I initially gave this talk at Lead Agile Brighton in October 2022, then updated and refined the slide deck for Agile Manchester in May 2023, so I’ve updated this post too.
I’ve noticed an increasingly worrying trend in the industry of focus on specialisms at the expense of collaboration, shared responsibility and valuable outcomes.
There might be many reasons for this, from organisational structures, changing workforces or uncertainty in the world. However, this trend can create silos across departments, between roles, and even in teams.
These silos mean that all the value from a multidisciplinary team is lost, people get pigeonholed, and we lose focus on creating valuable outcomes for our users.
In this post, I will explore this trend, some reasons we might be seeing it, and some approaches and techniques to break those silos down to work together.
Imagine you are on a team. The team has all the roles you need to get things planned, made and approved, and you collaborate towards shared outcomes and goals.
You get to input into and collaborate on product decisions, take collective responsibility for your goals and have the time to be creative. You have great working relationships with everyone inside and outside the team, you get to see users interacting with your work, and you can iterate based on what you learn. You get to learn new skills and try out new things regularly. You’re a happy, well-oiled machine.
Is that true for anyone?
Now I’ll bring you back to reality.
I’m sharing three anti-patterns that I have seen recently across different organisations in different sectors.
Anti-pattern 1: One role across many teams
There is a designer called Anita, this blue dot.
She is on one team, working closely with the developers; she gets to participate in all the planning sessions, reviews, day-to-day communication, and collaboration.
The company starts growing and spins up Team B, but they don’t have many designers, so they decide to split Anita’s time in half, so now she’s on both teams.
She has to skip some standups because they are at the same time; she can’t be in all the planning sessions and finds that she is playing catch up. She feels her work quality is slipping because she is more reactive.
This arrangement is just about working when Team C comes along. They also have a gap for a designer, as there aren’t enough people with design capability, the company decides to split Anita’s time once more, and now she’s on three teams.
She has no time and headspace to dedicate any thinking time to the teams, she can’t be in most of the planning and review sessions, so her work is guided by what the other team members put on the backlog; she’s being told that everything is really important and there is equal priority between all the teams. As a result, she’s really dissatisfied and has lost a lot of motivation.
The organisation thinks this has to happen to please everyone; Anita believes she has to do it because she wants to help and not be a blocker.
Not only is there not enough time to do everything, context switching is not really factored in. In the paper “Impact of task switching and work interruptions on software development processes.” the data points to working on two projects, which could mean up to 5 hours a week spent on context switching, depending on the complexity of the work.
Anti-pattern 2: Product vs engineering wars
This is where an organisation has split itself into two main areas, product and technology.
This diagram from a blog post about bottlenecks Product v Engineering illustrates the issue nicely.
In this scenario, design, research and product roles sit under the CPO, whereas engineering, testing and data roles sit under the CTO.
Then there is an expectation that somewhere at the bottom, everyone will work together. Then adding in different enabling functions, like engineering managers and product ops, can reinforce the split.
“Team members align themselves with their management structure or functional leadership as their primary identity, instead of their business or customer value stream, making it easier for teams to assume an “us” versus “them” posture.From martinfowler.com/articles/bottlenecks-of-scaleups/03-product-v-engineering.html – Rick Kick and Kennedy Collins
Leading to “product” making the decisions and “engineering” building the thing – the opposite of what we want.
Anti-pattern 3: X-led
Many organisations state that a particular discipline leads them; we have Data led, Product led, Engineering led, Policy led, and even HiPPO (Highest paid person’s opinion) led organisations. In theory, it may mean a heavy focus on an area, particularly when course correcting, but it can become too literal and dictate who holds all the power, how decisions get made and who gets left out in the cold.
For this talk, I did some of research to see what people say about the different types of led organisations, and this is what I found.
“At places where engineers aren’t in charge, it feels like they just blindly apply the bog-standard operating procedures of the industry: working agile, doing sprints, etc.”https://medium.com/levelshealth/why-engineers-should-seek-out-engineering-led-companies-and-how-to-find-them-6086d4780a5b
You can see why an engineer wants to work somewhere that understands engineering. But the anti-pattern of being led too much by just engineering can lead to detailed upfront technical design or building things at the expense of identifying the why first.
“The objectivity of a data-driven approach means that it can lead insights that drive success without any restricting factors or pre-conceptions… a robust, replicable process rather than personal opinion or convenience.”https://whitehatanalytics.co.uk/wp-content/uploads/2020/09/Whitehat-Analytics_Five-steps-to-becoming-a-data-driven-organisation.pdf
It makes sense to look at data to inform decisions. But the anti-pattern of being only focused on data is that we make assumptions about the stories behind the data; data tells us something is going on, but not why people might behave in a certain way.
“Product-led organizations make their products the vehicle for acquiring and retaining customers, driving growth, and influencing organizational priorities. They represent the future of business in a digital-first world.”https://www.pendo.io/product-led/the-product-led-organization/
And many of us make products, so it makes sense to be product led. But an anti-pattern is that it can create a hierarchy, with people with the job title of product managers making all decisions in a silo and putting distance between teams.
Of course, this is not always the case, but being led by one function or discipline can cause these imbalances, and I have seen these anti-patterns I have described.
The problem is that if you view everything through one lens, then you are biased toward that lens.
Some problems with these anti-patterns
If one group has all the decision-making power, others cannot properly contribute, just like Anita in anti-pattern one. In that case, designers are lower down in the hierarchy, and by splitting their time so much, she doesn’t have the opportunity or capacity to participate fully.
In anti-pattern two, there is a constant battle with power and in scenario 3, the X-led holds the power.
