Beware the dark side of mixed teams

When companies bring in systems integrators with "mixed teams" of consultants and employees, workers need to remember where their loyalties lie

Dear Bob ...

We're in the middle of a major systems replacement initiative -- we're replacing a homegrown system with a commercial application suite.

[ Find out what tips Bob Lewis offers for another tough workplace situation in his blog post, "When you've set the pattern with an employee, you have to be tough to change it" | Get sage advice on IT careers and management from Bob Lewis in InfoWorld's Advice Line newsletter. ]

Like a lot of companies, we brought in a systems integrator that has a lot of experience with the software we're putting in. Part of their sales pitch was that they work in "mixed teams" of consultants and employees so that our staff have a chance to gain expertise in the new system and in the integrator's implementation methodology.

We definitely want this to happen. And yet I'm becoming uncomfortable, because many of the employees we've assigned to these teams are becoming "methodogical purists." There are times I don't want us to follow the integrator's methodology exactly -- in particular, in situations where it insists on levels of information-gathering and mind-numbingly cumbersome analysis that would result in major cost increases compared to shortcuts that might not be quite as consensus-building, but would get the job done at a fraction of the cost.

I don't want my employees to stop learning. I just don't want them to forget what they already know.

Or am I off-base, and refusing to learn new techniques myself?

- Abandoned parent

Dear Abandoned ...

Something Michael Shermer of Skeptic magazine once said comes to mind: "The rub ... is finding that balance between being open-minded enough to accept radical new ideas but not so open-minded that your brains fall out."

The other notion that comes to mind is the Stockholm Syndrome -- the psychological effect in which hostages start to identify and empathize with their captors.

There's no simple answer here because what you're trying for is balance, moderation, and judgment, not the right answer instead of the wrong one.

That means there aren't any clear lines separating the behavior and attitudes you want from the ones you want to discourage.

The only solution I know of requires a significant investment in your time, the employees' direct manager's time if that isn't you, or both.

Start by clarifying levels of authority -- specifically, what sorts of decisions you've fully delegated to the integrator so that the project teams have authority to decide, and what sorts require your approval, where the project teams are to recommend. This provides a framework for you to involve yourself in the key decisions.

Here's what I expect will happen: The team will recommend a course of action, presenting no alternatives. Very likely, your employees will express some level of irritation at your insistence on being involved when you clearly don't know what they know about the subject. That's OK -- be patient. They're just feeling their oats, so to speak.

Your job is to ask what alternatives they've considered. If they tell you there aren't any alternatives, draw a line in the sand, because there are always alternatives.

Don't, however, allow the situation to turn into an argument. If they start to insist, present a scenario: "Imagine for a moment the company is running out of cash. Whether we like it or not, big budget cuts are coming. Our choice is to kill the project altogether or find a way to deal with this design issue in a way that costs only 20 percent of what you're proposing. Are you telling me you'd kill the project because there are no alternatives?"

Most likely they'll explain that there really are alternatives, just not very good ones.

Which puts you on solid ground. Insist on the alternatives, and a comparison matrix that demonstrates why they're inferior to the one they're proposing.

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What you're doing, of course, is forcing your employees away from the emotional, my-team/your-team decision-making you're concerned about and back to the use of logical frameworks.

One more thing: If at all possible, for the first decision that comes along, do everything you can to help your employees discover a middle ground that legitimizes both your involvement and their new expertise. Doing so will do a lot to help them remember what team they're on.

- Bob