IT Manager Breakthroughs: The Power Of A Peer Culture

IT Leaders Need To Use Peer Review As A Problem Solving Tool
IT Leaders Need To Use Peer Review As A Problem Solving Tool

So where should creativity live in an IT department? We use creativity to solve problems, create designs, and to determine what projects to pursue. IT Managers need to be the ones who have creative control within the IT department in order to ensure that projects get done correctly. However, this is often easier said than done…

Ed Catmull is one of the founders of Pixar and he is currently the president of Pixar and Disney Animation Studios (they merged just awhile ago). He wrote an article for the Harvard Business Review in which he discussed how Pixar has learned to deal with managing all that creativity.

As an IT manager, your job is to get creative IT people on  a team, make their task very clear to them, bet on them big time, ensure that they have a way to get honest feedback, and then give them a lot of leeway to make decisions and the support that they’ll need to keep on going.

If that wasn’t enough to make an IT Leader’s job difficult, then the next part should just about do it. As an IT Leader, one of your main jobs is to observe your team. What you are looking for is how they work to solve problems and if they are able to make progress. In essence, you are trying to observe the social dynamics that are in play within the team – no changes needed if everything is working. It’s when it’s not working that things start to get fun…

Catmull has seen his share of both successful and unsuccessful leaders. He points out that he believes that good leaders, of course, have great analytical skills. However, he goes farther and says that they also have to be able to find a way to harness the analytical skills and work experience of those people who are on the team. I guess that’s the difference between an IT Leader and an “individual contributor”, eh?

Catmull believes that there are too few truly great leaders. These leaders have the ability to do a great job of listening to their team. Additionally, while they are listening, they are trying to gain an understanding of just what kind of thinking has gone into the speaker’s suggestion. Great leaders appreciate each and every contribution and in turn they feel free to use the best ideas no matter from where they came.

One of Pixar’s breakthrough management techniques is that they use what they call a “brain trust” to solve problems. When a team gets itself in trouble (and we all do at sometime or another), it can request the assembly of a brain trust.

A brain trust is a collection of Pixar’s most creative people. The team with the problem presentes their issues and then a two hour back and forth discussion ensues. During this discussion, there is no ego and nobody holds back on their comments / suggestions.

Through experimentation, Pixar has discovered that it is critical to NOT give the brain trust any authority over how the team solves its problems. This will screw up the dynamic of the brain trust session. Instead, make it a pure peer feedback session and watch the ideas flow…

Does your team use peer feedback techniques to solve problems today? Does the peer team have any authority? Do you feel that this technique works for your team? Why? Leave me a comment and let me know what you are thinking.