Weak and strong team concepts.

December 5, 2020. Filed under staff-plus 26

Engineers are often frustrated that their management “treats us like fungible resources when we’re unique humans.” On the other hand, engineers usually view individual ownership as a managerial failure, “critical systems need to be owned by teams not by individuals.” At a certain remove, these seem like contradicting beliefs—they’re not—and thinking about how both can be true brings us to an idea I’ve been reflecting on a lot recently: weak team concepts and strong team concepts.

“Weak” here isn’t meant to be disparaging, and neither is “strong” necessarily a synonym for good, rather it’s intended in the spirit of weak and strong forces in particle physics. I first mentioned this idea in Staff engineer archetypes, summarizing the concept as:

A strong team concept is one where ownership, work, and accountability are generally assigned to teams. Signs of a strong concept are sprints, story points, tracking tickets, SLAs, and goals. A weak team concept is one where most work is assigned to individuals, and work is driven primarily through interpersonal connections rather than process.

Very small companies have a weak team concept with each individual is fulfilling many roles. There simply aren’t enough people to rely on teams. The work still gets done though, with the folks involved organically fitting into the necessary roles. Most of the time there isn’t a written operating document describing who does what, but everyone knows how to get the work done. The weak team concept is fundamentally an organic process because individuals need to understand and negotiate with many other individuals. The organic approach is quick to respond to change, but struggles to effect broad changes that impact many individuals.

Large companies have a strong team concept with responsibilities spread across teams and organziations. Teams serve as an abstraction over their composing individuals’ various schedules, obligations, and priorities. Even if folks join, leave or transfer across teams, the teams’ responsibilities remain constant. Folks on a given team don’t have to understand what every other individual in the company does, only what the various teams do. The strong team concept is fundamentally hierarchical with certain individuals, typically managers, who negotiate on behalf of large groups. The hierarchical approach is often slow to make an initial response to a new challenge, but is able to effect massive, wide reaching change.

It’s interesting to ask what pushes larger companies towards strong team concepts, and ultimately I think it’s the relationship between rate-of-change and rate-of-hiring. When a company is hiring rapidly, managing change becomes the fundamental management challenge, and structures that adapt slowly to change are an impediment to success. Scaling organizations tend to value the ability to respond wholly more than they value responding rapidly, and consequently push themselves towards the strong team concept.

Once there, they tend to stay there indefinitely. While companies that adopt the strong team approach tend to get stuck there, it’s not necessarily because it’s the best solution to every problem. Every system is perfectly designed to perpetuate itself, and the strong team concept is particularly adept at self-preservation with its cadre of managerial roles created to support the approach.

There’s this popular conceit that startups are the underdogs fighting against bureaucracy, and you might imagine that they preserve the weak team concept longer than other styles of companies, but startups’ scaling constraints conspire to force them towards the hierarchical, top-down style of company that many startup aficionados villainize.

There are a few factors at play here:

  1. The venture capital funding model requires rapid growth, which requires responding quickly to structural changes., which pushes towards hierarchy and the strong team concept.
  2. Young companies are composed of young relationships. Teams that have gelled and worked together well for years are different not just in degree but in nature to teams that have worked together for several months. Non-gelled teams find it easier to rely on hierarchy than interpersonal relatinoships for rapid, effective response.
  3. Almost everything managers are taught is focused on managing young, mostly non-gelled teams. Do you really need a weekly 1:1 with someone you’ve worked with for six years? No, probably you don’t. (You do, of course, still need to make them feel appreciated.) Do you need agile and weekly sprints working with a team that mastered working together? It depends on the team, but it’s certainly not the only way.

These forces promoting strong team concepts are powerful, and software development organizations rarely overcome them. The few organizations I’ve seen that continue to rely on weak team concepts past product-market fit are either:

  • struggling badly with scaling,
  • hobby businesses that aren’t really working but somehow have enough capital to avoid confronting that for the time being, or
  • bootstrapped businesses who deliberately temper growth.

I don’t think adoption of the weak team concept has to be quite so limited though. Roughly, the downside of the weak team concept is they are less efficient processing structural change. Conversely, they are vibrant and self-healing as long as the change size remains small or interpersonal relationships remain strong. Ultimately, for more companies to rely on weak team concepts, we’ll need to move beyond an industry where it’s the norm for your forty year career happens at three or four companies rather than a dozen.