Coaching Technology Teams Out of Their Silos to Collaborate in an Emergency

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Summary:

When there is a system outage or other serious problem, most organizations have a critical incident response team to handle communication with all relevant stakeholders. But what happens when communication among the technology experts is not going well? How do you go about understanding the problem and helping each contributor work effectively with the entire response team?

Operations engineers play an essential role in handling emergency situations when an “all-hands-on-deck” call goes out, such as when there is a system outage or other serious problem. Most organizations have a critical incident response team to handle communication with all relevant stakeholders, especially coordinating the responses necessary to get the key engineers working together as a high-performance, cross-functional team.

But what happens when communication among the technology experts is not going well? You may find yourself in a situation in which some teams are just not collaborating well with the other stakeholders. How do you go about understanding the problem and helping each contributor work effectively with the entire response team?

Specialized teams with deep knowledge in one specific area are particularly prone to this type of dysfunctional behavior. The group often has a strong culture and may be located away from the other stakeholders involved with handling the response. These specialized silos often possess extensive expertise regarding one particular area or technology and may fight to maintain their independence and autonomy. When all is going well, they handle requests efficiently, demonstrating their valuable experience and knowledge. But when problems occur, these same teams may exhibit obstructive behaviors that can undermine the critical incident response effort.

We have seen this phenomenon exhibited by a variety of technology gurus, from database administrators to network engineers and other systems administrators. Almost any group with specialized knowledge can fall into these counterproductive behavior patterns. You might have everyone else on a conference call sharing information (even sharing their screens) and working together effectively, except this one group that just refuses to cooperate, seemingly preferring the security of working in isolation.

This one team engages in what can feel like a game of technical volleyball: They request a description of what you want done and then effectively throw the request back over the net when they have completed what they believed to be the required task—whether it completely resolved the problem or not. Meanwhile, the rest of the team wishes they would just join a conference call, share their screens, and collaborate in a more cooperative manner. You need to assess the root cause for such dysfunctional behavior.

Sometimes, technology folks feel insecure about their level of knowledge and shy away from being completely transparent in order to avoid anyone thinking that they do not possess the requisite expertise for their job. This insecurity could be a result of past experiences where colleagues challenged them, perhaps making them feel inadequate or even threatened. When we see this behavior in a company, we may find that it is reflective of the broader culture of the organization.

However, sometimes it is more self-motivated; some individuals are just insecure and don’t like opening themselves up to criticism. In a few cases, we have suspected that a professional who was predisposed to this personality trait actually picked a highly specialized skill in which to excel, just to be able to work in isolation frequently and with less scrutiny. More insidious are those organizations in which employees justifiably feel insecure about their jobs and do not want to take any chances on being accused of having made a mistake or lacking expertise. We also sometimes see other cultural and organizational factors that hinder employees' attempts to work cooperatively.

There are times in which a specialized group is collocated in one specific office where they then develop their own language and cultural norms. These folks may only feel comfortable interacting with one another, avoiding interaction with their colleagues working in other countries. Language comprehension may be a factor here, if everyone on the call is speaking English but one particular engineer may not be confident in his or her English language skills. Time zones can be an issue as well; while most of the team may be in the middle of their workday, one colleague may be exhausted if he or she is working past midnight. Cultural norms, language, and even the quality of the phone system itself (e.g., voice over IP) may impact just how effective the communication is among all members of the team.

Positive psychology practitioners emphasize that modeling effective behavior is key to accomplishing goals and objectives. Leaders who put everyone at ease and show their appreciation for everyone’s effort, especially proactive teamwork, help the cross-functional team achieve success. If possible, your managers should take a trip to meet all the stakeholders face to face and demonstrate in tangible ways that each person’s contribution matters. We have seen remarkable improvements result from coaching colleagues about the importance of effective and collaborative communication. Occasionally, feedback must be given to employees who are not cooperating, or a team may need to be reorganized so that the most effective communicators become the liaisons for the rest of the organization. Creating a “safe zone” so that everyone on a conference call knows their opinions will be respected is crucial and provides a solid foundation for all future interactions.

It is often said that a chain is only as strong as its weakest link. When you encounter large teams in which silos are not participating constructively, you should introduce a few strategies to help that group participate more effectively. If you get this right, you empower your cross-functional, high-performance team to become much more capable of addressing the many challenges that arise when supporting complex enterprise systems.

User Comments

1 comment
Scott Turner's picture

 

Scott Turner Nice article on the importance of teamwork and culture in DevOps. Technology platforms that handle ARA and Config Automation (like our own @orcaconfig) help a lot, but nothing replaces professionalism and positive attitudes in problem solving - especially in a crisis.

May 27, 2016 - 5:34pm

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