IT Management Blog: my thoughts about putting the "i" in IT

What we can learn from football, #2

With the World Cup finished, I'd like bring a few more aspects from football to the fore that we can use for general learning.

In a winning team, members are willing to work with and for each other (France)
I think that this World Cup showed as no other that when you have players arguing amongst each other and fighting with the coach, you won't go far. France, 4 years ago second, was the most extreme example with a shocking display of football and arguments and fights in the camp (I won't list any examples to keep this post short). But also England's team had issues (e.g  John Terry versus Capello).
In contrast to those teams, you would never hear or read anything about issues in the Spanish camp. Fernando Torres was happy to declare that this year was David Villa's year even though David Villa took his position in the squad. 
Though there were some issues in the media in the Dutch team, immediately other players were there to defend the player that might have made a questionable remark. Even players that were on the bench and would compete with the respective player for the same spot came to rescue (e.g. Babel defended Van Persie). Players were helping each other out.
So what does this mean for our normal day to day work? Basically exactly the same. If you want to achieve results, you need to work with others and be willing to help others out. You should be able let others shine, while you might not get the attention you think you deserve. It depends on what you want to put on your resume: "I was the foreman of the project, but the project was chaotic and failed" or "I was a driving force behind the scenes of this successful project".

In a winning team, the leader focuses on team coherence (Netherlands)
Though I haven't followed or heard much about Spain in the media, I think the absence of these issues show that the coach, Vincent del Bosque, had good control over the team. The Dutch coach, Bert van Marwijk, displayed very well how to bring unity into the team. As soon as something popped up, he got the players together resolved the issue and assured that players left happily together. Besides this, he assured that information in the media was corrected as quickly as possible.
For managers in the corporate world it means that you should not let any tension between staff fester. Address it immediately and make sure issues get resolved. It also means much focus on who you select in your team and if players are known, who you combine in teams. Make sure that you control the information that leaks out to other teams and your business. Otherwise the gossip might light the issue up again.

Have a balanced team; don't sacrifice defenders or midfielders for strikers (Argentina)
Already at the start of the tournament, there was criticism about the balance in relation to the type of players in the Argentinian team. Maradonna used basically strikers and the team lacked a proper midfield. Also the construction of the defense lacked a good balance. Against weaker opposition, the striking power showed flair and achieved good results. However as soon they came under pressure, the weakness was displayed resulting in a 4-0 loss against Germany.
I could mention England here as well. The Lampard - Gerard combination just does not work; it simply gets the team off balance. (If you allow me a bit of a diversion ... Against Germany I felt clearly that Gerard was lost. He played left winger but constantly moved inside, but whatever he did, did not work. The situation with the Netherlands when having Van der Vaart on the left with Sneijder in the center is similar, except that the Netherlands strength is the quick short passing game while Gerard needs more space, long passes, big runs and big shots. It worked for the Dutch and obviously not for England.)
What does this mean in a normal work situation? Well basically do not try to attack too many new issues, kick off new projects or expand scope of services at the same time, unless you have your house in order and have it adjusted so it can deal with the pressure of the new work coming at you. If you don't, your weakness will be exposed and things will go wrong.
This means that if you take on a new project or expand the scope of your services, that you think carefully about your resourcing. Not only for the project but also for support once the project is completed. If you want to change roles of staff, think of the consequences and that work assignments are clearly articulated and land in appropriate places. Assure that you maintain a well balanced team.

Pass the ball, run into free spaces (Spain)
This World Cup was finally the proof again that total football, this time adjusted by the Spanish (aka Barcalona) team, is the right way to play the game. The Dutch did the same thing, but then sobered up a bit (and lost it in the final). But both teams made it into the final. Those who followed Barcalona knew what Spain was able to do. You can't discount the Brazilians, the Germans or the Italians at a World Cup. Argentina could not be discounted either, but with all the signs before the start of the tournament, I felt that Spain would go all the way. And they did.
Optimal team work. It's all about the players who don't have the ball. They need to run into free places and keep moving around. This gives opportunities for the player withe ball to give the pass. As soon as you stop moving around, you will be marked and the only option the player withe ball has then is to give the long pass forward. It is also constantly thinking one, two steps ahead. It is chess on the football field. Sounds easy, but it also requires incredible technical skills. Once touch football and pass in the feet of your team mates. First touch must be perfect, don't let it bounce too far off your feet.
The Spanish game has the risk that you have the opponent sit back around their goal and run the risk you won't get a chance to score. But trust in your ability and trust that in the end you'll get the goal will get you the trophy.
Plan your work. Look ahead. Check with colleagues what work is coming to you. Communicate and look around, see what needs to be done. Finish your work on time and as promised so others don't have to wait and the team does not lose momentum.

