Building Better IT SWAT Teams

It’s an unpleasant and unavoidable fact of life: IT organizations are almost always in problem-solving mode. And the best way to address unusual, urgent or one-time issues is to create temporary IT “solution teams.”

The experts on these SWAT teams – the apt acronym for Special Weapons and Tactics – have the skills and tools to solve problems quickly and efficiently under intense time pressure. But it’s important to keep in mind that you are bringing together people who may never have worked as a team before, and in larger organizations, they may not even have ever met.

There are right and wrong ways to build, train and maintain these crucial resources. Here are six ways that work.

Appoint a team leader. Forget everything you’ve heard about peer management. According to Katherine Spencer Lee, executive director of Robert Half Technology, in Menlo Park, Calif, the self-governing team is a myth. “You’ve got to have a team leader,” she says, “and that person needs to have more than just technical skills.” In particular, “good communications skills – both oral and written – are essential.”

A leader is vital in cases where the team has been assembled from different departments. Someone acting as a coach or facilitator can help get the group to gel. This might be a role taken by the project manager; it might be formally assigned to someone with those specific skills or it might just be naturally assumed by a team member who has a talent for bringing people together.

Balance individual accountability with a clear chain of command. The best teams don’t necessarily duplicate skills, says Dean Meyer, chairman of NDMA Inc., a management-consulting firm based in Ridgefield, Conn. “Each member of the team needs to understand the specific contribution and/or deliverable that he or she is responsible for, and not meddle in other people’s domains,” he says.

Find – and involve – people from other disciplines. It’s rare that a technical problem impacts only IT. “Once you make changes to an application, to the infrastructure or to the network, there are implications for anyone who uses those resources,” says Jeff Gibson, vice president of consulting for The Table Group, a managing consulting firm based in Lafayette, Calif. “You need to have all the stakeholders represented on that team.” In particular, members of the affected user community must have someone participating in order to come up with a solution they will be satisfied with.

Clarify the loyalties of team members. Because the team is temporary, by implication all members of it have other “real” jobs to do. To avoid cases of divided loyalties, members must know their responsibilities on the team and how that time commitment relates to their regular job. “Managers must be exceedingly clear about the priorities,” stipulates Gibson. “If someone is expected to give 100 percent to the team, that has to be approved by his or her manager – and everyone must be very clear about how it will work on a practical basis from day to day.”

Establish firm boundaries. A temporary team is just that – temporary. The exact charter for its existence, including its timeframe, deliverables and deadline, must be carefully delineated in advance of the first meeting of the team. “If you don’t provide an end date, or sufficiently detailed criteria about what constitutes the success of the project, then the so-called temporary team can easily turn into a standing committee,” says Johanna Rothman, president of the Rothman Consulting Group, in Arlington, Mass. “If at all possible, make the goal something measurable; certainly make progress toward it something you can track.”

Be prepared to disperse the team if necessary. Just because specific deliverables – and viable deadlines – have been established up front doesn’t mean that the team must stay together to the bitter end. “Every healthy IT organization has a methodology for evaluating and killing troubled projects,” says Raj Kapur, vice president of the Center for Project Management, in San Ramon, Calif. “You need to keep ascertaining that your resources are allocated where they can provide the most value. If things clearly aren’t working out, you need to cut your losses and move on.”

The bottom line: The best way to get a team acting like a team is for them to start working together.