How to keep your team together (even when you need to split them up)


I was meeting with a client today, and he posed an interesting organizational question:

“I’ve got 14 people reporting to me now. These folks make up my overall IT leadership team. Some of them are driving operations and are good day-to-day managers. The others are more strategic thinkers, capable of long-term planning and vision. I was wondering- what’s the right way to organize the team so that the leadership is grouped appropriately to their skills and areas of impact?

Perhaps I ought to create two leadership teams. One general leadership team that focuses on improving day-to-day operations management and another leadership team that focuses on strategic issues.”

Reasonable question and approach, no? Well, not exactly. Here’s why I recommended against it:

Leadership is not issue based

It’s true that certain individuals are better at big-picture thinking and others are better at operational management. That’s exactly the reason for having separate functions. However, when it comes to leading an IT group BOTH skill sets are needed. A leadership team draws strength from diverse skills. Breaking up the leadership team into strategic leadership and operational leadership diminishes the power of the team as a whole.

Leadership is not strategy

The same basic principle applies when it comes to formulating an overall IT strategy. Although a lot of the heavy lifting on idea generation and vision may indeed come from the strategic thinkers, the so-called “non-strategic” managers provide critical real-world balance to the sometimes overreaching ideas of the strategy folks.

Operations are just as important (if not more important) than strategy

Our culture has a natural bias to respect anything termed “strategic.” How often do we hear the term “high-level” or “important” applied to matters of strategy while operational matters are called “low-level” or “tactical.” Personally, I think it’s nuts. IT is fundamentally about operations and without rock-solid operational systems, there’s nothing to talk about “strategically.” But unfortunately, I’m in the minority on this.

What that means practically is that until the broader business and IT culture embraces the enormous value of rock-solid IT operations management, it’s critical we do nothing to suggest anything to the contrary by labeling the operational managers as non-strategic.

So, that leaves us with what NOT to do. We still need an answer for what to do.

Flexible Forums in Place of Organizational Labels

The leadership team remains the leadership team. However, in order to appropriately address certain strategic issues intensely, it’s not always necessary (or helpful) to have the entire leadership team present for all meetings and discussions. In such cases I suggest you create a purpose-specific forum. (Note – I said forum not committee. Sounds too political, organizational and rigid.)

Name the forum “The Strategic Planning Forum” or “The Improving Daily Operations Forum” or “The Application Landscape Forum.” Whatever your immediate concern is, build a forum for it.
Then, in order to ensure the forum succeeds in its work, invite the appropriate members of your leadership team to the new forum.

Because it’s informal, you will have the flexibility to bring people in and take them out as needed. You will even have the flexibility to temporarily invite members who may not generally align with the problem at hand, but who can contribute momentarily to solve a sticking point. That’s the beauty of these forums- they are flexible and can evolve with time. Short-term issues can be addressed with a forum and then once the problem is solved, the forum is dissolved. Long-term or ongoing issues such as strategic planning or staff development can remain a permanent fixture on the IT management landscape yet the members (and leadership) can change over time keeping the forums fresh and focused.

There you have it. Flexible, informal forums give you (and your leadership team members) the opportunity to contribute their own unique genius to the many problems at hand in the moment, all without permanently disrupting the group cohesion you have worked so hard to create within your team. A true win/win.

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