Thoughts on Team Topologies

Team Topologies is a 2019 book written by Matthew Skelton and Manuel Pais

I include myself amongst those who have longed for a way to better articulate how firms can enable more outcome-focused teams.

So it’s been rewarding to have Team Topologies help me order my thinking to enable organisations to better support customer-facing teams. Such thinking will help those teams better serve their customers and deliver their organisation’s mission.

What Team Topologies says

Pardon the lockdown hair style!

We need to design our organisation around team-first principles. Chiefly we should design around teams’ cognitive load. Cognitive load meaning the mental effort being used at any one time.

Invariably the products & services an organisation creates is determined by its structure and its internal communication lines. This follows Conway’s Law. In a consultative manner, we should work with the law by altering team dynamics, structure and communication lines to create the desired products and services.

We should work with Conway’s Law by altering team dynamics, structure and communication lines to create the desired products and services.

Team Topologies offers a sophisticated mechanism to examine, design and improve team and organisation design.

There are four team topologies (i.e. types of team)

This is achieved through close attention to team topologies (i.e. types of team), team responsibilities and collaboration modes. Ultimately this is to orientate the organisation to support teams to deliver a continuous flow of value.

There are four team types. Two of which are stream-aligned teams (i.e customer-facing teams) and Platform teams whose raison d’être is to support stream-aligned teams with reusable services with minimal friction.

My Take-Aways

Counter-intuitively, where appropriate, we need to reduce collaboration. For example, a platform team needs to provide an easy-to-consume service for customer-facing teams; this shouldn’t necessitate in-depth collaboration. This will allow the customer-facing team to focus more on their customer mission.

To help organisations realise their mission, Team Topologies helps standardise the ingredients for team and organisation design. Metaphorically speaking, these ingredients are not for a standard meal plan, but more for a test kitchen. A test kitchen where organisations can continuously discover how customer-facing teams should be supported by other team types and the leadership team.

Metaphorically speaking, the ingredients described in Team Topologies are not for a standard meal plan, but more for a test kitchen. A test kitchen where organisations can continuously discover how to support customer-facing teams.

Dean Latchana

Closing thoughts

Team Topologies will help foster the right mindset and means to help organisations re-orientate to support customer-facing teams become more outcome-focused, better serve customers and deliver the organisation’s mission.

It’s given me the language, ingredients and confidence to better articulate my own experiences to help my clients achieve success.

Kudos to Matthew Skelton and Manuel Pais (Team Topologies) for authoring Team Topologies.

Do the right thing or do the thing right

Does your team tend to do the right thing, or do the thing right?

Doing the right thing means that despite any mandated procedure, sanctioned tools or external expectations, the team can choose their own approach to achieve its purpose.

Doing the thing right means that the team adheres to the mandated procedures, use the sanctioned tools and meet external expectations, even if it means it impedes them from fulfilling their purpose.

This article offers a technique that’ll enable teams to examine and potentially improve their balance of doing the right thing and doing the thing right. But first an example…

Example

Suppose a team of housing officers aren’t obligated into following ill-fitting procedures, tools, and expectations, they’ll have the freedom to find the right approach to meet their purpose to support their tenants. They will be doing the right thing. They will be discovering and evolving the right procedures, tools, and expectations.

If they bound by, or hide behind the use of procedures, tools, and expectations, which aren’t fit for purpose, they will be hindered from fulfilling their purpose of supporting their tenants. They’ll be doing the thing right.

Impact of doing the thing right

Many teams feel forced to do the thing right at the cost of doing the right thing. Lack of freedom to safely challenge, and potentially disregard, mandated ways of working can result in many to suffer in silence. It often leads to poor morale, disillusionment, unmet team objectives, and delay.

At times the detrimental impact can lead to catastrophe, resulting in public outcry, scandal and suffering. One tragic example is the Liverpool Care Pathway scandal, where many patients in palliative care suffered as a result of a ‘tick box exercise’. Patients were being assessed as terminally ill, heavily sedated and denied water often resulting in their diagnosis becoming self-fulfilling.

A less harrowing, yet a universal occurrence in many organisations are mandated frameworks and procedures. Often these are deemed by outsiders as necessary. However, these mandates were never, or are no longer, fit-for-purpose. For example a heavyweight PMO process, or an inappropriate compliance regime mandated by distant policymakers, or an inflexible and protracted delivery lifecycle.

Overcoming doing the thing right

How can teams overcome the pressure to do the thing right so they can focus on fulfilling their purpose? How can they recognise and challenge ill-fitting procedures, tools, and expectations?

I have a technique that will help teams map and strategise their way towards doing more of the right thing. The technique works by incrementally expanding the boundary of existing local freedoms into the area of external expectations and mandated processes.

