Use the Celtics Team Approach in IT

The "Ubuntu" philosophy can create champions on and off the basketball court.

After a 22-year drought, the Boston Celtics are the NBA champions for the 17th time. The once-mighty team went through a long stretch of poor coaching and management, questionable draft choices and free-agent signings, and plain bad luck before assembling a winning team for the 2007-08 season.

How did the Celts reverse the negative flow of recent history? Beyond assembling a modern-day "Big Three" of superstar players, they adopted a team-first style of play that featured plenty of old-school ball movement and selfless play-making. This strategy was reminiscent of how the great Celtics squads of the past got the job done, but the team went even further back in history to define their approach to the game.

The Celtics' mantra for their championship season was "Ubuntu"-not the Linux distribution, but a traditional African concept of unity and selflessness.

As defined by Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Ubuntu means being open, available and affirming to others, and knowing you belong in a greater whole that is diminished when any one member is diminished. For the Celtics, Ubuntu meant putting the team above any individual player and never quitting, even when facing a seemingly insurmountable 24-point lead on the road. What can Ubuntu mean to your IT department?

For starters, within the IT department, Ubuntu means taking a holistic approach to projects. Staffers working on a back-end implementation project should engage other IT team members who may be engaged with store-level systems, and vice-versa. Especially in the age of distributed enterprises and Web services, there are very few true "standalone" systems.

If you're implementing a new POS (point-of-sale) system, it will probably transmit real-time data to the merchandising systems, and the people responsible for them may have some good ideas on how to ease the flow of information that you would not have thought of. And even if they don't, it's always good to get some perspective from someone who is not quite as close to a project as you are.

And beyond the four invisible walls of the IT department, Ubuntu means knocking down the interdepartmental "silos" that still plague so many retail enterprises. Far too many retailers operate as a collection of mini-companies, each with its own separate strategy and agenda.

For the IT department, operating in a siloed environment typically results in underfunded projects, surprise changes in business strategy that require massive and immediate systems overhauls, and being made the scapegoat whenever things go wrong ("This would have never happened if those guys at IT had kept the systems up to date!"). As an understandable but damaging side effect, the IT department often closes ranks and becomes mistrustful of other departments, worsening the situation.

While no one department is typically to blame when corporate silos are erected, every department shares some of the blame, IT included. The true spirit of Ubuntu dictates that when any part of the whole suffers, all of the whole suffers, and it is up to the individual to step forward and make a change. IT can take a leading role in knocking down silos by being the first department to openly share information and seek outside input on projects.

After all, most systems wind up supporting and being used by departments other than IT. Shouldn't they have some say in how systems that affect their jobs are deployed? And once that spirit of Ubuntu is unleashed, it will take hold across the company, and other departments may even realize that IT is a mission-critical component of daily operations, and not just "those guys" who are really good with computers.

Ubuntu creates the atmosphere in which winning decisions are made and championships are achieved. Just ask the Celtics, who spent 22 long years figuring it out. Also remember that sports teams routinely go a century or more without finding the championship formula. Retailers rarely have the luxury of that kind of time.

Dan Berthiaume covers the retail space for eWEEK. For more industry news, check out's Retail Site.