Mixed teams don't have to be dysfunctional -- but they certainly can be

When a team includes contractors and employees, a major factor in group dynamics is the quality of project management -- especially the ability to create a sense of teamwork

Dear Bob,

It is not unusual these days to see teams composed of internal employees and contractors.

[ Also on InfoWorld: "Beware the dark side of mixed teams" | Get sage advice on IT careers and management from Bob Lewis in InfoWorld's Advice Line newsletter. ]

In my personal experience, internal employees demonstrate less motivation to succeed and perform worse than contractors. On the other hand, contractors invariably treat a particular job as a temporary assignment and feel less attached to the team/organization.

By definition, a contracting position is temporary. The risk of switching contractors (contract is up for rebidding every six months) is high. Knowledge transfer and cross-training are difficult. How does one manage such a mixed team effectively?

- Just curious

Dear J.C. ...

Having been on the systems integrator side of a mixed team environment, I have to say my experience was quite different from yours. We found employee team members to be just as motivated as our own employees, although the two outlooks were quite different.

Too many of our employees initially considered themselves to be the technical superiors of our client team members. That lasted until the time came to plan integration of new systems into the terribly complex legacy environment. Many of our integrators had never had day-to-day "keep the joint running" responsibilities and were caught off-guard at the level of expertise required to avoid breaking things.

All of our employees had a strong focus on industry standard practice (they mistakenly called it "best practice"), where our clients had a strong focus on "what has always worked here." As the two groups turned into one team, the synthesis of the two views proved superior to either one.

Our client team members learned that they didn't have to be trapped by what I now call the "assumption of the present" (the idea that because things are as they are for a reason, they have to continue to be that way). Our own employees learned that what's considered to be best practice isn't always even particularly good practice, once you understand the environment you're working in.

One major difference between the two might account for your experience: Our client team members were accustomed to an environment in which enhancements were always successful but projects often failed, sometimes miserably. Project management wasn't a strong competency, business sponsorship was poorly understood, and the company culture didn't accommodate the practices required for project managers to be successful. And nobody had ever had the luxury of devoting 100 percent of their time to a project.

As a result, client team members entered their projects with quite a bit of skepticism.

Our own employees, in contrast, had the habit of succeeding and lots of experience working on successful projects. Because they worked for a systems integrator, they were used to being 100 percent dedicated to a single project. They entered the projects with no skepticism at all, other than skepticism regarding the likely value the client-provided team members would contribute.

So my take on your question is this: In a mixed-team environment, make sure the team has a strong project manager and all the concomitants for project success, including some team members who have participated in successful projects before.

If they're still lackadaisical, I'd say the root cause has nothing to do with mixed teams and everything to do with company and IT leadership.

- Bob

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