The technique recognises that mandates may have originated from a worthy – yet possibly misconceived – desire to manage for consistency, efficiency, and alignment across the organisation.

It also recognises that since organisations need to adapt to change and uncertainty, to be effective, teams need the flexibility to experiment with emergent and nonconformist ways of working, which still align with the wider organisational vision.

The technique

This facilitated technique involves the team identifying the interactions, processes and tools they are involved with.

Start with identifying between six and 12 items which are routine team practices. Here are some examples:

No.ItemType
1Customer representativeInteraction
2Influential Senior Manager from a different business unitInteraction
3Regular customer visitsInteraction
4New governance process mandated by new parent companyProcess
5Manual document control process with no centralisation or version controlTool
6Web-based collaborative documentation tools. Tool introduced by the new parent companyTool
7Implementing unquestioned requirements based on a untested solutionTool

Approximately place each item onto a plot showing the value the item contributes to the team’s purpose versus the degree of control the team has to do the item.

The team could do this post-it notes so they can be easily discussed, changed and moved around.

Example of item mapping showing the degree to which each item helps to fulfil the team’s purpose against the degree to which the team has a choice over adhering to the item

Finally, referring to the illustration below, categorise and discuss the items as follows.

Item MappingTeam considerations
Low value & team’s choiceDiscuss whether the item should be stopped. This item provides little value and the team has freedom to discontinue it.
High value & team’s choiceThis item should be continued, monitored and refined.
High value & no team choiceAlthough the item is mandated, it still provides value to the team. It should be continued and potentially refined with those mandating the item.
Low value & no team choiceSince it’s mandated, the team will need to continue this item. However, where possible, they should discuss with those mandating the item that it provides little value to the team’s purpose. Both parties should explore how adjustments or alternatives could address their shared needs and concerns.
Categories of suggested team discussions.

Next steps

The team should recognise this is a dynamic landscape, over which they have some agency. Therefore this technique should be done periodically, and with discipline. It will help the team continuously expand and improve upon the procedures, tools and expectations needed to fulfil their purpose.

Final thought

This technique should help the team gain a better awareness of the procedures, tools and expectations they have control over, and which they don’t. It will help move from frustration & dejection to engagement & continuous improvement.

Contact me (dean@latchana.co.uk) if you would like help introducing this technique within your organisation.

The Cone-shaped Backlog

Here’s an approach I’ve found successful when helping teams ensure their backlog supports optionality, handles uncertainty and continuously adjusts so their goals and strategies are aligned to their vision.

A backlog should have these qualities

The backlog is made-up of backlog items. Each item represents a business goal, which when delivered by the team, will provide a beneficial outcome to the business and its customers/stakeholders.

Qualities of the backlog:

  • Easy to update by the product owner
  • Should be available to everyone in the business
  • Shows the backlog items for the next sprint
  • Conveys a vision of the future with a tangible path to the present
  • Reflects vagueness and options
    • If a distant backlog item is too vague to describe in words, consider drawing a picture, as shown in the photo below
  • Self-explanatory to anyone in the business

The cone-shaped

I often encourage teams to visualise the backlog in a cone-shape in this manner:

  • The neck of the cone shows the current sprint goals
  • The widest point of the cone shows the furthest goals which may be months or years from now.
  • The centre of the cone shows the goals for the intervening time periods. This area can be divided into sprints, months, quarters and half-year intervals.
Backlog visualised as a cone, like the cone-of-uncertainty

Reason for the cone-shape

  • It reflects the cone of uncertainty, where the further out the team considers, the less certain they are of the future environment.
  • The narrow neck of the cone reflects the fact the team can only sustainably deliver a small number of goals. Invariably there is more demand than the team can supply, so the team should gradually constrain the number of goals as the time nears the current sprint.
  • The further into the future, the more the team can consider a wide number of options. This optionality allows the team to consider many possibilities and scenarios without having to commit earlier than necessary. However, as time draws nearer, and as the cone gets narrower, the team will need to reduce the number of options based on the insights they have gathered.

Additional information which supports the backlog

As shown in the photo above, to enable continuous alignment across the business, there is additional information I advise teams to use:

  • Vision Statement: This is a short easy-to-understand statement which describes what the team intends to achieve. It’s written by the team, with their sponsor and stakeholders. The vision statement ensures alignment for the team with those they serve and with those whom the team may rely upon.
  • Strategies: These are the current set of approaches the team have reasonable confidence in that, if delivered successfully, will help fulfil the vision statement.
  • KPIs: These Key Performance Indicators are a small selection of measures which indicate whether the team’s strategies and sprint goals are achieving the team’s vision.
  • Epics start and end dates: Epics are goals which span more than one sprint. On the backlog, the likely start time of an epic is positioned with a blue post-it note; the likely end time is positioned with a pink post-it note.