Professional protectionism is a term I borrowed from healthcare. When I read about it, I recognised the behaviour; it happens when people feel overprotective over their role at the expense of collaboration and sharing with others. These anti-patterns serve to reinforce this behaviour.
“The introduction of new roles or new ways of working can be perceived as a challenge or threat to pre-existing professional identities.”https://www.aomrc.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2020/05/Developing_professional_identity_in_multi-professional_teams_0520.pdf
For example, if a doctor regards a particular medical test as a core part of their professional role, then ceding this task to another person can feel like a loss of status, authority, responsibility or experience. This is particularly true if the power and organisational structures reinforce this behaviour.
Linked to professional identity is a sense of self. In some organisations, roles are tightly linked to our sense of self: status, authority, responsibility and experience, particularly if roles relate to hierarchy.
My hunch is that the lockdowns, home working and hybrid working have only added to our need to hold onto our self of self and professional identities.
A company’s culture of rewards and incentives will influence how people behave.
If an organisation has a culture of celebrating working late, at weekends, or for individual heroic acts, people will continue to do just that and not be encouraged to collaborate.
Another problem with these anti-patterns is that it creates a hierarchy within a team and can lead to silos in the team itself.
In a siloed team, it may look like a team, but work is handed off between roles, collaboration is minimal, and it erodes empathy between members.
In-team silos can mean more people in the team than you need, one person being the blocker and blamed – eg the designer can’t do X, so we can’t move ahead and people waiting around rather than collaborating on the next most important thing.
It doesn’t equip teams to solve wicked problems.
“A wicked problem is a problem that is difficult or impossible to solve because of incomplete, contradictory, and changing requirements that are often difficult to recognise.” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wicked_problem
So like the work we do, there is not a single solution; there are many ways of tackling it, understanding the problem space, trying out options, and finding better ways to approach it.
That’s hard to do when there are silos preventing people from effectively collaborating.
“In a wicked world, relying upon experience from a single domain is not only limiting, it can be disastrous.”David Epstein – Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World
An excellent illustration of why a team needs equal contribution comes from the website drawtoast.com. Tom Wujec has an approach to creating a collaborative and unified model by first getting people to draw how they make toast, which initially seems relatively straightforward. I took these four examples to show how different points of view can vastly change how people approach a problem.
Drawing 1 is very procedural and constrained to the experience of making toast as the person understands it, with clear steps, including how to use the toaster.
Drawing 2 is more about the system in which the toast exists, from growing wheat, grinding it, baking the bread and a quick step through the actual toast-making at home.
Drawing 3 shows a totally different approach, toast made in a frying pan, which is a local approach to toast making and shows that the culture around someone can give them a completely different point of view.
Drawing 4 is all about the user and how they feel during the toast-making process, and it looks like they are having a great experience.
No single version of making toast is correct; bringing these points of view together is more likely to give a better result.
“When people work together under the right circumstances, group models are much better than individual models.”Tom Wujec – Got a wicked problem? First, tell me how you make toast
We have opportunities to counteract the silos and collaborate across boundaries. As organisations, as teams and as individuals.
Organisations can create structures that allow collaboration and shared responsibility at all levels. Backing this up with incentives, rewards, behaviours and budgets.
From martinfowler.com/articles/bottlenecks-of-scaleups/03-product-v-engineering.html – Rick Kick and Kennedy Collins
A model to consider is creating multidisciplinary teams at all levels, sharing responsibility and accountability horizontally across the areas, aligning on approaches and sharing decision-making, which in turn means alignment and collaboration through the levels.
Also see the first team principle from 5 Dysfunctions of a Team by Patrick Lecioni.
A multidisciplinary team is all the roles needed to design, plan, deliver, deploy and iterate a product or service, collaborating together daily towards a shared outcome.
In order to be truly multidisciplinary, we need to recognise that disciplines and specialisms are not the same as roles. People’s roles overlap; this is great and makes for far more collaborative teams working together towards a common goal. See my previous blog post about how I’ve approached this in the past.
Borrowing from healthcare again, look at definitions like the ones below for going beyond the multidisciplinary team towards a more collaborative interdisciplinary team or even a transdisciplinary team. Think about where your team is, where you might want to be and how you might get there.
Definitions of conceptual models of team-working
Members may have separate but interrelated roles and maintain their own disciplinary boundaries.
Additive, not integrative.
Members may blur some disciplinary boundaries but still maintain a discipline-specific base.
Teams integrate closer to complete a shared goal.
Team members share roles and goals. They share skills, allowing others to learn as well as acquire new skills.
A more blended team that shares objectives and many core skill sets as required to achieve their overall goal.
Reference: Graham Ellis and Nick Sevdalis (2019) Understanding and improving multidisciplinary team working in geriatric medicine. Age and Ageing; vol. 48: 498–505 doi: 10.1093/ageing/afz021.
You might not have influence over the organisational structure or how teams are set up. But you can also do things in your own team.
Embrace that we all have a unique set of knowledge, skills and experience. You may have heard of I shaped (deep specialist skills), (broad generalist skills with a deep specialism), π shaped (broad generalist skills with a couple of deep specialisms) as a way for organisations to try to categorise what people can do, but we are really more like a broken comb shape.
(I understand this was introduced by Jared Spool)
You can use the capability comb to help teams have discussions about what they can and want to bring to the team, building understanding, trust, empathy and opportunities to collaborate and learn.
Remember that most people do not have a linear career path; embrace your squiggly career and broken-comb skills and capabilities. Look outside your current role, discipline and domain to find what inspires you and bring that to your work and your team.
Only by true collaboration, empathy and shared responsibility will we be able to work as teams and make things that make everyone happy (most of the time).