Trust yourself, play your own game, work towards your own strength (Netherlands, Brazil, Australia)
Brazil was criticized for their defense game and lack of traditional Brazilian flair. The end result was that they suffered a loss against the Netherlands. 
The Netherlands in turn played consistently throughout the tournament and continued their style of play from the qualifying matches. However in the final, they did not trust their own game as they've done so far. Where they displayed a ball-possession-game and passing-game against teams such as Japan much similar as Spain, in the final they resorted to long balls forward. Some edginess resulted also in a physical game with many yellow cards. As a Dutchman I am proud of their fantastic result, but disappointed with the game in the final. I'd rather had that they lost playing their own game (but preferred the win, even if it would be through penalties - bloody Spaniards why did they keep us in suspense till almost the last minute?). Though there might be a football law that says that it is difficult to obtain possession once Spain has it, there is no law that says that you can't do the same to them. Keep possession, play the ball around, put them under pressure, build your own confidence and avoid the yellow cards (let them get the yellow cards just as Brazil did).
Australia made the same mistake already in their first match against Germany. Though I doubt that the result would have been different, the team did not start with their traditional hard working attacking game, even though under Pim Verbeek this was much done through a defensive style. Instead they tried to sit back. Though in points Australia achieved the same as 4 years ago, the 4 goals netted by the Germans worked against them. It was good to see that Australia played their own way again in the remaining two matches and demonstrated the real Aussie fighting spirit.
(And though nothing to do with the subject of this blog and probably completely not of interest to people outside our region, I just like to express my respect for New Zealand and Ricki Herbert for their unbeaten track record at this World Cup. As neighbours we must be proud of the result of our A-leage participants.)
In our working environment we need to look at our strengths. Though we might not always have the best players, you can look at those things that have worked well over the years. It is always to see if you need to replace players or change positions but you need to look what it does to the team dynamics. Before you make changes, ask yourself whether your tried to get the maximum out of the team. Did you use staff according to their strengths?
It also means that there always different styles and approaches. There might be an ideal way of playing (Spain, Netherlands except the final), but you need to have the players for it.

Don't put your hopes on a single player to shoot you into the final (England)
England thought that by putting Wayne Rooney in the central striker position, they could make it to the final. They made that same mistake in 2006. Having a balanced team is not just about getting a bunch of players and filling the positions. Wayne was probably one of the most absent players of this World Cup. Hidden somewhere between a bunch of defenders. The problem here is that the type of play that England played is different than that of Manchester United where he rose to fame. I think that the way England played, Peter Crouch would have been more valuable. Cross from the wing, tall guy heading it in. Wayne needs a more fast moving game play with more space and where players quickly can move position.
In our work we too often also forget to look what skills are really required. It is not just drawing a box as vacancy and subsequently just putting a name in it. You need to look what skill set is required. For example, you introduce a new system. You need then people to support that new system, so you assign your Microsoft .NET developer to take care of that. But you forget that the system comes with a new database. Do you have the right DBA? And is the system really all about .NET development? No, you need a system administrator who does all this technical configuration work. Remember you implemented a new system (e.g. did not develop it from scratch). All sounds obvious, but it is often difficult to explain to business managers and senior managers that this nice system they like to have means a significant increase in staffing level and associated costs. Suddenly their business case does not look that good anymore. On paper it is easy to move the name of the .NET developer into the system administrator box. But does this person want to do this? Is the type of work really a strength of the person? And does this person possess the right skills to do the job?

Don’t outsource your incompetency!

Outsourcing can be a good option to achieve certain activities of your business tasks. However when you outsource certain aspects because you are incompetent in that area, you are on a slippery slope. If you can’t manage the specific business activity, you also won’t be able to manage your vendor.

Outsourcing can be good option, specifically if the certain business activity has become a commodity; if it is a very well defined process or you have a very well defined outcome and there are multiple vendors that all provide comparable services. Catering or cleaning are typical aspects that you can easily outsource. When it comes down to IT services, you need to be more careful.

If you have problems managing system development and you think that outsourcing is an option, your run a very high risk that you will pay an unnecessary high price. Say you contract a vendor to provide you with system development and maintenance services for a period of 3 years. Before you contracted this vendor, you went out to market and selected the vendor that provided the best value for money. But once the contract is in place, you will ask to vendor to deliver a certain piece of work. The vendor will give you a quote on this, however you have no way to vet whether the vendor is overcharging you or not. Simply because you do not have the skills in house.

It means, that if you want to outsource unique services of which you cannot simply compare the product or service with what is provided by other vendors, you must maintain a certain level of knowledge in house in order to manage the vendor and its services.

The problem occurs actually already earlier. You would have problems defining clear requirements for your services and selecting the best vendor.

If you are incompetent in a certain business activity and outsource this activity, you will simply have outsourced your incompetency. You will not have made much progress. Maybe you have simplified the problem, resolved some headaches, but you will pay a good price for it.

Usually when you are unable to manage the activity, you will also find that you will have problems assessing the quality of the outcome. And if this is the case, you have even more problems. Your business outcome relies on an intermediate outcome of which you cannot control the quality. Therefore you have a serious business problem.

