PRODUCTHEAD: Component teams, feature teams and centralised skill teams
PRODUCTHEAD is a regular newsletter of product management goodness,
curated by Jock Busuttil.
A component team’s focus on a specific technology can result in being less user-centric
Feature teams are better suited to deal with innovation, uncertainty, and change
Centralised skill teams should aim to make themselves redundant by disseminating knowledge
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When thinking about dividing up a complex product or service across multiple delivery teams, it’s often presented as a stark choice between ‘feature teams’ (focused on helping a user achieve a goal, such as ‘publishing and sharing a blog post’) and ‘component teams’ (focused on delivering technologies such as ‘the visual text editor’).
You’ve probably come across these concepts if your organisation has adopted some kind of scaled agile approach in the last few years. In reality, this debate is not new, predating even the Agile Manifesto (2001). You can read a description of feature teams in Microsoft Secrets (1988, by Cusumano and Selby) and be surprised by its familiarity.
Out of necessity, some organisations also adopt what I’m calling ‘centralised skill teams’. These are teams intended to provide a service to the other delivery teams, when a particular skill set is in demand, but in short supply.
There’s no one right answer as it always depends on your own particular context (your organisation, market, product, team and available skill sets). For the same reason, copying the approach of other organisations, even if superficially similar to yours, probably won’t work because their context differs from yours.
Component teams #
Component teams often arise from the need for specialists on a particular technology. They can become overly fixated with the technology itself and lose sight of the context. If you’ve ever worked in an organisation where a particular technology or process dictated the constraints on what you could and couldn’t do, then you’ll know what I mean.
For me, it was the ongoing battle to adopt pricing models in my products that could not be represented in the underlying CRM (customer relationship management) system, which had been bastardised over several years from its original use case into a product cataloguing system.
The component team only sees requirements (what, not why) coming in without context and duly customises the component over and over. They tend not to disseminate know-how outside of the team — they’re the specialists, after all, and want to stay that way. Team members come and go, often taking with them the ‘tribal’ knowledge of why certain critical customisations exist and how they work.
Over time the component team becomes increasingly siloed, and the component it looks after becomes both inextricably embedded and completely unmaintainable, a source of drag to the product teams that are obliged to work with it.
Feature teams #
Feature teams are about empowerment, accountability, identity, consensus and balance …
Empowerment — While it would be difficult to entrust one functional group or a single functional hierarchy, such as Development, for instance, with virtually absolute control over a particular technology area, it’s a good idea to do that with a balanced multi-disciplinary team. The frontline experts are the people who know more than anyone else about their area, and it seems dumb not to find a way to let them have control over their area.
Accountability — … If a balanced group of people are mutually accountable for all the aspects of design, development, debugging, QA, shipping, and so on, they will devise ways to share critical observations with one another. Because they are accountable, if they perceive it, they own it. They must pass the perception to the rest of the team.
Identity — … With cross-functional feature teams, individuals gradually begin to identify with a part of the product rather than with a narrow specialized skill.
Consensus — Consensus is the atmosphere of a feature team. Since the point of identification is the feature rather than the function, and since the accountability for the feature is mutual, a certain degree of openness is safe, even necessary. I have observed teams reorganizing themselves, creating visions, reallocating resources, changing schedules, all without sticky conflict.
Balance — Balance on a feature team is about diverse skill sets, diverse assignments, and diverse points of view.
In contrast to component teams, feature teams are cross-functional. Their role is to support a particular customer journey, which entails understanding what users are trying to achieve, as well as the context of related customer journeys. Feature teams are not immune to becoming siloed, but they at least have a vested interest in understanding how (and how well) their product workflow fits into the bigger picture.
They research, design and build everything up and down the tech stack from the user interface to the data layer, even to the underlying server infrastructure. Populating these teams can therefore be tricky. Not every company has the luxury of ready access to all the different skill sets needed. And not all of the skills are needed 100 percent of the time, making it more difficult to manage the ebb and flow of work for individuals with particular niche skills — making a good case for team members to be multi-skilled.
Centralised skill teams #
One approach to this particular problem of niche skills can be to have a centralised skill team to begin with, whose purpose is to facilitate the other teams. An example might be a centralised devops team tasked with taking away the effort the creation of development, staging and production environments from delivery teams.
This may sound a bit like a component team again, but the difference lies in their goal and perspective. In my example, the devops team’s users are the delivery teams. The team is outward-looking so they can serve the needs of their users. Their goal is to make themselves redundant by upskilling the delivery teams.
Because (in this example) their work is mostly repetitive, with variations to take into account individual delivery teams’ specific needs, the devops team creates tooling to make the process more efficient. The tooling is built in the open (00:15:56 in the video) and designed for people outside of the devops team to use. They collaborate with the delivery teams to share know-how and tooling.
Eventually the centralised team disbands and its members are absorbed by the multi-disciplinary delivery teams. Devops has become just another skill set held by multiple people on each delivery team. The delivery teams have levelled up, if you like, removing the need for the centralised team of specialists.
Final thoughts #
Do you recognise any of these team patterns in your own organisation?
How does your organisation justify its chosen way of working?
How could your teams become more user-centric, transparent, and better at sharing their knowledge and experience with their peers?
Speak to you soon,
what to think about this week
Whenever you require more than a single development team to progress your product, you have choice: You can organise the teams around features or components. This article explains why this decision matters for product people, and it shares my advice on when feature teams are right for your product and when component teams are better suited.
[Pro tip: the comments to the article linked are worth reading also]
[ROMAN PICHLER / PICHLER CONSULTING]
How our platforms team created a postcode lookup service, developed a toolkit for live services and slashed hosting costs, all before its 1st birthday.
We formed a platforms team almost a year ago on not much more than a gut feeling that there was a better way of doing things.
[AL DAVIDSON / MINISTRY OF JUSTICE DIGITAL AND TECHNOLOGY]
Large organisations often have internal platforms. My first assignment at the Ministry of Justice in 2015 was an internal platform to help development teams run and change their software. I got to pair with colleagues at GDS who were developing ‘Government as a Platform’. There was a lot of mutual learning and sharing in those early days, and I got to assess the early versions of a couple of their products.
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Jason Shah wrote a guest post recently for Lenny Rachitsky’s newsletter, “A Product Manager’s Guide to web3”, which describes how product management differs in web3 companies. He notes that joining a web3 company can be “an opaque process and a risky decision”. I’d add “ethically challenging and morally grey” to that description.
[I MANAGE PRODUCTS]
One of the most important, and arguably hardest jobs we have as product managers is to work with our team to sift through information, read between the lines, and verify what is fact and what is merely opinion.
[I MANAGE PRODUCTS]
When you start out as a head of product (or product director or VP product), you’ll probably need to create a community of product people. In this latest entry for my series of 100 things I’ve learned about product management, I share my advice to help you get the ball rolling with your own community of practice.
[I MANAGE PRODUCTS]
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PRODUCTHEAD is a newsletter for product people of all varieties, and is lovingly crafted from delayed onset muscle soreness.
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