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Field Guide

Shared Language: Team Structures

Not all teams are created equal and not all teams needs to be treated the same. This article walks through a number of considerations for how your organisation considers teams, interactions, types and structure (groups of teams).

TeamForm Shared language series

With the shared language fundamentals in place, let's explore organisational structures and teams.

The goal of this post is to highlight that teams can take many configurations and having an understanding of how people fit into a reporting structure is quite often a different structure to how they work in modern multidisciplinary teams.

The considerations below are intended to help you consider that you will always have different team types in your organisation. This is not necessarily a problem, however, treating them all the same can lead to significant confusion.

How organisations are structured

Reporting line or reporting structure is oftentimes the default structure for organisations. It is common for a HRIS (aka HCM) tool to be the source of truth for people and reporting line managers (amongst many other attributes such as roles, ranks, location, payroll etc.).

Most organisations have this view of people by default, though having a singular lens of people is insufficient in the fast changing world we find ourselves in. Dr. John Kotter referred to this as "dual operating systems" in his book XLR8 (Accelerate: Building Strategic Agility for a Faster-Moving World).

In Accelerate (XLR8), Dr. Kotter explains how traditional organizational hierarchies evolved to meet the daily demands of running an enterprise. For most companies, the hierarchy is the singular operating system at the heart of the firm. But the reality is, this system simply is not built for an environment where change has become the norm.

Kotter advocates a new system—a second, more agile, network-like structure that operates in concert with the hierarchy to create what he calls a “dual operating system”—one that allows companies to capitalize on rapid-fire strategic challenges and still make their numbers.

There are many different ways that people can be structured in an organisation.

To learn more, see Indeed's article on the seven types of reporting structures you might encounter at work.  

Four Considerations for Team Structures

Consideration 1: How people work

Depending on the nature of work (other factors explained below), it is normal for teams to take different shapes.

So why does this matter? Having a short hand for an organisation can help teams define their mission, their boundaries and can even relate to how they collaborate, make decisions, and fund new work/teams.

We know from research that high performing teams have a shared mission and shared values, helping teams understand the role it plays is part of realising that mission.

The fact that you are reading this article means you have mostly likely heard of some of the terminology used for teams (e.g. squads, product teams, Scrum teams etc.) and teams of teams (e.g. tribe, crew, value stream etc.). Whilst it is easy to spent a lot of time thinking about the perfect name for a type of team, we would recommend focusing on patterns of the teams instead.

Emily Webber has recently written a great blog on Team Taxonomies, it is a gentle introduction into the world of teams taxonomies. For those of you wanting to dig deeper, there is also Team Topologies which offers a set of organisational patterns to facilitate team formation, team boundaries, interactions, mission aka Team API, etc.

Consideration 2: Team of Teams

A Team of Teams is a grouping of teams that work together to deliver value, greater than the sum of its parts. Each team understands the part of the whole that they represent and have clarity on how they interact with other sibling teams.

Some common types of Team of Teams are:

  • customer journey (e.g. retail banking)
  • colleague journey (e.g. payroll)
  • channels (e.g. mobile, web etc.)
  • platforms (e.g. payment processing)

A brief set of terms commonly used: Tribes, Crews, Release Trains Value Stream or Fleets.

Teams of teams can be further groups into larger portfolios aligned around a broader business, product or customer needs.

A brief set of example terms used for grouping a set of teams of teams or beyond: domains, divisions, streams or portfolios.

Depending on the size of the organisation and people involved you may end up with a number of layers of teams to better group how they are organised.

Whilst these tend to be more long lived, they are not intended to be silos and should change over time as your organisation learns and adapts to emerging opportunities.

Another consideration for team of teams is the size, if there are too many people they may no longer feel connected around a shared mission. A common maximum size is 150 people, which draws from Robin Dunbar's research.

Consideration 3: Team Type

There are many considerations around types of teams, which can be defined by: how they interact with each other, role composition, team longevity, and locality. Defining team type helps you create clarity on what the team looks like and how it supports its mission.

Interactions

  • Teams collaborate on work
  • One team facilitates other teams
  • One team offers services via a self-service

Role Composition

  • Multidisciplinary
  • Specialist
  • Generalist

Longevity

  • Long-lived
  • Short-lived
  • Exists for the duration of an imminent event

Locality

  • Works across the organisation
  • Works across one area or division
  • Works within a team of teams

Some patterns of teams based on the above: 

  • stream aligned team, multidisciplinary working on a customer facing product (mobile app), long lived, works in the retail value stream of the organisation.
  • enabling team focused on cloud adoption, roams around to help other teams adopt cloud technologies in a sustainable way, they are spread across many timezones and location and act as a centre of excellence.
  • finance team composed of accountants who work across the organisation and help other teams with analytics around financial planning and analytics.
  • project team working together for the duration of an initiative (3-6 months), after the initiative, the team disband and go back to a bench or are assigned to another initiative with a different set of people.

Consideration 4: How people learn

People learn in various ways, particularly within professional contexts.

Multidisciplinary teams facilitate learning about the team, product, and customers. Unique roles like Product Managers may have limited opportunities to learn from team mates, compared to roles that often have 3 or more in a single team such as Software Engineers.

Communities of practice can be formal or informal structures for organising learning. Chapter-based structures offer a way for individuals to have a chapter lead that knows their profession and can help  members acquire new skills and practices. This is in contrast to a traditional people manager who may focus more on administrative processes rather than professional development.

Communities of practice is another deep topic, yet again we recommend starting with Emily Webber’s work to get started and diving deeper over time.

Having a way for people to easily find groups of people with the same roles or jobs can be a great way to create craft based communities. Imagine being able to easily find all of the other Product Designers in your organisation and better yet, the Product Designers in your organisation, in your city or building!

Summary

We have attempted to address the question of why this matters.

There is always a risk of putting too much focus on words and not enough emphasis on meaning and how organisations can leverage this language to improve the flow of value. Team and structure shared language is there to help you make sense of the systems teams are part of and the interactions between the teams. Teams are almost always part of a larger system, those systems (aka value streams) change over time. Teams should also change and adapt.

Having a platform like TeamForm, that can provide a single source of truth for your teams and members over time is a great resource of organisational data and insight that you may not otherwise have. This kind of people and teams telemetry can be a game changer and further enables downstream systems with a team-centric view of data that was often missing.

Additional resources

Emily Webber

Team Topologies

David Kesby

Johanna Rothman and Mark Kilby

TeamForm