The only way to resolve this is to assure you develop the skills and capability in house in order to manage this business activity. Once you have achieved this, you can then identify whether you want to outsource the activity or keep it in house. When you outsource the activity, then you still need to remain a skeleton staff in house with the relevant management skills in order to manage the vendor, monitor the quality of outcome and assure that the processes of the vendor and your own are well integrated.

These days we are close to calling data centres commodity services. However I still would assure to have sufficient skills in house to manage the externally hosted services. When it comes down to application development and maintenance, I certainly would keep a good team in house. Definitely because I would really hesitate to outsource the requirements development and testing stages.  But there is so much more to it. Much can seem all fine on the surface for quite a while but you have no insight in the risks looming inside the application. In order to control the architecture and associated business risks, the amount of effort and staff required to control the outsourced vendor can become significant. I feel that it would be just as easy to keep the development and maintenance in house unless you already have the required team in place for other purposes.

The challenge of contracting out

When discussing application development and support services with vendors, sometimes you see them think “I like to do this, but rather not that” while they know you require the full package. Their mind is going wild assessing the possibilities to provide the service while they know that they do not have all the required resources and skills in-house. Or alternatively, the requested service model does not align with their business model. This becomes even more apparent when specific scarce skills are required part time.

Vendors for application development and support services have their business model usually aligned according to two or three varieties. The first one is the traditional body shopper. They have a pool of resources and provide these people to the client on a time and material basis. In essence the client maintains responsibility over the work performed. The other model is where the vendor takes over the responsibility for the deliverable and the client does not have direct influence over which people work on the project. As a client, I usually refer this to as “I care about the person and don’t care through which company I contract the person” versus “I care about the company and don’t care which people work on the activity”. (Though this is of course not really true; you always want the best people to work on your projects and you also care about good employment context for your contractors.)

You hit a third variety where you want support from a software vendor where they have resourced their staff primarily around pre- and post-sales support. They will assist with system implementation but only for those parts that relate to their software and can run into limitations to do the full project. If skills in the market around their software is very scarce or sometimes almost completely absent, you will rely on the software vendor for the project and ongoing support unless you built expertise in house. I found that they are often reluctant to provide a good outsourced support service. When you buy software for which there are limited skilled people in the market, you will have to pay a premium price for support regardless of how you will resource this.

Some vendors mix models. That can be good if you need both types of services, but I also found it can create problems.

I recall the dilemma’s that a vendor can go through very well from my previous life as part of the pre-sales role for our professional services organisation. When you sit down with a your colleague of sales with a potential client to convince them to award you the project, you sit there thinking “Who will I put on this project?”. You know that your sales colleague will say that Mary and John are available. But you know that Mary does not have experience with the relevant technology and John … Well John is not really the person to drive this project to a success. And then considering that just a few days ago, the ideal resources were still available but the body shopping part of the company decided to contract those people out to another client, leaving you with less qualified people available for your project. You said that you wanted to keep those people for this new project opportunity, but the conservative voice in the company went for the low risk option.

Outsourcing of a project is one thing. You can allocate resources full time to the activity and once the project is finished, they become available for other projects. In that sense the model is relatively simple.

But when a vendor starts specialising in support services, they need to have enough resources and enough work for those resources. Support usually comes in bits and pieces. It is therefore important that the total amount of work coming from all clients requiring the skills can be spread out evenly over time and over the available people. If you have peaks and troughs, you have moments that you cannot provide the required service level and moments that you don’t have enough work for your people. Both these aspects impact your bottom line negatively unless you assure you have enough people to take care of the majority of the peaks and let the clients pay for the troughs.

When looking for a vendor to outsource to, this is one of the key aspects to consider. Will the vendor have a solid customer base such that they can guarantee an even spread of workload for their resource pool? This is important so they can provide timely services (you don’t want to hit a critical incident during one of their peaks) and can provide you with cost effective services (you don’t want to pay for the troughs).

Sometimes the skills are very scarce and you might want to opt for a premium price, just to assure that you have quality support.

The biggest challenge I have with all this is to explain the associated costs to business managers. They see the rates or total costs in combination with the allocated support hours and challenge you on the costs. They do not always understand the variety of unique technical and business skills required and also do not always understand the consequence of outsourcing. Too often they think that buying IT services is as simple as buying a loaf of bread in the supermarket.

I always prefer permanent staff, provided that there is continuously enough work. This is always cheaper. The continuity they provide is also important to cover those areas where much business specific or implementation specific knowledge is required.

However when you have much start/stop work or require a broad range of common skills that requires little business specific knowledge, outsourcing can be a good option. Outsourcing is quite often also the only choice to ascertain support that requires very specialised skills.

To cover peaks in projects, I prefer to in-source from body shoppers simply because I prefer to keep project control as much as possible in-house which creates flexibility and better hand-over of knowledge to the internal team. Even better, I prefer to use permanent staff to drive my projects. They will think twice about taking short cuts, because they know they will have to deal with the consequence later.

Quite often, I keep some of the contracted people after the project to provide the first period of support and with their built up knowledge of your environment they are the ideal candidate for the next project.