Agile Organization: Separate Teams By Discipline

This is the first in the series of deeper-dive articles that are part of Agile Organization Incorporating Various Disciplines. It’s very easy to keep reorganizing and trying different models without actually learning from the process. I’ve worked with all of these so am trying to condense the pros and cons to help people understand the implications of the type of organizational model they choose.

The Separate Team By Discipline Model

Separate teams striated by discipline is the traditional method of organizing technical teams – segmented horizontally by technical skill.  You have one or more development teams, one or more operations teams, one or more QA teams.  In larger shops you have even more horizontal subdivisions – like in an enterprise IT shop, under the banner of Infrastructure you might have a data center team, a UNIX admin team, a SAN team, a Windows admin team, a networking team, a DBA team, a telecom team, applications administration team(s), and so on. It’s more unusual to have the dev side specifically segmented horizontally by tech as well (“Java programmers,” “COBOL programmers,” “Javascript programmers”) but not unheard of; it is more commonly seen as “UX team, services team, backend team…”

separateteamsIn this setup in its purest form, each team takes on tasks for a given product or project inside their team, works on them, and either returns them to the requester or passes them through to yet another team. Team members are not dedicated to that product or effort in any way except inasmuch as the hours they spend working on the to-do(s). Usually this is manifested as a waterfall approach, as a product or feature is conceived, handed to developers to develop, handed to QA to test, and finally handed to Operations to deploy and maintain.

This model dates back to the mainframe days, where it works pretty well – you’re not innovating on the infrastructure side, the building’s been built, you’re moving your apps into the pre-built apartment units. It also works OK when you have heavy regulation requirements or are constrained to extensively documenting requirements, then design, etc. (government contracts, for example).

It works a lot less well when you need to move quickly or need any kind of change or innovation from the other teams to achieve your goal. Linking up prioritization across teams is always hard but that’s the least of the issues. Teams all have their own goals, their own cadences, and even their own cultures and languages. The oft-repeated warning that “devs are motivated to make changes and ops is motivated by system stability” is a trivial example of this mismatch of goals. If the shared teams are supporting a limited number of products it can work. When there are competing priorities, I’ve seen it be extremely painful.  I worked in a shop where the multiple separate dev teams were vertical (line of business organized) but the operations teams were horizontal (technical specialty organized) – and frankly, the results of trying to produce results with the impedance mismatch generated by that setup was the nightmare that sent me down the Agile and DevOps path initially.

Benefits of Disciplinary Teams

The primary benefit of this approach is that you tend to get stable teams of like individuals, which allows them to bond with those of similar skills and experience organizational stability and esprit de corps. Providing this sense of comfort ends up being the key challenge of the other organizational approaches.

The second benefit is that it provides a good degree of standardization across products – if one ops team is creating the infrastructure for various applications, then there will be some efficiencies there.  This is almost always at least partially, and sometimes more than entirely, counteracted in value by the fact that not all apps need the same thing and that centralized teams bottleneck delivery and reduce velocity. I remember the UNIX team that would only provide my Web team expensive servers, even though we were highly horizontally scaled and told them we’d rather have twice as many $3500 servers instead of half as many $7000 servers as it would serve uptime, performance, etc. much better. But progress on our product was offered up upon the altar of nominal cost savings from homogeneity.

The third benefit is that if the horizontal teams are correctly cross-trained, it is easier avoid having single points of failure; by collecting the workers skilled in something into one group, losses are more easily picked up by others in the group. I have to say though, that this benefit is often more honored in the breach in my experience – teams tend to naturally divide up until there’s one expert on each thing and managers who actively maintain a portfolio and drive crosstraining are sadly rare.

Drawbacks of Disciplinary Teams

Conway’s Law is usually invoked to worry about vertical divisions in a product – one part of the UI written by one team, another by another, such that it looks like a Frankenstein’s monster of a product to the end user. However, the principle applies to horizontal divisions as well – these produce more of a Human Centipede, with the issue of one phase becoming the input of the next. The front end may not show any clear sign of division, but the seams in quality, reliability, and agility of the system can grow like a cancer underneath, which users certainly discover over time.

