Monday, July 11, 2011

Teams and Specialization

I read an excellent white paper yesterday on the pros and cons of having teams specialize in particular skills.  The example they studied was searching through knowledge databases, but I think the findings are relevant to all kinds of specialization. 

The basic idea of the study is that you have a few people in a team specialize in a specific task (in contrast to having everyone do the task on their own), there are positive and negative consequences.  On the positive side, these people get very good at the task, so they tend to do it quickly.  The speed of the team’s progress increases.  Using the example in the white paper, when one person becomes a specialist at searching through the company databases, she gets good at creating sophisticated queries navigating through the database, and understanding what content is available and what isn’t. 

BUT there is a downside.  If you ask this person to do your search for you, he/she may be good at searching, but won’t get as much out of the search as you would have.  First, she may not understand the context of the problem you are trying to solve.  So she may miss the most applicable solution while looking for one that seems better from her limited perspective.  Also, there may be gaps in the communication back and forth, so part of the question or part of the answer may be lost or misunderstood. 

They also looked at the effects of teams that are either geographically dispersed or working in highly dynamic environments.  These kinds of teams need to use the organizational database more.  But they are hurt more by this specialization because the problems of misunderstood context or communication are even bigger.  There is less sharing of information when team members are geographically dispersed.  And shared information may no longer be accurate or relevant in highly dynamic environments.  

To take a completely different kind of example, imagine you have someone on the team who specializes is visual design.  By getting more practice and experience, this person may develop a lot of skills in knowing what colors go together or how to arrange objects on a screen to promote symmetry and balance.  But when you ask this expert to do the visual part of your design, she may not understand the message you are trying to get across in your design.  What are the tradeoffs between speed and accuracy?  Friendliness and professionalism?  Brand consistency and task effectiveness?  You can tell her, but she won’t really know it as well as you do.  The design will be done faster, but perhaps not as precise for this specific situation.

Imagine if you have one person in a clothing store who develops expertise in dealing with difficult customers.  Whenever a customer is difficult, you bring in the ‘expert.’  By getting all this practice, the expert gets really smooth at calming people down.  But by not knowing the exact problem as well as you do, there is more chance of a misunderstanding.  

Team management is a particular interest of mine, so I found these findings to be very important.  Did you??

Freakonomics wants you to quit.

NPR played a Freakonomics Radio special on quitting. It was very interesting because it is applicable in two areas that a lot of people have trouble with.

The first is also referred to as the fast fail model.  Try 100 things, quit the bottom 98 as fast as possible so you can do the best 2 effectively.  The faster you can quit the less successful ones, the more options you can try out and the more likely you are to find the best ones.  But it is hard because we have trouble letting go of our ideas.  When you start out thinking an idea might be a good one, we get cognitive dissonance admitting it is not.  We also suffer from confirmation bias (among others) when evaluating the idea, so we may think it is better than it really is.  Developing the skill of failing fast is very useful, especially in areas such as innovation and kaizen.

They also apply the idea of quitting to career development.  Think of the opportunity costs of continuing to work at a job or in an industry that you don't like.  Sunk cost fallacy tells us that we focus on all the years and time we have already wasted in this field so we can't switch now.  But it's called a fallacy for a reason.  It is never too late.  For young IEs out there, think about the industry where you work, the experience you are getting, and the expertise you are building.  Is this what you want to do? If not, the sooner you quit the sooner you can get on a path to what you do want.  And the sooner you do it, the easier it is because you have less cognitive dissonance and less sunk cost bias.  Is it too late if you are 50 and dissatisfied with your career?  Nope!!  Even then, you can apply what you have learned in one area to another that might be more meaningful to you.  There were lots of great examples on the radio/podcast special (no IEs of course :-D). 

Quitting is even harder when the thing you need to quit is part of your identity and self-image.  Musicians who have tried to build their rock band career, actors who have been trying to build an acting career, minor league baseball players after 10 years in the minors, etc.  Rock/acting/baseball isn't just what they do, it's who they are.  We can have similar situations in IE.  Perhaps all your life, even as a kid, you were a "car guy."  You were working on cars with your dad when you were 5 years old.  Everyone knew you would get a job in the car industry.  IE was just the particular path you chose.  But now you are 45 and realize it isn't meaningful any more.  Admitting this to yourself (and to everyone you have known your whole life) is tough.  Many people can't do it.  Some go to therapy to develop the strength to do it.  

But do it, whatever it takes.  You spend more time at work than doing anything else.  It should be something that makes you feel good at the end of the day.  When you love what you do, you don't have to "work" a day in your life.  And this happiness transfers to other parts of your life.  You become a better spouse, parent, friend, and more.