Agile Organization: Embedded Crossfunctional Service Teams

This is the second in the series of deeper-dive articles that are part of Agile Organization Incorporating Various Disciplines. Previously I wrote about the “traditional” siloed model as Agile Organization: Separate Teams By Discipline.

Basic agile doctrine, combined with ITSM thinking, strongly promulgate a model where a team owns a business service or product.  I’ll call this a “service team” for the sake of argument, but it applies to products as well.

The Embedded Crossfunctional Team Model

Simply enough, a service team has specialists from other groups – product, QA, Ops, whatever – assigned to it on an exclusive basis. They go sit with (where possible) and participate with the group in their process. The team then contains all the resources required to bring their service or product to completion (in production, for services). The mix of required skills may vary – in this diagram, product #4 is probably a pure back end service and product #3 is probably a very JavaScriptey UI product, for example.

embedded

Benefits of Embedded Crossfunctional Teams

This model has a lot of benefits.

  • Since team members are semi-permanently assigned into the team, they don’t have conflicting work and priorities. They learn to understand what the needs are of that specific product and collaborate much more effectively with all the others working on it.
  • This leads to removal of many bottlenecks and delays as the team, if it has all the components it needs to deliver its service, can organically assign work in an optimal way.
  • It is amazing how much faster this model is in practice than the separate teams by discipline model in terms of time to delivery.
  • Production uptime and performance are improved because the team is “eating its own dog food” and is aware of production issues directly, not as some ticket from some other team that gets routed, ignored, finger-pointed…

Drawbacks of Embedded Crossfunctional Teams

  • Multiple masters is always an issue for an engineer.  Are you trying to please the service team’s manager or your “real” manager, especially when their values seem to conflict? You have to do some political problem-solving then, and engineers hate doing that. It also provides some temptation to double-resource or otherwise have the embedded engineer “do something else” the ops team needs done, violating the single service focus.
  • It’s more expensive.  Yes, if you do this, you need at least one specialist per service team. You have to play man-to-man, not zone, to get the benefits of the approach. This should make you think about how you create your service teams; if you define a service as one specific microservice and you have teams with e.g. 2 devs on them, then embedding specialists is way more expensive. Consider basing things on the business concept of a service and having those devs working on more than one widget, targeting the 2-pizza team size (also those devs will be supporting/sustaining whichever services aren’t brand new). (Note that this is only “more expensive” in the sense that doesn’t bother with ROI and just takes raw costs as king – you get stuff out and start making revenue faster, so it’s really less expensive from a whole-company POV, but from the IT beancounter perspective “what’s profit?”)
  • While you get benefits of crosstraining across the disciplines, the e.g. ops folks don’t have regular all-day contact with other ops folks and so you need to take care to set up opportunities for the “ops team” to get together, share info, mentor each other, etc. as well. Folks call these “tribes” or “guilds” or similar.

Experience with Crossfunctional Teams

It can be hard at the beginning, when teams don’t understand each others’ discipline or even language yet.  I had a lengthy discussion with an application architect on one team – he felt that having ops people in the design reviews he was holding was confusing and derailing. The ops people spoke some weird moon-man language to him and it made the reviews go longer and require a lot more explanation.  I said “Yes, they do.  But we have two choices – keep doing it together, have people learn each others’ concerns and language, and start a virtuous cycle of collaboration, or split them apart and propagate the vicious cycle we know all too well where we have difficulty working together.” So we powered through that and stayed together, and it all worked out well in the end.

When we piloted this at Bazaarvoice, one of the first ops to embed got in there, worked with the devs, and put all his work into their JIRA project.  The devs got sticker shock very quickly once they saw how much work there was in delivering a reliable service – and when they dug into those tickets, they realized that they weren’t BS or busywork, but that when they thought about it they said “yeah… We certainly do need that, all this is for real!” The devs then started pulling tickets on monitoring, backups, provisioning, etc. because they realized all that workload on one person would put their delivery date behind. It was nice to see devs realize all the work that really went into doing ops – “out of sight, out of mind,” and too often devs assume ops don’t do anything except move their files to production on occasion. The embedding allowed them to rally to control their own delivery date instead of just “be blocked on the ops team.”

No one approach is “best,” but in general my experiences so far lead me to consider this one of the better models to use if you can get the organizational buy-in to the fundamental “you built it, you run it” concept.

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