This approach promotes a host of bad behaviors. Pushing work to other people is always tempting, as is taking shortcuts if the results of those shortcuts fall on another’s shoulders. With no end to end ownership of a product, you get finger pointing and no one taking responsibility for driving the excellence of the service – and without an overall system thinking perspective, attempts at one of the teams in that value chain to drive an improvement in their domain often has unintended effects on the other teams in that chain that may or may not result in overall improvement. If engineers don’t eat their own dog food, but pass it on to someone else, then chronic quality problems often result. I personally spent years trying to build process and/or relationships to try to mitigate the dev->QA->ops passing of issues downstream with only mixed success.

Another way of stating this is that shared services teams always provide a route to the tragedy of the commons. Competing demands from multiple customers and the need for “nonfunctional” requirements (performance, availability, etc.) could potentially be all reconciled in priority via a strong product organization – but in my experience this is uncommon; product orgs tend to not care about prioritization of back end concerns and are more feature driven. Most product orgs I have dealt with have been more or less resistant to taking on platform teams, managing nonfunctional requirements, and otherwise interacting with that half of demands on the product. Without consistent prioritization, shared teams then become the focus of a lot of lobbying by all their internal customers trying to get resource. These teams are frequently understaffed and thus a bottleneck to overall velocity.

Ironically, in some cases this can be beneficial – technically, focusing on cost efficiency over delivering new value is always a losing game, but some organizations are self-unaware enough that they have teams continuing to churn out “stuff” without real ROI associated (our team exists therefore we must make more), in which case a bottleneck is actually helpful.

Mitigations for the weaknesses of this approach (abdication of responsibility and bottlenecking constraints) include:

  1. Very strong process guidance. “If only every process interface is 100% defined, then this will work”, the theory goes, just as it works on a manufacturing line.  Most software creation, however, is not similar to piecing components together to make an iPod. In one shop we worked for years on making a system development process that was up to this task, but it was an elusive goal. This is how, for example, Microsoft makes the various Office products look the same in partial defiance of Conway’s Law – books and books of standards.
  2. Individuals on shared teams with functional team affinities. Though not going as far as embedding into a product team, you can have people in the shared teams who are the designated reps for various client teams. Again, this works better when there is a few-to-one instead of a many-to-one relationship.  I had an ops team try this, but it was a many-to-one environment and each individual engineer ended up with three different ownership areas, which was overwhelming. In addition, you have to be careful not to simply dedicate all of one sort of work to one person, as you then create many single points of failure.
  3. Org variation: Add additional crossfunctional teams that try to bridge the gap.  At one place I worked, the organization had accepted that trying to have the systems needs of their Web site fulfilled by six separate infrastructure teams was not working well, so they created a “Web systems” team designed to sit astride those, take primary responsibility, and then broker needs to the other infrastructure teams. This was an improvement, and led to the addition of a parallel team responsible for internal apps, but never really got to the level of being highly effective. In addition those were extremely high-stress roles, as they bore responsibility but not control of all the results.

Conclusion

Though this is the most typical organization of technology teams historically, that history comes from a place much different than many situations we find ourselves in today. The rapid collaboration approach that Agile has brought us, and the additional understanding that Lean has given us in the software space, tells us that though this approach has its merits it is much overused and other approaches may be more effective, especially for product development.

Next, we’ll look at embedded crossfunctional service teams!

2 Comments

Filed under Agile, DevOps

2 responses to “Agile Organization: Separate Teams By Discipline

  1. Jeff

    One other benefit is the ability to “level up” team members via mentoring by the other members within the team.

    This opens up staffing opportunities that wouldn’t otherwise exist if every member is required to be a Sr level position.

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