How to organize teams to get the best out of them

Today I would like to share my thoughts on how different companies structure their departments and teams. I will also show how to improve communication, collaboration, commitment and pride of work done. It might require a reorganization of the structure, loosen up your micromanagement aspirations and give your people more independence and trust in their skills.

how to organize teams

Function-oriented teams

The traditional split of departments and teams is by function. You can still find companies with teams like Frontend, Backend, Design, Infrastructure, Systems Operations, Support, QA etc. Each of them has its own project manager and their role is to coordinate work between teams. People in this structure rarely talk with other teams directly, often push responsibility outside of their group and keep tightly to their own, narrow area of expertise. They work on tasks delegated by their non-technical managers. Project managers prepare roadmaps and specifications of features to be built, split them between teams and coordinate journey of work from team to team. Design prepares mockups without knowledge of existing frontend components, Backend is providing API endpoints to an unknown user interface. Frontend is building UI according to design specifications, which never reuse existing elements. A frontend is built on mocked data as specified in a task, but they don’t know if it works till Backend handover its API. When implementation is done, then it’s time for QA. You know how does it always end. Tasks are reopened and it’s hard to figure out which team should fix which bug. In the end, sysadmins have to run all of the code on production, without the knowledge of the app beside what was written by managers in the task. Good luck with that.

Path to product-oriented teams

Next step in a team structure evolution is a product-oriented team. A team consists of a few frontend and backend developers and a product manager. They could be assisted by an UX designer, a data analyst or people with other skills, depending on a product they are developing. Developers are also responsible for running their code on production, so welcome to DevOps. This is a big step in the right direction, still, it’s rarely executed properly.

First of all, transition from a function-oriented to a product-oriented team is hard. I’ve seen it done badly. Imagine that for many years you were told what to do. You received a task, implemented it good enough that QA won’t complain, and forgot it. You didn’t care who will work with your code in the future. You also never cared about a product or features as no one expected you to think outside of your box. Now you are responsible for your product. If you write ugly code today, you will need to fix it tomorrow. Other people in your team rely on you. You finally see that there are real users on the other side. They might be happy or angry with what you have just released.

As a manager responsible for the transformation, you have to put a lot of effort to do it right. You need to change people mindset, sell them on new responsibilities, teach them how to work as a team. They might feel lost, refuse or question new order. If you are going through this right now, contact me. I’m happy to help.

Pseudo-product teams

Some companies claim that they have product-oriented teams but still use a top-down style of management. This way they are not using the full power of their people. In those pseudo-product teams people are still treated as execution labor force, but a flow of tasks is easier to manage. People with different skills cooperate more. Frontend developers agree on API directly with backend developers. A designer is aware of UI components available inside the team, and frontend can easily ask for adjustments if the design is not reasonably easy to implement. Team spirit begins to shape.

The problem lays on the management side. Instead of cooperating with the team, Product Managers think that their job is only to add more tasks to the backlog. Of course, the team uses one of the Agile methodologies to organize work. Tickets are agreed on before a sprint starts, they are estimated etc. What is missing is a feedback about the product from the team back to the manager.

People in pseudo-product teams are still not part of a product development research and feature planning phases. Engineers are not asked if a feature makes sense from a technical point of view, or maybe there is an easier solution. Engineers don’t understand product and users as they don’t have access to any data or user feedback. From the other side, managers don’t understand the complexity behind every new feature they want to add. They only care about their backlog and KPIs (Key Performance Indicators).

In one of the companies I’ve worked for, there was a very clear split between product and engineering. Product department was the head. They were preparing new features, defining OKRs (Objectives and Key Results), delegating tasks. Engineering was the hands. We were executing every idea coming from the head. You might think this is an efficient way of developing software. Engineers are not disturbed by making product decisions, we can focus on delivering more and more features. We decide on all technical aspects so software should be of a good quality. There is some truth in that. Engineering was top level in that company. It was enabling product team to experiment a lot. An average technical team wouldn’t have handled it.

Despite all of it I still believe we could have done better. Here are some issues I’ve seen in that company:

  • Product people decide on OKRs for the next quarter. For example, we want 100k more users to use certain feature per month. Very well. But if OKR is decided by Product, communicated to the team without any negotiation, then Product Managers decide how to reach the OKR, so what is the role of the rest of the team? Just implement what they are told to do. Let’s think about it. If you are not personally involved in any stage of defining or achieving goals for your team… why should you care?
  • The software was full of forgotten experiments and feature flags. The product was running a lot of A/B tests. Tests and new features were controlled by feature flags. That is great. You cannot get your product right from the first iteration. You need to adjust it for real user needs and usage. The thing is that every experiment and temporary switch in your code has to be cleaned up. Otherwise, you are just creating legacy code. Software grows bigger but a big part of it is never used. Product Managers were aware of it, but not much was done about it. You cannot give too much power over software to people who don’t understand software. Technical team cannot be top-down managed by non-technical people. Unless your technical team is bad. Then you shouldn’t work with them anyway.
  • My definition of a team in that company was: “a bunch of people sitting in the same room”. Doesn’t sound good, does it? But that’s how I felt. Because PM delegated tasks directly to every single person, there was not much of a team spirit. Every developer worked separately on their own individual task. Team spirit is weak if people are not challenged to work together.

Introducing: Product Engineer

To address all issues I mentioned before I would like to introduce a role of a Software Product Engineer. I’m sure, I’m not the first to write about it, but you still don’t meet many of them. In many companies, career development path is focused either on technical, product or management skills. It’s not possible to mix them in one role. And that is what I’m missing the most. A Product Engineer is someone who understands product and business ideas behind it, who understands user needs and how to fulfill them. From the other side, they are solid engineers. They not only come up with a feature idea but also implement it. Because they know the system from inside, they see way more opportunities for improvement. They introduce fixes fast, without all management overhead. They are product-oriented so they tweak the UX on the way. You don’t need to write them long specifications. Give them problems to solve and let them do their best.

True product team

My advice to all engineers is to learn about product development. My advice to all project and product managers is to learn some basic of engineering. Only with skill reaching outside of your defined role you can deliver great results. I also encourage to involve technical people very early in the feature or product planning phases. You will be surprised at how much feedback they can give. The result will be a better product and saved time. Of course, keep meetings with engineers short. Brief them what are you thinking about, let them talk and shape the idea together. Let them build a prototype, etc. You are already on the right path.

Imagine a true product team. It consists of product engineers. Some of them are better with the frontend, some with the backend, some are experts in UX and some are more interested in coordination. That doesn’t really matter as each of them can easily jump into another role. All of them live their product. They chat with their users every day. Time from an idea to delivery is instant. They are all fulfilled and proud of their work. They are coming to work on Monday full of energy and ideas. Their goals are aligned with the company’s. You don’t need to manage them as they created a self-sustained group.

Would you like to have such a team in your organization?

If you agree with me or not, let me know either way! You can find me on Twitter or comment on Medium.