5.3.08

It's Us or Them

Humans like to flock amongst our brethren. We like to be around people who look like us, and act like us, and talk like us.

Irrespective of my own or anyone's views on the matter, diversity and plurality don't often seem to be the "knee-jerk" reaction of any polity or plurality, going back about as far in time as you might care to study. One Cliff's Notes view of world history is that, well, everybody pretty much hates everybody else, and the rest is just implementation details.

It takes a great deal of open mindedness and a tremendous force of will to overcome this very basic human tendency to carve up the world between "us" and "them." This is stating the obvious, but no matter where you grew up, or where you live, it's just plain difficult to consistently see people on the other side of the planet, possibly with different accents, certainly with different cultural mores, as "the same as us."

It's a basic human tendency to see difference, and to create a taxonomy based on that difference. It's engrained in our language, and it's the foundation of how we reason. And the more I dig in to why good global teams are good, and why failed global teams fail, the more obvious it is to me that this Us/Them dichotomy is a root cause in both cases.

I've written before that "teaminess" is an important predictor of success in global sourcing. I'll now go out on a limb and say that all members of successful global teams identify themselves as "us" regardless of which continent they inhabit, or which company's logo is on their ID badge.

When I've talked to managers and staff about their failed outsourcing experiments, or their disappointing global teams, they always refer to the outsourced team, the contractors, the team in India or China as "them."

The "Us" managers and staff look at their global team and see:
  • Common purpose (We're all trying to ship this release on time.)
  • Shared fate (If we do, we'll all be successful!)
  • Shared skills and education (Hey, cool, we're all learning Ruby on Rails!)
  • Shared experience (Wow, Dilbert is funny whether you work in Bangalore or Boston!)
The "Them" managers and staff see:
  • Sinister purpose (They're trying to get more billable hours out of us!)
  • Opposed fate (It they're successful, we'll lose our jobs for sure.)
  • Disparate skills and education (I don't know what they teach CS majors in India, but my cat writes better code.)
  • Orthogonal experience (I just don't understand how they do stuff over there.)
I've long thought that any organization contemplating globalization or outsourcing of any technology operations should change their hiring dynamics for senior leadership. They should add "experience with global teams" and "affinity for managing and leading global teams" as bullets in their job descriptions, and they should quiz candidates not just on whether they've been involved in setting up a remote global team, but whether they enjoyed the process, and what they learned through it.

I still think that would be a good start, and could help secure talent with the force of will necessary to create an "Us" environment. But I think the hiring dynamics have to change deeper into organizations.

I've worked with engineers, smart, talented people with great experience, who are totally close-minded about globalization and outsourcing. In varying degrees, they view people anywhere else on the planet as incompetent, unintelligent, and "out to get our jobs." In my experience, people who approach globalization and diversity this way will never change. They start any effort with a chip on their shoulders, and they are poison to a team. They create a divisive environment, and they become a nucleation point for a "Them" mindset that will all too readily take over a team, and turn it into a group of adversaries.

Maybe, to address this problem, organizations should start interviewing for "multi-cultural" skills, as well as coding talent. Maybe they should look at world travel as a predictor of success in a global team. Maybe they should look for people who speak multiple languages already, on the presumption that this is correlative with embrace of other cultures. Or maybe they should just tell prospective employees that they will be traveling to India a lot, if they take the job in question.

And if the people are already hired, and are creating a "Them" team, I suggest that the organization in question has a tough decision to make. If somebody is creating, contributing to, or condoning a "Them" mentality, he or she has to go. Whether through termination or reassignment to a purely local team, that person shouldn't be allowed to work in a global context. But if they stay on the global "team" they will destroy it slowly.

Sadly, in software as in many human endeavors, it seems only to take a little bit of "Them" thinking to destroy a whole lot of "Us."

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