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The topology for team flow

Mark Chillingworth Profile picture for user Mark Chillingworth July 7, 2023
Experian, Fidelity and JP Morgan are amongst the organisations finding development flow with Team Topologies

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(Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay )

Every day organizations claim that they are customer-centric. Yet in large companies, it can be difficult for employees and the senior leadership to actually understand the customer, and this is no different for developers and technology teams. With little understanding of the customer, teams are creating products and services with one hand tied behind their backs. What is required is fast feedback from customers to enable digital teams to change direction with the speed that technology enables. 

Frustrated by this disconnection and with an eye on future challengers to their business model, some organizations are adopting Team Topologies. At the recent Fast Flow conference in London, technologists explained and revealed how this team-focused approach is increasing adaptability, empowering teams, removing outdated headcount obsessions and creating high-performance teams.  

The concept of Team Topologies is mapped out in the book of the same name by experienced development leaders Matthew Skelton and Manuel Pais. Their treatise for Team Topologies has four pillars which focus on the value stream of the organization, an enabling team that deals with "obstacles" and detects where the organization needs new capabilities. A subsystem team of major technical expertise and a platform team which supports the delivery of the value stream. 

Skelton and Pais wrote Team Topologies in recognition that technology teams could not meet the demands of the business because they were too disconnected from the value stream - what the customer expects of the organization - whether this be banking, online retail, healthcare or public sector services. They write: 

It's a challenge for any company to efficiently produce software that meets customer needs, let alone create usable software for internal purposes.

As has been detailed numerous times in diginomica, digital business models are entirely different from industrial business models. Products are natural; they are released and then evolve based on the impact of customer or user behaviour. Iterations respond to the customer and user's needs or improvements in technology services. For developers and technology teams, this requires a continual flow of change to a product, adding improvements based on continual analysis of the customer and user. Development is continuous, not a project. 

Continuous development is the dividing line between born-digital businesses and those struggling with digitizing legacy business models. Tim Savage, CEO of Armakuni, a specialist that helps CIOs build high-performance engineering teams, says: 

If you are not doing development well, then you are slowing down. Organizations are struggling with technical debt, and they are competing with firms that are nibbling away at their profit margins.

Poonam Chhatralia, Organizational Effectiveness & Design Manager at Experian the credit rating organization, explains the typical journey businesses are on as follows: 

We are moving from a heritage business to an adaptive technology business. Hard-wired hierarchies don't allow adaptability.

The keyword by Chhatralia is adaptability. Team Topologies advocates say it allows a high degree of adaptation. 

Tracy Bessant, Head of Transformation and Agility at global bank J.P. Morgan gave the Fast Flow conference a clear example of how adaptability can enable the proverbial oil tanker to become lithe.

Bessant is leading the transformation of the Athena workflow platform, the largest platform used by the investment bank for managing the trade in stocks, currencies and commodities. Athena has 50 million lines of code and deals with 191 million transactions a day. Over 20,000 code changes take place on Athena on a regular basis to meet the needs of its users; those code changes, Bessant says, impact the outcomes the bank delivers to its customers. But before adopting Team Topologies, the Athena team was struggling to meet the needs of its users, she says: 

We are organized by capabilities, but that doesn't always lead to a value delivery.

Devolved leadership

Team Topologies cuts out layers of middle management and empower each team to be decision-makers. At Experian, this has led to the organizational chart being completely redrawn, as Chhatralia explains: 

Communication and collaboration should not be limited to boxes and lines on an organizational structure. Our multi-skilled teams are the unit of delivery.

Speaking at the .Next 2023 event by Nutanix, executive team coach and author of Competing in the new world of work Keith Ferrazzi said of the shift: 

If you want to be an agent of digital transformation, you have to adopt a very different leadership style. The core of my research recognizes that there is a new social contract among the team. As a leader, it's about can you create a new commitment to teamship. Business transformation is about teamship.

Savage at Armakuni adds: 

Teams want to respond to the needs of the customer, not the finance department.

This approach gets the best from the personalities and skills of technologists; at Fast Flow, Fidelity Senior Technology Consultant Rachael Wonnacott said:

Engineers don't really enjoy meetings. Our highly autonomous teams can make their own decisions.

Ferrazzi says that born-digital businesses have fewer meetings and use collaborative documents to pose questions and get all members of the business to provide answers. This ensures greater fairness of opinion and stops the Highest Paid Person in the Office (HiPPO) syndrome from dominating.  

Devolving leadership to cross-functional teams will be a brave move for many business technology leaders, but at Fast Flow, Experian, Fidelity, and JP Morgan demonstrate that it is possible. 

Ability not bodies

Having moved to Team Topologies, organizations can drive transformations based on the capability and capacity of their technologists. This ends the decades-old system of throwing bodies at a problem. Like the development of technology, this enables iterative management of the workload and technologists in the organization. Chhatralia at Experian says: 

We monitor team sizes based on the work stack and the cognitive load of the team.

Experian has also created communities of practice (COP) and guilds for experts, an important development as it enables skills development and progress and ends the hackneyed practice of promoting skilled craftspeople and subject matter experts into middle management roles. 

With teams forming to develop business outcomes, Experian has developed performance management to match the new working methods. Chhatralia says: 

Team performance management is key, so we have developed a framework that looks at: purpose; resources; team size; ways of working; innovation; interaction; cognitive load.

Bessant at JP Morgan has done the same, measuring teams by capacity rather than headcount, which has an added benefit for her team: 

These are subject matter experts, and it is a highly specialized and proprietary platform. We have realized that there are different pockets of SME value.

The result is high-performing teams, a holy grail for CTOs and CIOs. This methodology of team development and leadership lends itself to the move away from projects and towards a product focus, says Savage: 

When you build a SaaS service, you have to run it, evolve it, and that is a different mindset.

Chhatralia adds: 

Continuous adaptability is a trait of high-performing teams.

At Experian, a set of design principles have been developed to guide all teams; these include product value, team centricity, customer focus, reuse of technology, meaningful roles, diversity and inclusivity. A similar approach at JP Morgan has led to reduced overlap in technology delivery as silo working was cut and dependencies between applications were also decreased. 

My take

Throughout the 15 years I have been charting business technology leadership, middle management has been a constant problem. Listening to organizations that have adopted Team Topologies suggests there is now a methodology that enables greater localism, with empowered teams aligning to the value customers expect from a technology or business. This, in turn, frees up CTOs and CIOs to focus on the bigger picture and spend their time on the macroeconomic issues reshaping the business and its market. It could be time for CIOs and CTOs to remap the topology of their business unit. 

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