Optimize for the team

Optimize for the Team — Sometimes

Scrum Masters tend to optimize for the team, and they’re right to do so.  I know as a young Scrum Master I wanted to ensure teams were the center piece of the organization.  Over time though and as I experienced the challenges of scaling agile, I began to realize optimizing for other dimensions had to be considered.  My lesson today is a simple one:

When we optimize only for the team, we sub-optimize for the organization and its people.

As with most things, balance is essential.  So let’s talk about what dimensions to balance and what it may look like when there is imbalance.

Optimize for the Individual

Several common attributes exist in organizations that heavily optimize for the individual.

  • Specialist instead of generalist.  Organizations value employees that have a deep understanding of their craft. They’re less concerned with how well these employees can communicate with others outside of their specialty.
  • Isolation over collaboration. Cross-discipline collaboration is not valued.  Instead, disciplines feel they know enough about their specialty and how it relates to others to make decisions without outside input.
  • An individual glues the team together. Usually this person is a project manager.  This individual is responsible for creating a shared vocabulary and connecting others, when necessary.

When organizations optimize heavily for the individual, they should remain aware of the bus factor.  In other words, if someone was hit by a bus, how many others could carry on their work to success?  If zero, that’s cause for concern.  Also, I’d imagine many of my readers cringe at what’s above, but there’s nothing inherently wrong with it.  Maybe we cringe because we’ve become so accustomed to optimizing for the team.

Optimize for the Team

Let’s talk about the attributes that exist when we heavily optimize for the team.

  • Generalist instead of specialist. Each team member can do the job of all others.  Specialties are no longer part of the team effectively eliminating the bus factor.
  • A common purpose glues the team together.  Teams are empowered to decide priorities, make architectural decisions, and decide their tool sets.  They interact directly with customers as they iterate toward their next set of decisions.
  • Team interruptions are prohibited.  Team efficiency is of the utmost concern since the team is the primary unit of work within the organization.  In order to ensure this, team distractions regardless of urgency are avoided at all costs.
  • Inter-team dependencies are costly.  Teams aren’t accustomed to working together.  When circumstances dictate that they do, competing priorities and lack of the proper communication channel cause a great deal of confusion and inefficiencies.

One of the most common optimizations across two dimensions is here.  Teams usually wish to have T-shaped team members that can speak the language of those around them but also contribute in ways relevant to their passion.  “Generalist instead of specialist” becomes “generalist over specialist” because of this obvious reality:

While teams are important so are the individuals.

Additionally, organizations with multiple teams are bound to have dependencies and must find ways to work together as efficiently as possible.  This is part of scaling any agile approach.  Even when dependencies are minimized, the organization as a whole must be responsible for a cohesive architecture and must speak a common organizational language, utilizing a common set of tools.

Optimize for the Organization

Below are a few common attributes when we heavily optimize for the organization.

  • Frequent team changes.  Teams are usually constructed around a certain objective.  Once the objective is met, the team dissolves and another set of members reform for another objective.
  • Interruption over predictability.  Customer satisfaction is largely defined by how quickly customer requests are completed.  Teams are expected to change priorities frequently to meet changing customer demands.
  • Decision making occurs only at the top.  Solutions are handed to teams from above, and the team is responsible for implementing these solutions. Team members have little say with regards to solving the problems differently than requested, and management requires frequent touch points to ensure their solutions have been properly implemented.

In the end, it’s all comes down to opportunity cost.  When we optimize too heavily in any one dimension, we lose something in another. Think of your own organization for a moment.  If you had ten points to spend across all three dimensions, how would your company score in each?  Is it the right distribution?  If not, how do you help them adjust?

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5 thoughts on “Optimize for the Team — Sometimes”

    1. The similar term I first ran across years ago was “generalizing specialist”, coined by Scott Ambler, I believe.

  1. The “bus factor” actually happened during a project I was working on with a colleague from another country. Professionally, it had a big impact as we lost radio contact and had no idea what was going on. Only through the grapevine, did we find out the horrible news. The project was at a standstill for quite some time as nobody else on the team spoke the same “business language”. If you could only choose one bullet point from each section (Individual, team, Org), which ones would you choose?

    1. Ugh. That’s terrible. 🙁

      Am I choosing one based on which element most emphasizes their slant in that particular direction? If so:

      Individual: isolation over collaboration
      Team: inter-team dependencies are costly
      Org: interruption over predictability

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