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Choose Your Organizational Style

There is a tremendous amount of praise in literature, and in the blogosphere, for cross-functional teams. It sometimes seems as if it is the best idea since cross-personal interaction. And cross-personal interaction is a great idea, until you find out you caught some social disease you would rather have avoided.

I am glad that I have little experience with social diseases, but I do know that at least part of the praise for cross-functional teams is undeserved. There are a number of misconceptions because some authors associate functional teams with hierarchies and cross-functional teams with organic networks. But this is both unrealistic and unfair.

Functional teams require coordination across team boundaries about the projects they are doing, and the business value delivered to customers. On the other hand, cross-functional teams require coordination across team boundaries about practices, standardization, and shared resources, for any similar kind of work that is carried out in different teams. So the question is, "How is this coordination across teams taking place?"

In the previous section, we saw that you have two options for coordination: DP1 and DP2. Both can be applied to either functional teams or cross-functional teams. These 2x2 options result in four organizational styles, as shown in Table 13.1 and Figure 13.7.

Table 13.1. Four organizational styles

Style

Team Structure

Design Principle

Description

1

Functional

DP1

Coordination between functional teams is performed by managers (typical hierarchical functional silos).

2

Functional

DP2

Coordination between functional teams by the teams themselves (for example, self-organized sysops teams each dedicated to a piece of an infrastructure).

3

Cross-functional

DP1

Coordination between cross-functional teams by a project manager or other authorities above the teams.

4

Cross-functional

DP2

Coordination between cross-functional teams by the teams themselves (for example, a "Scrum of Scrums").

Figure 13.7

Figure 13.7 Quadrant of organizational styles.

In general, cross-functional teams work better than functional teams, and DP2 works better than DP1, and therefore organizational style 4 is the preferred option for many Agile consultants. But, as always, it depends on the context, and you may want to choose one of the two reasonable alternatives (organizational styles 2 or 3), either because team maturity or prevailing communication paths require it, or to facilitate a gradual organizational transition from style 1 to style 4 (see Figure 13.7).

I have known cross-functional teams that were so young and inexperienced (may I even say irresponsible?) that they could have infected half the company with their problems, if management had let them. Fortunately, organizational style 3 saved the day there. And I have known productive specialist teams responsible for components or assets that were too risky to distribute over multiple teams. (Access to other people's bank accounts is one that comes to my mind.) Yet these small specialist teams were mature enough to organize their own cross-team coordination without a manager.

Cross-functional teams without management coordination are a great idea. But they can both solve and introduce problems. Good managers need to be smart enough to think of their own best approach to an organizational style that is both adaptable and safe.

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