This week’s curator, Lee Bryant, looks at the debate around small teams and the ‘team of teams’ idea, shares some related guides from Shift*Base and picks 5 links for further reading on the topic.

Small teams as an organising principle

The Economist this week highlighted the resurgence of ‘teaming’ and the use of networks of small teams (so-called ‘team of teams’) as an organising principle in agile companies, reflecting the growing popularity of this approach to agility (see linklog below):

“Businesses are embracing the idea of working in teams. Managing them is hard”

Making this work in a growing startup, as we have seen with examples such as Spotify, is orders of magnitude easier than reforming a bureaucratic hierarchical structure, but it can be done. We are working on this challenge with clients at very different levels of scale, and there are certain basic techniques that we find work well. First, formerly centralised services need to become everything-as-a-service platforms that serve the varied needs of distributed teams. Second, it makes sense to start at the edges, based on the principle of authority for those closest to the information, and allow customer-facing mixed teams to pull resources from the inside of the organisation to meet identified needs. Third, there needs to be a model for scaling a large number of small teams, perhaps fractally (nested teams of teams at different levels of scale) or by use of product or sector networks that join together teams pursuing similar goals.

One of the biggest barriers to this approach for existing organisations is the existence of centrally mandated planning, budgeting or resource allocation processes, which are designed for top-down hierarchical operation. This is where a transition strategy is much more useful than a glorious vision of the perfect future operating model. Some firms might decide to simply flip to a new structure, but for others, there will be a period of transition towards the new model as unnecessary hierarchy and old process-driven models die off as new tissue is grown around a distributed team model.

Teams of teams is a great approach to creating agile organisations, but having seen agile team pilots fail because of lack of a shared service platform, I think the model goes hand-in-hand with turning the internal workings of the firm into a platform along the lines of Amazon’s concept of ‘primitive’ services described by Ben Thompson in the linklog below.

Shift*Base Guides

We have quite a bit of material in our guides on small teams and how they can be supported to create more agile, networked structures. I would recommend reviewing some of the emerging models in organisational design, many of which are based on autonomous teams, but also the importance of shared service platforms as described in Dave Gray’s excellent Connected Company book, without which team of teams structures are very hard to make work.

The most advanced example of a structure comprised of small teams evolving towards a business platform supporting autonomous micro-firms is probably the Chinese Haier group, and this case study provides a few useful techniques for anyone trying to build small team structures.

Related Links:

  • Is Slack slacking? The chat app couldn’t handle Uber’s relatively small workforce. Is this a serious failing or just a bump in the road for the $3.8bn company? Team Spirit, The Economist
  • Gen. Stanley McChrystal’s book on how he used a ‘team of teams’ networked model to sense and respond to a fast strategic environment in Iraq, and how a small central team can maximise influence through a distributed network. Team of Teams: The Power of Small Groups in Fragmented World
  • A fascinating piece of analysis that considers how Amazon’s tech infrastructure, based on ‘primitives’ as building blocks is also mirrored in its 2-pizza team company structures. The Amazon Tax
  • A free extract from Dave Gray’s excellent book The Connected Company, which discusses how to manage more like a city in a world of complex systems consisting of lots of small teams working towards common goals. In a connected company, management needs to function more like a city
  • The Platform Design Toolkit is a set of design tools that can be used to model and understand platforms. I was discussing it with Simone Cicero this week and recognised this as a good way to start talking about creating a business platform inside an organisation that has hitherto seen IT as a collection of barely integrated vertical software products. Platform Design Toolkit

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