Context III: Team of Teams

Team of Teams
Team of Teams: New Rules of Engagement for a Complex World is the name of a 2015 book by General Stanley McChrystal, describing his experiences as the commander of Joint Special Operations Command in the Iraq conflict. It describes how the US military was being beaten by a foe with inferior resources, and its need to shift from a focus on mechanical efficiency to more adaptable approaches. The title is appropriate for this context, as moving from “team” to “team of teams” is one of the most challenging transitions any organization can make.

Context Description

Context II, Operations Management introduced the AKF scaling cube, and this context is in part based on a related thought experiment. As the team-based company grew, it reached a crisis point in scaling the digital product. One team could no longer cope as a single unit with the increasing complexity and operational demands. In AKF scaling cube terms, the team is scaling along the y-axis, the hardest but in some ways the most important dimension to know how to scale along.

The organization is now a “team of teams”, at a size where face-to-face communication is increasingly supplemented by other forms of communication and coordination. Teams may get results but in different ways. The organization needs some level of coordination, and not everyone is readily accessible for immediate communication; people are no longer co-located, and there may be different schedules involved.

Furthermore, the organization now has multiple products. As it scales up, it must now split its products into features and components (the y-axis of the AKF scaling cube). Then as the organization moves from your first product to adding more, further organizational evolution is required. The organization may try to keep its products from developing unmanageable interdependencies, but this is an ongoing challenge. Tensions between various teams are starting to emerge. Specialization in your organization is increasing, along with the tendency of specialists to identify more with their field than with the needs of customers. There is an increasing desire among stakeholders and executives for control and predictability. Resources are limited and always in contention. Advisors and consultants suggest various frameworks for managing the organization. As the organization scales, however, its leaders need to remember that the highest value is found in fast-moving, committed, multi-skilled teams. Losing sight of that value is a common problem for growing organizations.

As the individual becomes a manager of managers, their concerns again shift. In Context II, the leader had to delegate product management (are they building the right thing?) and take concern for basic work management and digital operations. Now, in this context, the leader is primarily a manager of managers, concerned with providing the conditions for your people to excel:

  • Defining how work is executed, in terms of decision rights, priorities, and conflicts

  • Setting the organizational mission and goals that provide the framework for making investments in products and projects

  • Instituting labor, financial, supply chain, and customer management processes and systems

  • Providing facilities and equipment to support digital delivery

  • Resolving issues and decisions escalated from lower levels in the organization

New employees are bringing in their perspectives, and the more experienced ones seem to assume that the company will use “projects” and “processes” to get work done. There is no shortage of contractors and consultants who advocate various flavors of the process and project management; while some advocate older approaches and “frameworks”, others propose newer Agile and Lean perspectives. However, the ideas of process and project management are occasionally called into question by both employees and various “thought leaders”. In short, it’s all very confusing.

Welcome to the coordination problem. This overall context will cover where these ideas came from, how they relate to each other, and how they are evolving in a digitally transforming world.

Note on Learning Progression

The structure of Context III may be counter-intuitive. Usually, we think in terms of “plan, then execute”. However, this can lead to waterfall and deterministic assumptions. Starting the discussion with execution reflects the fact that a scaling company does not have time to “stop and plan”. Rather, planning emerges on top of the ongoing execution of the firm, in the interest of controlling and directing that execution across broader timeframes and larger scopes of work.

Digital Practitioners use a number of approaches to defining and managing work at various scales. Our initial progression from the product, to work, to operations management, can be seen as one dimension. We consider a couple of other dimensions as a basis for ordering Context III.

Here is an overview of Context III’s structure:

Competency Area: Coordination and Process

Going from one to multiple teams is hard. No matter how things are structured, there are dependencies requiring coordination. How to ensure that broader goals are met when teams must act jointly? Some suggest project management, while others argue that you don’t need it any more — it’s all about continuous flow through loosely-coupled product organizations. But the most ambitious ideas require some kind of choreography and products and projects need certain resources and services delivered predictably. When is work repeatable? When is it unique? Understanding the difference is essential to the organization’s success. Is variability in the work always bad? These are questions that have preoccupied management thinkers for a long time.

Competency Area: Investment and Portfolio

Each team also represents an investment decision. There is now a portfolio of features, and/or products. The organization needs a strategy for choosing among options and planning — at least at a high level — in terms of costs and benefits. Some may be using project management to help manage investments. Vendor relationships continue to expand; they are another form of strategic investment, and the practitioner needs to deepen their understanding of matters like cloud contracts and software licensing.

In terms of classic project methodology, Investment and Portfolio includes project initiating and planning. Execution, monitoring, and control of day-to-day work are covered in Coordination and Process. The seemingly backwards order is deliberate, in keeping with the scaling model.

Competency Area: Organization and Culture

The organization is getting big. In order to keep growing, it has had to divide into increasingly complex structures. How is it formally structured? How are people grouped, and to whom do they report, with what kind of expectations? Finally, what is the approach to bringing new people into the organization? What are the unspoken assumptions that underlie the daily work — in other words, what is the culture? Does the culture support high performance, or the opposite? How can such a thing be measured and known?

Context III "Team of Teams" High-Level Dimensions

  • Identify key drivers for the transition from a unitary team to a "team of teams"

  • Identify basics of the coordination problem and how to solve it, including the pros and cons of traditional process management

  • Identify the investment and portfolio consequences of a multi-team structure

  • Identify the basic product/function spectrum of organizational forms

  • Identify important cultural factors and concepts of measuring and changing culture

Context Contents: