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When cross-functional teams aren’t: high-end knowledge work

The cultural barriers to managing with high-performance teams in an organization are many and substantial. In software development, the biggest hurdles are usually the management establishing clear priorities for the work of a team before the beginning of a work period, and then allowing the team to work without interruption on those priorities for the course of a work period.

The case of the high-end knowledge firms

In the high-end knowledge firms, an even bigger constraint may be getting the degree of collaboration in cross-functional teams that high-performance teams require. These firms are staffed with people who were always at or near the top of their class in school, and who were recruited into the firm because they were the best and the brightest. Now they have developed expertise in a field and they are recognized as tops in their field.

In such settings, cross-functional teams are common but they are often teams merely in name. The reality is that they are a way of “dividing and conquering”: each expert participates in the team as the owner of a piece of intellectual turf. There may be collaboration at the border, but within each area of expertise, the expert is the czar. The idea that other members of the team might contribute to the expert’s area of expertise, make suggestions, or even improvements as to how the work should be done, is often a strange, practically unthinkable thought. The expert owns the territory, precisely because of expertise. The firm makes its living by selling the expertise of its experts. The idea that experts might have something to learn from others less expert than themselves would put in question the self-image of both the expert and the firm. The thought that a junior member of the team might make a suggestion to improve the work of the senior member is as unthinkable as the thought that a nurse might tell a surgeon how to improve the conduct of an operation.

The power of cognitive diversity

And yet we know from that wonderful book, The Difference by Scott Page (2007), that cognitive diversity is what enables ordinary people to become extraordinary. It’s what enables ordinary people who are cognitively diverse to outperform groups of likeminded experts.

So we know that teams of experts that are operating in intellectual silos are not performing as well as they might if there was real collaboration across areas of expertise. We also know that teams performing work in intellectual silos are maximizing the amount of work in process at any one time, and we know that having large amounts of work in process slows the work down. We also know that if each member of the team is working on “their own thing”, the possibility of getting the thing that will delight the client most, fully done as early as possible, and then moving on to the next item ceases to be feasible. In short, we know that such cross-functional are barely more than teams in name and are operating in a very sub-optimal fashion. We also know that this is one of the reasons why people working in such firms are required to work very long hours under considerable stress.

The prospects for change

Yet the possibility of changing this sub-optimal pattern of work can seem remote. Within the firm, this way of working is simply the way work has always been done. It is the way things are. It is the unquestionable reality of what it means to work in the firm. It is the way it will always be. The thought that large numbers of very clever and talented people working very hard for very long hours are actually working in an unproductive fashion is not a thought that can remain in the mind of such people for very long, however intellectually solid that thought may be.

Are such firms a lost cause for high-performance teams? Are they doomed to remain in this sub-optimal way of working until newer, upstart, more productive firms emerge, are recognized as better and take the place of their more prestigious predecessors?

Here are three tactics for introducing high-performance teams into even the most intractable high-edn knowledge culture:

Tactic #1: The future is already here!

Given the global scale of the Agile movement in software development, there are now software teams within most big organizations implementing the principles I am describing. It is therefore likely that there are such software development teams within the firm practicing the principles, perhaps with varying degrees of success. One tactic would be to try to find out (a) whether there are any such teams, (b) what success they are having; (c) what constraints they are facing. Of course it is being tried, and it is not working well for any of the many reasons I have described, this approach may not be applicable at this time. But if you can find teams implementing Agile software development and having considerable success, they may constitute Trojan horses, for introducing the movement more broadly within your consulting firm. This is what has happened in many other companies. The argument is one by analogy: if it worked so well in software development, why not more broadly in the organization? So they try it out and they find that, yes, it does work beyond software. Springboard stories about such experiences could be very effective.

Tactic #2: The best way to learn is to teach

There is now a considerable amount of evidence that the managing work through collaborative high-performance teams leads to massive gains in productivity. It is also now clear why these gains in productivity occur. It is simply a more productive way to get work done. As a firm of consultants that aims at helping other organizations improve their productivity, a high-end consulting firm ought at least to be aware of these possibilities in advising its own clients, and be able to help its clients achieve these massive gains in productivity if they are so interested. It’s one of the strategic options to consider, because the productivity gains are game-changing in nature, even if implementation is far from easy, and often in conflict with existing corporate cultures. In fact, if a high-end consulting firm doesn’t include this way of working as one of the strategic options, it could be considered as not doing a proper job of advising on strategy. Helping organizations decide whether to go down this path and how to achieve these gains is likely to evolve into a lucrative line of business for consultants, which is now just gaining momentum. It is already that in software development. In teaching other organizations how to achieve these productivity gains, A high-end consulting firm would inevitably have to acquire some knowledge and expertise in the area itself. In the process of acquiring that expertise, it will eventually dawn on the firm, “As doctors, why don’t we heal ourselves as well.”

Tactic #3: Getting a Better Work-life balance

Another angle of attack might be through work-life balance issues. I get the impression that many, if not most, staff in the high-end knowledge firms are working long hours, under a lot of pressure, with quite a bit of stress. The usual proposals put forward to deal with this rather dispiriting, albeit well compensated, existence is for people to carve out more time for their private life. This doesn’t really work very well, because the pressures from work remain inexorable. The paradox is that although these very talented and intelligent people are working very hard, they are not working nearly as productively if they implemented the principles of high-performance teams. A similar dispiriting scene existed in software development for many years until the way of managing the work was changed. When the teams became more productive, overtime vanished and the “pizza index” dropped to zero—late nights at the office became the exception not the rule. The firm was happy because a lot more work was getting done. And the software developers were happier because now they got to see their families on a regular basis, without having to fight off the pressures of the office. It might take some time to convince people that working very hard for long hours is not necessarily being very productive. Having done it for so long, it will seem to many as simply “the way things are”. However as the new generation of people joining the workforce are increasingly looking to the quality of working life as a key factor in deciding which firms to work for, hiring the best people will eventually become more and more difficult unless these issues are addressed.

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