Further Reading

Inter-team qualities for Business Agility

Business Agility is an enterprise-wide mechanism to rapidly sense, respond and deliver the right business initiatives that will benefit an organisation and its customers.

To increase business agility, an organisation needs to promote the qualities of collaboration, alignment and synchronisation amongst its teams and departments. This creates cohesion to the organisations strategic goals.

Governance processes should be built around these qualities since it affords individuals and teams a great degree of freedom to pursue the organisation’s goals and outcomes. It will also help close the gap between strategic direction and day-to-day team execution.

Consider scaling team frameworks such as Scrum to create ways of working that promote these qualities.

Collaboration

Regardless of background, seniority or specialism, teams and individuals from across the business should have the freedom to collaborate. Collaboration can extend beyond the business to include business partners and clients.

Managers should help the business to reorganise so that cross-functional teams of specialists, regardless of department, can work as single teams to rapidly experiment and deliver business outcomes.

Alignment

All individuals should understand and be aligned to the organisation’s mission, vision and strategic direction. Each team and department should have clarity of the business outcomes that are currently being sought.

Leaders should enthuse and align their colleagues; managers should create the environment and ways of working with their colleagues which reduces misalignment.

Synchronisation

Creating cross-functional and co-locate delivery teams can greatly improve business agility. However, despite this, often a single team cannot deliver products and services on their own. Often many teams need to be involved, which necessitates the synchronisation of effort across many teams.

To illustrate this Klaus Leopold gives a useful analogy which I’ve expressed as the following:

A customer wanting to have a letter written, where each team works independently by controlling a row of keys on a keyboard. Typing the letter would be uncoordinated, slow and frustrating.

To improve time to market, it’s inevitable that teams need to interact. So, rather than teams independently hitting their keys at speed, it’s better if each team slows down, coordinate and collectively hit the keys at the right time and sequence.

Setting-up Effective Teams

For a team to effectively deliver valuable business outcomes, they should typically be set-up with the characteristics describe on this page. These characteristics will also help ensure the team is aligned to the organisation’s strategy and fulfil the needs of customers and clients

These characteristics are rules of thumb. Any compromises and trade-offs against these characteristics are likely to reduce team effectiveness and delay delivery. With continuous leadership guidance and coaching, the team should regularly review and make adjustments to find the sweet spot.

These characteristics can be viewed as enabling constraints, in that they are set of conditions which, although constraining, will enable the team’s alignment to business needs, handle uncertainty and deliver value effectively.

Each characteristic has an interactive slider. Use the slider to reveal the trade-offs and compromises for the characteristic.

Small team size over large team size

Small teams reduce the number of people who need to be kept up-to-date and therefore increases the team’s cohesion and nimbleness. Between five to nine people is the optimum.

Click on the circles to reveal the trade-offs

Co-located over distributed team

Teams who sit together are able to share, discover and deliver with the least barriers to communication. Empathy and effectiveness are maximised. When the team members are distributed, the benefits of non-verbal communication (e.g. body language) and emergent rituals are constrained.

The more the work is uncertain, complex and varied, the more the team should choose to co-locate. On the other hand, if the work is familiar, predictable and routine, then the team could be distributed.

Full-time over multiple endeavours

Teams who are full-time on a single project or initiative have the least amount of distraction. They don’t suffer the overhead of context-switching between different work.

Cross-disciplined over siloed specialisms

Teams are most effective when they have everyone they need to take a requirement through to delivery. They won’t be hampered by having to wait for, or gain sign-off from, external parties. Individuals should be T-shaped meaning they have the breadth of competencies and willingness to switch between a number of roles within the team.

Self-managing over external management

If the team has the clarity of their mission and have the competency to deliver the mission, they are best placed to discover how to manage themselves and decide how work should be delivered.

Emotional intelligence over a narrow worldview

The team should be made up of individuals who have the capability to recognise their own emotions and those of others. In a composed manner, they should use emotional information to guide thinking and behaviour, and professionally handle the inevitable trial and tribulations to achieve their team goals.

Long-lasting over short-term teams

It takes time for team members to understand each other’s preferences, nuances and specialists, and time for the team to form its culture and ways of working. Once the team has stabilised and is highly performant, be careful not to break-up the team without a compelling reason.

Leadership support over distant management

Attempting to deliver business value, particularly for new business initiatives, is inherently uncertain. Teams need support from leaders to ensure strategic alignment. Leaders should remove organisational impediments and negotiate with staunch traditionalists.

Close to customers over proxy interpretation

In order for the team to reduce the feedback cycle between learning and deliver, they must be closest in the organisation to the customers or clients. Any intermediaries will slow the feedback cycle, increase misinterpretation and reduce customer retention.

Notes

Thanks to Tom Broughton for helping me strengthen this article.