the first broadband portal in Europe, to high profile .com redesigns such as the Hilton Group, Vodafone.com, Nokia.com, Visa.com and AudiUSA.com.