IT professionals must be good team players, but what does that mean?

For one thing, it means they must know how to come into a situation and quickly cooperate and gain cooperation, but cooperation takes many forms. It’s not sufficient to want to cooperate. You must also know how. This column is about the technology of cooperation.

Most people, when they think of cooperating, think of everybody doing the same thing—like all pulling on the same rope in a tug-of-war or rowing in the same Roman galley, perhaps chained to the oar. When you consider cooperating by sharing people’s direct labor, first try to categorize the situation into one of these two:

1. The job is well understood and easy to communicate to a newcomer.

2. The job is fuzzy, or not understood at all, or complicated.

In the first situation, as in a tug-of-war, it is relatively easy to move people about from one work group to another. The amount of productivity in this situation is roughly the sum of the individual productivities. Ten people can tug ten times as hard as one. Many managers think that adding IT professionals is just like adding bodies to a tug-of-war team.

But even a tug-of-war is not so simple, for those who are experts at it. Given roughly equal weights on both sides, the team that understands and uses technique will win every time – and can even overcome substantial weight deficits. Adding a new member to a skilled tug-of-war team will not add proportionately to their success. Indeed, unless the new member understands their technology and system of communication, the addition of another body is likely to reduce their total tugging effectiveness.

When the job is fuzzy, and ideas are needed more than simple tugging power, the addition of a new member can be helpful if the team is ready to accept new viewpoints imported by the new member. Experienced IT professionals, however, know how hard it can be to have their better ideas heard when they’ve just started a new assignment. It can be horribly difficult to integrate a new person. Time and “wasted” effort must be allowed for in such additions, especially as the job grows more complex.

Thus, if quick addition is needed, adding people willy-nilly is not the answer. This observation was the essence of Brooks’s Law – adding people late in a project makes the project take even longer. Adding them early, however, which allows time for this “wasted” effort of integrating the new people, can, in the end, make a project go faster.

Any IT professional who is thrown into a project late and expected to make things go faster needs to be aware of Brooks’s Law and needs to communicate to the management what kinds of delays are to be expected. Moreover, each of us IT professionals needs to master the arts of quickly learning what the job is about and how the existing team communicates.

When we import a program or a piece of hardware to a project, we import technology in a form that may seem more acceptable than a new team member might be. This is the dream of reusable software. But when the team members feel that their own technology is an extension of their own egos, programs may not be portable at all. Instead, they run into the “not-invented-here” brick wall.

Of course, even when a team is willing or even eager to import software or hardware, it may prove poorly designed for portability. In general, portability of complex technology doesn’t come by accident, but by design and by testing of the design. Even for well-designed technology, there is a break-in period which may or may not be shorter than the time taken to add a new member to a team. Of course, the payoff for an imported technology can be huge, but only if it’s adopted and used.

Some IT professionals come on the job with their own tools, not anticipating the amount of difficulty they will experience getting the existing team to adopt their “superior” tools. If you feel that your tools add to your value as a IT professional, you must master the art of introducing tools – especially to people who may be insulted by the very idea that you might know something better than what they already know.

Ideas or ways of thinking can be the most portable of all kinds of technology, as long as the ideas or perceptions are not labeled too clearly as “belonging” to someone. The rule here is perhaps the most important that a technically-oriented IT professional can learn:

There’s nothing you can’t accomplish if you aren’t concerned who gets the credit.
If a project is successful, there’s always enough credit to pass around.

Points or Perceptions
Much of what we do on a job is to win the approval of the management, or of the customer. We call this “scoring points.” Success on a job depends very much on the ability to score points, in whatever game management happens to be playing. If they are playing a good management game, then the more points you score, the better the job you must actually be doing.

But bad managers give points for the wrong things, and if you work under such a point system, you soon become a poor performer. In any case, though, in work as in life:

Points can never be passed directly from one person to another.
To pass points, you must pass people, programs, or perceptions.

In general, sharing perceptions may be the easiest way to cooperate. Moreover, if you don’t share perceptions, it may be almost impossible to cooperate. So, when you enter a new group and want to cooperate, it’s best to start by listening—and learning how other people perceive the world.