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Managing Peer Relationships in Flat Organization Key to Strong Teams

December 4, 2014

By Michael Roberts

Years ago, building technology project teams was usually done informally. The designated leader did a survey of the organization, followed by recruiting, and it was off to the races.  Today, management expectations of project success are much higher, and there are tailored approaches to building any size team for almost any project.  Applications to support the project team exist in great profusion, and consultants are only a phone call away.

My own work with teams in several different contexts suggests that the human element is critical, and that it is not just technical and professional skills that matter.  Many of the interpersonal relationships necessary to project team success have been explored and exploited in sports and the military, and there are lessons to be learned from that history.

Any significant project effort will face stresses related to scope, to deadlines, and to resource limits.  There will be times when failure looms.  Team members will have moments where they consider just walking away from the infernal hassle of it all.

It is well known that technical people tend to be introverted and to think of themselves as soloists in the choir.  Once in a while, this approach works and carries the day in grand style.  More frequently, projects fail because of prima donna personalities.  There aren't simple projects anymore.  Today, complexity lurks everywhere, and multidisciplinary teamwork is essential.  We have a phrase, "I've got your back," originating with the military, that expresses the need for teamwork.  When adversity arrives, as it will, a successful team shows a personal commitment to each other that sees it through tough times.  Sometimes, cultural norms must be surmounted.  In the 1980's, I inherited a major telecommunications project that was transferred from another part of the university and was in multidimensional trouble.  The personnel involved were solid citizens, but used to taking orders from the top and avoiding risks.  We turned the effort around and brought it in on time and on budget.  The biggest part of our ultimate success was convincing the individuals involved that they could perform above their own expectations, and that the personal rewards of being part of a brand new leading edge system were worth the risks involved.

As the saying goes, no one is indispensable.  But, project leadership frequently makes or breaks projects.  In the technology rich environment of projects underway these days, the leader probably will not be the most skilled individual across the range of backgrounds represented on the team.  It is no longer a standard command and control situation.  Managing peer relationships in a flatter organization becomes a key ingredient of team cohesion and motivation.  Turning "I" into "we" is sometimes difficult.  Talk to accomplished project veterans and they will tell you it was worth it.

Michael Roberts, the first president of ICANN, was inducted into the Internet Hall of Fame in 2014.

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