Based on a conversation with Dan Ronald, VP Product Management at Optigo Networks

It was a rare sunny spring day in Vancouver’s when I met with Dan Ronald in search of new insights into team performance. Dan is an experienced manager and co-founder of Optigo Networks, a provider of secure networks for smart buildings. Dan has a solid engineering background and has worked at very large companies (PMC-Sierra, MDA) and at start-ups. In our conversation he moved easily between the two different perspectives.

Team fit is critical

In large established organizations, thousands of people work on hundred-million dollar projects across multiple sites, different times zones, international borders and distinct cultures. Such complex team structures make collaboration a constant challenge. In most cases, teams come preassembled, and a project manager is dropped into cold water. She or he is expected to deliver regardless of how good the team is.

Under constant pressure, managers adjust teams on the go. And at times they have to replace someone on the team that they didn’t hire themselves. Once when working on an international project, management had to undertake such “team surgery”. After several attempts to improve the situation with less radical measures, a key team leader was removed to literally save the project.

“The main issue was that the skillset wasn’t what was claimed” Dan says. “The team member’s skills and expertise fell short of the project’s requirements, and the individual’s attitude towards work did not help close the skill gap.”

Small, early stage companies face a different challenge. Building a team from scratch has its advantages. Managers have direct control over recruitment and are generally intimately familiar with the needed skills. Pressure comes from another, even more challenging, source: the size of the company itself.

“Personalities matter more in a start-up than in a bigger company. If someone is not the right fit, there is a bigger downside in a start-up context where the time span for a proof of business validity is extremely short. Fit matters a lot even at the level of ‘do people integrate well, do they join their teammates for lunches, can they learn fast.’ In most cases we have been successful, but not always.”

Risks

Why do companies struggle to build successful teams? From Dan’s perspective, there are two critical issues:

“In bigger companies there is a greater risk that talent availability overrides skills match. In-house talent and expertise usually represent about 80% of all the people assigned to a team, leaving only 20% of the slots available to shore up the team with external talent.”

“But even this 20% flexibility is often constrained by the hiring process, which can be lengthy and complex. Essentially, contracting an external consultant may require almost the same amount of time and effort as hiring an employee. Companies go through the same resume mapping and interview processes.”

Another constraint, as Dan continues, is that

“It takes a while to ramp-up if you bring in someone from outside. It just takes longer. Consultants may be qualified on a technical side, but it takes time to understand the organization.”

Bigger organizations often have complex processes in place, which every new team member has to learn as part of contributing to the team. This constraint is something companies pay for by less efficiency. Complex processes can even lead to project failure if the team cannot handle the onboarding and process management costs.”

Why do smaller companies have difficulties in assembling teams? Dan brings up an example from Optigo.

“We recently went through the challenge of hiring a business development person. Because we are engineers, it is easier for us to bring on engineers than business people. While we rely on our networks for hiring, but the administrative and business skills side of our networks is more limited.”

“Do I think that this particular candidate is competent? Does s/he have the drive to succeed at a start-up? To address this uncertainty we use references and invite advisers to participate in the interview process, but in the end we have to rely on gut feeling!”

Dan’s challenge also comes from the different nature and measurability of skills. He finds skills like business development or sales and marketing harder to measure than technical skills like Java programming or network design. Business skills seem less “tangible.” This increases uncertainty and the risk of a compromised team fit. 

Opportunities for improvement

Dan identified several ways that teams can be improved:

“Companies do train people to improve skills and develop fit with the rest of the team. They should also make sure that their internal documentation and processes are well integrated and easy-to-use. Companies often go to agencies and invest in fancy hiring processes. But in many instances, neither the companies nor the recruitment agencies have a good system to engage new contractors, to quickly and dynamicly bring people into to the company.”

Dan feels that early stage companies are somewhat better positioned to fix this problem:

“As long as you have enough senior people on the team, you can build your team around these core staff using junior people. A good documentation and processes system then helps to bring newcomers up quickly.”

When there are skills gaps, Optigo doesn’t mind training or rounding-up.

“We don’t mind teaching specific technical skills as long as the basics are there that we can build on. This is often a situation with co-op students who honestly do tremendous work for us. We set up a sand box, where the co-ops can work and quickly become contributing team members without having to understand the complexities of the full system.”

In both cases, the challenge of team competence and team fit remain critical.

Talking to Dan helped us to see just how important skill match is for companies of all sizes and stages. Be that a big organization tapping a global talent pool or a smaller company making own its path, distilling and validating skills sets of employees, contractors and candidates is the foundation of successful team assembly.

What this requires is skill intelligence and not just skill availability. ‘Skill intelligence,’ that is what TeamFit provides to our customer, and in a knowledge-based economy, skill intelligence is the most important form of business intelligence.