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Solving the puzzle of team-building

Great teams have complementary skill sets that make collaboration a foregone conclusion. But to build those teams, you have to game the system.

Andy Whitehouse | July 31, 2017

The best advice I received about marriage came from a friend’s mom, a twenty-year veteran of the institution. “Life is hard,” she told me, “Find someone with an adjacent skill set.” It’s the sort of advice that doesn’t seem romantic until you’re trailing a realtor through a house that’s just slightly out of your price range, fighting a panic attack until your partner starts rattling off questions about water-heater capacity and dampeners on the heating system in a tone that suggests he’s going to understand the answers. In that moment, the fact that your partner just helped you both pass for fully functional adults is going to strike you as the most swoon-worthy thing ever.

Projects are hard, too, at least the interesting, meaningful ones. You’re going to want a team with adjacent skill sets. Compatible, synergistic teams are able to meet the unique requirements of every project that emerges, which is arguably the most obvious benefit of a cultivating a multi-skilled workforce. So how do you do it?

Look for Jane Hexagons

Imagine that each potential team member begins life as a triangle. Each side of the triangle represents a skill. When a person gains a new skill, she adds a new side. Now imagine all sides are magnetic, attracting the complementary skills of other team members. Effective team-building means finding the greatest number of ways to stick shapes together.

While a triangle might meet the basic requirements for employment (e.g., strong technical knowledge, good communication skills, ability to work as part of a team), Joe Isosceles only has three opportunities to be paired with other team members because he only has three sides. That limited number of interfaces presents challenges to both Joe, who has fewer opportunities to contribute to a team, and to Joe’s manager, who has fewer options in terms of staffing and placement. And if Joe were to get married, his partner would need to be remarkably well-rounded.

What you really want, in both projects and life, are the Jane Hexagons of the world—people who have all the skills Joe has, plus expertise in, for example, DevOps automation, agile project management, and security, giving her a total of six sides and making her twice as likely to have an available side to plug into a team.

If this sounds like the worst free app you’ve ever downloaded, it’s only because we’re on level one.

Build rainbows

In level two, we have to confront the reality that team-building in the real world is nowhere near as simple as placing any two flat edges together. The skills these sides represent need to be compatible, and the shape formed by the entire team needs to fit into a frame representing project requirements. This is where the idea of adjacent skill sets becomes really important.

Bear with me, here: Let’s say that each skill is color-coded. Maybe QA is red, front-end automation is a lighter red, and TestRail is almost pink. So an experienced QA Octagon will have a side in each of these colors. Let’s also say we have to follow a complex set of color-matching guidelines that dictate which sides can fit together. For example, any shade of QA red might match to itself or any of the darker shades of development green. Development green also matches to itself or to DevOps yellow. And project management blue matches to everything. But you can only advance to the next level if you have three red to red matches, two red to green matches, seven green to green matches, two green or red to yellow matches, and all colors touch blue at least once.

We’re now talking about the kind of app you rage delete at level five because you’re never getting any further, but it proves the point. The real power of a multifunctional team doesn’t come from having an army of Jacks-of-all-trades who can slip into any role on any team and execute with the same level of talent and enthusiasm—it comes from having options. Large colorful polygons are going to be easier to fit together than triangles that all tend to greens and blues, in the same way that a concert pianist who works in healthcare and enjoys boxing and crocheting will probably make an appealing partner.

“The real power of a multifunctional team doesn’t come from having an army of Jacks-of-all-trades who can slip into any role on any team and execute with the same level of talent and enthusiasm—it comes from having options.”

Even for a curious, eager, open-minded team, perfect rainbows will be the exception rather than the rule, but in a truly multi-functional environment, success hinges on the team rather than the individual. A front-end developer who only does front-end development with other front-end developers is going to have a deeply specific view of the way a project works and how he’s expected to work within a project team. Comparatively, a front-end dev with UX experience might find herself at a loss to even describe a “typical” project team. Her role becomes a way of relating to other team members in service of a common goal.

Make collaboration a foregone conclusion

If each member of your team has two things he or she can do exceptionally well, that’s a team with, at the very least, twice as many successful configurations as a non-multifunctional team. It’s a team in which everyone is conditioned to work with everyone else in a variety of ways depending on the needs of the situation. It’s a team that constantly re-shapes itself to cover knowledge gaps. A team that promotes the sort of individual flexibility and overall adaptability where effective collaboration is a foregone conclusion. And it’s a team that will have your back in front of the realtor.

For more team-building insights from Andy Whitehouse, read The five jobs you have as a solution owner.

Andy Whitehouse

Andy Whitehouse is a solution owner for Slalom, where she helps clients develop and implement custom IT solutions. Prior to consulting, Andy spent ten years before the mast in publishing. She lives in Cambridge, MA.

            

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