Context II: Team

Context Description

The hypothetical startup or product prototype has met with some success, and is now supported by a team. (If the founder was based in an enterprise, they have been promoted to team lead.) The team has a single mission and a cohesive identity, but still does not need a lot of overhead to get the job done.

Even with a few new people comes the need to more clearly establish product direction, so people are building the right thing. The team is all in the same location, and can still communicate informally, but there is enough going on that it needs a more organized approach to getting work done.

Things are getting larger and more complex. The product has a significant user base, and the founder is increasingly out meeting with users, customers, and investors. As a result, she isn’t in the room with the product team as much any more; in fact, she just named someone to be “product owner”. Finally, the product is not valuable if people cannot understand how best to use it, or if it is not running and the right people can’t get to it.

The practices and approaches established at the team level are critical to the higher levels of scale discussed in Contexts III and IV. Context II focuses on small, cross-functional, outcome-oriented teams, covering product management, work management, shared mental models, visualization, and systems monitoring. It covers collaboration and customer intimacy, and the need to limit work-in-process, and blameless cultures where people are safe to fail and learn. All of these are critical foundations for future growth; scaling success starts with building a strong team level.

Competency Area: Product Management

The original product developer is spending more time with investors and customers, and maintaining alignment around the original product vision is becoming more challenging as they are pulled in various directions. They need some means of keeping the momentum here. The concept of “product management” represents a rich set of ideas for managing the team’s efforts at this stage.

Competency Area: Work Management

Even with a small team of five people (let alone eight or nine), it is too easy for balls to get dropped as work moves between key contributors. The team probably doesn’t need a complex software-based process management tool yet, but it does need some way of managing work-in-process. More generally, work takes many forms and exists as a concept at different scales.

One of the most important aspects of DevOps and Agile is "systems thinking", and even a small team building one digital product can be viewed as a system. The term "information system" has a long history, but what is a "system"? What is feedback? There is a rich body of knowledge describing these topics.

Competency Area: Operations Management

Since Application Delivery, application developers have been running the product and even answering the occasional phone call from customers. The team is now big enough that it starts to become more specialized. Dedicated support staff answer phone calls, and even if the team rotates operational responsibilities across developers, they are a distinct kind of “interrupt-driven” work that is not compatible with heads-down, focused software development. Complex digital systems are fragile and tend to fail; how you learn (or don’t) from those failures is a critical question. The learnings gained from scaling systems in fact become a new source of demand on your product teams' development time.

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