IJIS Exchange


Part two of the three-part column on court project IT dream teams

In our last column, we introduced the topic of “dream teams” and gave a few examples of high performers from the world of sports (the 1992 U.S. Olympic Basketball Team and the 2019 U.S. Women’s Soccer Team). We also shared several top attributes found in winning teams of all types, such as:

  • cohesiveness
  • strong leadership
  • individual ownership
  • willingness to take risks

And we provided high-level definitions of the “forming, storming, norming and performing” phases of team development, which were originally authored by Bruce Tuckman back in the 1960s. (Check out part 1 of this topic here for a quick refresher.)

At the end of the day, what does any of our fancy observations matter to court management if we can’t underscore the professional skills, roles, and knowledge needed to successfully implement technologies in your own court? We took to the street (okay, the “virtual street,” aka “phone line”) to find out what courts and their suppliers had to say about putting together winning dream teams for projects.

Bring Your “A” Game

No shock here—everyone we spoke with had very high expectations of the other side. Courts expect that their supplier will bring seasoned and talented people to the table, and vendors assume the same of their clients. Vonnie Diseth, who leads the Information Services Division for the Washington AOC put it right out there: “We understand that vendor new hires have to start somewhere, but please don’t expect us to train them for you.” Vonnie readily acknowledges that it’s a two-way street and that even the best of partnerships will hit bumps along the way regardless of the talent at the table. She suggests vendors should make sure that whoever they put on an implementation team “brings more knowledge and expertise about the product than anyone on our team.” This sentiment was echoed by the vendors we talked to: “Domain expertise is essential,” stressed Tania Wasser, president and CEO of Intresys. “We need our clients to have a deep understanding of their existing business processes for each case type we’re working with, and it’s equally important that court subject matter experts (SMEs) can share their vision for future operations with us.” Both Vonnie and Tonia agree that everyone on the team must understand the other’s goals, objectives, and general principles. Having these conversations up-front can save a lot of time and frustration downstream. Without exception, everyone we interviewed emphasized this important aspect of project implementation.

Key Takeaway #1: Take care to bring all team members up to speed before they engage on a project. If you’re the court, make sure your team, especially SMEs, are well versed about court operations and implementation goals. If you’re the vendor, it’s essential that your project staff have a detailed understanding of your product and how it’s intended to be used by the court. Then share this information with one another during project kickoff.

 “A” = Accountability, Too

A common theme throughout our interviews with both courts and vendors was the importance of accountability for every team member. Lest we confuse accountability with responsibility, let’s get on the same page about what this means. Partners in Leadership’s Craig Hickman has coauthored a few books on this topic and defines the difference like this:

Accountability is cultivated: “Many employees associate the term accountability with their managers assigning them a task and holding them to it. However, this punitive perspective can be counterproductive to employee and team engagement. Rather, engaged employees see accountability as a matter of personal investment and ownership. When employees are held accountable in a positive manner, they see responsibilities and tasks as challenges to meet and problems to solve with enthusiasm.”

Responsibility is imposed: “In contrast to accountability, a responsibility is something that is given to someone, such as a job title, list of duties, or daily start time. Naturally, managers expect employees to live up to their responsibilities, but that shouldn’t be the only standard used to measure employee success. Doing so creates an environment of going through the motions that doesn’t inspire high levels of employee engagement.”

Every one of our courts and suppliers agreed that accountability is key to project rollout success. Tim Holthoff, director of court information systems for the Arkansas State Court System, can quickly spot when a vendor is dodging true accountability. Tim shared his experience with vendors making broad statements about things like agile methodologies saying, “Often, this is really an excuse for not planning.” He talked about how some vendor staff are clearly punting and dodging accountability by defending themselves with claims of “I’m only technical” or “I’m just the functionality person.” This kind of deflection is a surefire way to lose credibility.

Key Takeaway #2: Cultivate accountability throughout your organization and then hold every single person accountable for the success of the project regardless of their role. This doesn’t mean browbeating your team; rather, it’s about setting expectations and empowering each individual to be a pivotal factor in your success. If you’re the court, be sure to get your SMEs involved as early as possible and prepare them by communicating big-picture goals for the project. If you’re the vendor, reread that sentence, and do the exact same thing with your team members.

It’s Never Too Early to Engage Your Team

We touched on this above, and since all interviewees agreed on this point we’ll repeat it here: Prepare your entire team by giving them a complete understanding of the project and its goals. Do this as early as possible—well before you’re engaged with your partner organization. Mark Seeba, chief technology officer at Streamwrite, may have said this best: “We see radical variations in how client deployment teams are equipped and prepared for projects.” Mark observed that some client teams he’s worked with have a very clear understanding of how the new application fits court business processes, but often that’s not the case. When this insight is missing, projects can quickly spin in the wrong direction. Mark’s suggestions include getting SMEs involved early, even before the sale is finalized and certainly before the kickoff occurs. Other participants concurred, with Vonnie pointing out that an understanding of the client is essential for every person on the vendor’s team, too. She suggests that vendors familiarize themselves with the court’s organization, their overall challenges and goals, their political environment, and certainly the specific situation causing them to purchase the vendor’s solution.

Key Takeaway #3: We’re all in this project together, friends, so let’s learn everything we can about each other to help cement our mutual success. Read up on one another, circulate information throughout your team, bring an appreciation for each other’s objectives and be prepared to collaborate. If you’re the court, know who your team will be as you start the procurement process and educate them early about the challenges you aim to address with this new solution. If you’re the vendor, insist that every team member takes the time to learn about your client, their operations, and why (and how) your solution is expected to solve their challenges.

Coming Next: Don’t miss part three of the IJIS Exchange Dream Teams discussion, where we talk about the critical X Factor that every court and vendor put at the top of their list for successful project engagement. Plus, we’ll include a handy matrix, which maps project roles with the skills, knowledge, and capabilities both courts and vendors must possess if they are to become a true Dream Team.

Special thanks to the following contributors:
Joe Wheeler, MTG Management Consultants
Vonnie Diseth, State of Washington Administrative Office of the Courts
Tim Holthoff, State of Arkansas Court System
Tania Wasser, Intresys
Mark Seeba, Streamwrite
Jeff Palmer and Darren Hill, equivant
David Smith, Journal Technologies