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Taking Ad Hoc Teams to Task

Taking Ad Hoc Teams to Task

Where a traditional project or team leader is responsible for providing personal and professional development to both build on the strengths and reduce the weaknesses of his or her team members, the ad hoc team member is concerned only with their strengths.

Thanks to the rise of outsourcing, the majority of today's IT projects are carried out by ad hoc teams - leaving CIOs to deal with the headaches and hassles of managing team members with divided loyalties.

Sometime in the mid 1980s, the type of project team most IT workers cut their teeth on quietly disappeared. In its place arose a new kind of team that has now become the norm for most businesses: the ad hoc team. A contemporary IT phenomenon spawned by outsourcing and alliances, not to mention the increasing sub-specialization of business and information skills, the ad hoc team typically throws together a disparate mix of consultants, people from one or several outsourcing firms, business experts and many IT infrastructure people.

"A true team has a shared purpose that everybody is working towards," says Herrmann International managing director Michael Morgan. "The problem with a lot of these ad hoc teams is that you have one set of masters and I have another. And that's politics," he says.

As outsourcing gathers apace, the number of ad hoc teams is increasing. In fact, based on various workshops Cutter Consortium senior consultant and The Thomsett Company director Rob Thomsett has presented over the past few years, the majority of IT people now work in some form of ad hoc team. This matters - a lot - because if there is one thing the ad hoc team's multiple reporting lines and confused loyalties does not ensure, it is team loyalty.

In many ways an ad hoc team is a collection of individuals who have each put their commitment to themselves above their commitment to the team. That mentality threatens to negate all the hard work project managers have put into learning how to build successful, cohesive and empowered teams. As one project manager laments: "The only person who faces career failure in this team is me!"

Having to marry the demands of two competing corporate cultures may be tough enough for the team member, but this can also leave the project manager competing for divided loyalties and struggling against a potential loss of control. What happens, for instance, when the consulting company, in pursuit of a higher income stream, dumps highly competent people off the project in favour of those with lower skills? And what happens to team spirit when - as experts such as Peter Drucker, Charles Handy and many others have come to recognize - one of the side effects of the new organization environment is that corporate loyalty and careers for life are no longer accepted dogma?

Thomsett says the nature of the commitment of the ad hoc team members to the team as a group of people, as distinct from the commitment to the goals of the project, is very different from that of a traditional project team.

"The commitment of ad hoc team members is, first and foremost, to themselves, not the other members of the team. Indeed, most ad hoc team members will place their commitment to their 'home' group or company above that to the team members. In effect, team loyalty comes a very poor last in the relationship and commitment stakes," Thomsett writes.

"Secondly, ad hoc team members are chosen for their technical skills not their Belbin leadership roles." (Dr Meredith Belbin's research showed that high-performing teams had a mix of people whose preferred leadership roles provide different but complementary approaches to leadership of the team.) This results in the replacement of a collaborative climate with a specialist climate. In other words, rather than the team building on both the strengths and weaknesses of each team member, the team is built on the specialist strengths only of each team member."

To put it crudely, Thomsett says where a traditional project or team leader is responsible for providing personal and professional development to both build on the strengths and reduce the weaknesses of his or her team members, the ad hoc team member is concerned only with their strengths. If a contractor is hired and it becomes apparent that that person lacks the expected skills, they are simply fired or replaced.

There are multiple layers of conflict that can exist in an ad hoc team, Thomsett says. Take the example of a team member working for a major consulting organization who is asked by the project manager to devote one night of two to three hours of additional work to catch up on reworking analysis requirements. What if the consulting group team member is happy to help out but their consulting company has an operating principle of no free work? Instead of getting the same commitment from this team member to a bit of "free" extra effort, the project manager has to negotiate a minor contract variation just to get the team member to work the extra hours - which are naturally billed at full rate. Then there is the extra conflict that can come to an ad hoc team when the solution seen as best for the project requires a technical team member to deploy a technology that is in conflict with the stated technical platforms approved by the technical team member's "home" group.

Ad hoc teams are clearly different from, and in many ways harder to manage than, traditional project teams. Yet to Thomsett's great surprise and disappointment, there has been little attention paid to this new form of team by the gurus of organization and management theory. This worries him, because while academics labour to expand the body of work on teams and teamwork, the most defining characteristic of the ad hoc team is that in this new environment, there is no or little sense of "team-ness".

Many project managers and team leaders have been caught when assumptions that they have made in good faith regarding the availability of their ad hoc team members are proved wrong. At best, the result is a degradation of the quality of the work of the ad hoc team member as they have less time available than was planned. At worst, the work is done in small bits over a longer period of time than planned. "This 'adhocery' results in what we have now termed 'the death of a project through 1000 small cuts'," Thomsett laments.

Other impacts of ad hoc teams include loss of team and corporate memory, and skills degradation. However, Thomsett says, these are more of a corporate concern than a team issue.

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