Building Teams # 1: Diversity is the key

Over the past decade in the IT industry, one of the constant challenges for project managers has been building performance oriented teams. Though the Indian IT industry is brimming with great software engineering talent, project managers have found it difficult to fashion out successful productive teams out of this talent. There are a whole range of reasons for this struggle, some of which are extrinsic (i.e. outside of control of the project managers) and some are intrinsic (i.e. within the control of project manager). In this series I plan to throw some light on some of the intrinsic issues which project managers can avoid.

One of the basic issues where project managers tend to err is the composition of the team. More often than not, there is an over emphasis on the technical skills, while other skills like soft skills and domain skills are often ignored. Another similar issue is that a project manager grown up from a technical background, tends to pick people in his same mould i.e. technical background. This leads to teams composed of highly technical people with little domain knowledge and little team work abilities. This results in range of problems.

The most obvious ones are that the solutions churned out by the team are technically good, but lack in solving the customer’s problems!! I once encountered a product that was meant for people in the age group of 50 and above which was technically a great product and gave a lot of information. But, to show so much information, the font used was kept very small. But, amongst the target group of people who were all above 50 many had weak eyesight and were unable to read this small font. Though this might look a very marginal issue, but this clearly shows a lack of understanding of the customers, within the team that was developing this product.

The other set of problems with such a lop sided composition is the fact that as there are only limited opportunities for certain kind of key challenges, everyone wants the same pie as that is where their strengths are. So project managers often end up asking people to look into areas that they are not familiar or comfortable with leading to both an unsatisfied employee and probably a less than good solution. The last set of problems is evident especially in organizations where the teams work on short term projects of 6-12 months. Once a project is completed, if the new project requires something different to be done, such teams struggle to come to terms with that. So it becomes difficult for organizations in the long run to maintain such teams.

To avoid all these problems it is very essential for Project Managers to bring in diversity into their teams. Diversity can be in terms of technical skills, soft skills and team skills. Ideally a team should not have just a single leader, but multiple leaders who are experts in a specific aspect. For e.g. every team at some point, will go through some stressful activity, which could stretch the team spirit. At such instances the team needs people with good link up skills and morale boosting characters who can rally the team around. There are times when the team needs persistence more than skills, and at such times work horses in the team are more valuable than skillful talent. Similarly, there are times when technical skills need to come to fore for which skilled technicians are required. So as a project manager if you are not building the team to be equipped with skills for these different scenarios, you are already bringing in a major risk into your projects.

Moral of the Story: “Teams should be measured by the degree of diversity attained and the degree of unity retained.” This quote has been adapted from W.H. Auden’s quote “Civilizations should be measured by the degree of diversity attained and the degree of unity retained.

C. V. Ram Narayanan Sastry


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