Team Topologies, Agile, Spotify and, well Methodologies

There is an impressive thread by by Patricia Aas, where she gets frustrated by the book Team Topologies, a bunch of Agile-speak, and a talk about the Spotify model. As usual, things like this got me thinking, wanting to write, and what I wanted to write wouldn't fit in the margins of a microblogging service.

I am badly-placed to criticise the Spotify model, and more Agile team structures, since I've not worked in them, or studied them to great depth. I've not read Team Topologies. However, in the great tradition of software development methodologies, whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must have a good go speculating anyway. My claim is that I am attacking methodologies in general, via the medium of the original Spotify model in particular.

It's not all negative, I'll get around to covering what I think is important, too.

Negatives first: When I look at the Spotify model, I see the ossification and idolisation of some rather traditional structures. The "Chapter" looks suspiciously like a dev team, a UX team, etc. The "Squad" looks suspiciously like the people who work together on a feature. "Guild" is Spotify-speak for "WTF? You need a new name for interest groups, a thing that springs up both informally and formally in any org with decent social dynamics?".

Now, the Spotify model evolved, so this is a straw person, but the bit that really sets off warning bells for me is the "Squad". Usually, when a feature needs to get done, someone from each team that needs to be involved gets assigned to it. Maybe, if it's really big, more than one person, but that's also a sign that we might want to take another look at how the work is split up. In other words, we naturally build squads very dynamically and on demand.

So, for all this talk of "agile" behaviour, naming and establishing squads is about reducing dynamicism. Similar pieces of work are routed through the same people. It sounds horrific to work in: Always working in the same narrow domain, and your value to the business being purely defined in terms of the feature area, not what you personally bring. Or maybe it's more dynamic than that, in which case you're running a regular team with funny labels.

The risks are clear: Key person risk and employees getting stuck in a rut. What could be the advantages to such an approach? I think it's supposed to be elimination of the overhead that comes with the dynamicism. Judging by Aas's review, much of the concern is about the overhead of communication. Having pre-established feature groups, with pre-established knowledge and context helps with that, I guess.

Patricia's criticism to me seems too strong: It seems she reads it as "communication is bad", and this is obviously... bad. I read it as "excess communication is bad". If people from opposite ends of your org spend most of their time talking together, maybe your org is badly structured! Good communication is super-important, and necessary. You're going to be spending a lot of time communicating, and badly-structured communications are overwhelming.

So, in the abstract I agree with "reducing communication", but with very strong provisos. Like almost all optimisation problems, the optimal doesn't lie at the extremes. Beyond a certain point, optimising to reduce communication has a much worse effect on the overall system. Having one person and one person alone who knows about a complicated area and refuses to talk about it will minimise communication, but is a very bad situation! When optimising, optimise for the big picture.

The other thing they seem to optimise for is cognitive load, aka people hate working on things they can't fit in their head, or that requires a giant bunch of learning for limited returns, like making a small change. The solution of "divide the world into single-person-load domains and then assign each to a person" is the most simplistic, and a bit crap. It has the downsides mentioned above.

Of course, I'm critiquing my interpretation of a single iteration of a specific methodology, but much of this applies more generally: Team structure methodologies try to crystallise and simplify something dynamic and context dependent. They tend to sell one-size-fits-all solutions to a range of problems, and replace critical thinking with cookie-cutter solutions.

I think this might be what frustrates Aas about Team Topologies. The correct answer to "How should I structure my teams?" is "It depends", and if the book doesn't make this explicit, and concentrate on how to think about the problem, but instead just serves up a mish-mash of examples, well, yes, it's going to be frustrating!

So far, so negative. What do I think the solution is? Number one: Think. Think about your domain, think about the trade-offs, think about the side-effects you might cause. You'll probably need to experiment (or rather, adapt over time), but experimenting on people while they're trying to get work done can be incredibly frustrating, so make sure people are on-board, and make the changes based on their feedback.

There are, though, a couple of timeless factors that come through again and again in organisational design: 1) Conway's Law, 2) It's about people.

Conway's Law, in its many variations, almost sounds like a joke. Yet I've observed its surprising power again and again. Aligning organisational structure with with system structure is an excellent way to optimise communications (and no, you'll never stop comms outside of reporting lines - trying to do so is a bad goal). The best organisational designers I've seen can change the organisational structure to change the associated system, something far deeper than the kinds of changes these methodologies espouse. (This is expensive, risky work, though.)

The other part is that management and leadership is always about people. In this specific context, methodologies tend to treat employees as interchangeable cogs. The organisational structure is designed, and people dropped into roles. This is backwards. If you're hiring exceptional people (you are hiring exceptional people, right?), it's a huge waste not to play to their strengths. In the extreme case, this means creating roles for people. Is this in tension with Conway's Law? Yes. No-one said it'd be easy. I said there aren't cookie-cutter answers, you have to work out what works for your situation.

And briefly, back to the problem of excessive communication, vs. the benefits of communication. This is a holistic problem, and talking about it as a team structure issue misses the big picture. It's also about culture, training, technical design (of both implementation and interfaces), processes, documentation... the works.

Posted 2024-05-24.