Debugging Dysfunction: Tuning Your Teams For Top Performance

· 6 min read
Debugging Dysfunction: Tuning Your Teams For Top Performance

Organizing development teams effectively is crucial for building complex systems, but there are several common pitfalls. I recently read Team Topologies by Matthew Skelton and Manuel Pais, which discusses patterns for organizing teams based on how they collaborate and deliver value. It highlights principles like Conway’s law, intrinsic motivation, and cognitive load that impact team effectiveness. The book has many connections to challenges I’ve faced trying to balance multiple priorities and domains of responsibility.

When Bright Sparks Fade

Imagine you’re an engineering leader excited to build a team of talented folks for a new mobile development project. You’ve already interviewed candidates and waiting for them to start. Their skills will enable something groundbreaking if they can work together smoothly.

In the early stages, energy is high. The designs wow everyone. Your frontend dev cranks out sleek prototypes in days. The uncanny intuition of the product manager for user needs leads to clever product ideas. The established infrastructure is scalable but simple enough. You admire how quickly your team developed a creative rapport.

In a few months, though, cracks begin to show. People grow reluctant to share works-in-progress, afraid of excessive feedback. Developers lament picking up others’ architectural slack. Managers question prioritizing features without technical insight. The designer sighs when the latest user data contradicts previous decisions.

Lighter moments like a monthly brainstorming call now feel forced. A few people show up late, unusual for their punctuality. Your tech lead’s sarcasm creeps into weekly project meetings. Someone even withdraws into answering emails mid-discussion.

How did this bright-eyed crew that once traded inside jokes and snagged each other coffee sour into strained relationships and stilted conversations? Where did your trusted leadership miss guideposts to help them excel as a team?

You care deeply about these talented humans who trusted you. But day by day, you watch their signature sparks grow dimmer under internal frictions and misalignments. What will it take to realign them to bring out their best work and connection that was there before?

Finding Your Team’s Rhythm

Team types aren’t just abstract concepts — they’re patterns to help diverse groups flourish. Team Topologies talks about four fundamental teams’ “personalities.”

First, there’s the customer team, a stream-aligned team obsessing over the user flow. You connect them directly with support tickets and community forums. By feeling users’ frustrations firsthand, they advocate solutions that balance consumer delight and business needs.

Bumping up against infrastructure limits, the cloud team is formed. This platform team calmly tackles tricky clustering, data stores, and CI/CD piping so others avoid those headaches. Don’t let their cold vibe fool you — they’ll nerd out over optimizations and pipelines for days.

Compliance would overwhelm most coders. But for the enablement team, unraveling regulatory complexities is sheer joy. From password rules to privacy protocols, they love crafting elegant frameworks benefiting everyone. Legal issues don’t stand a chance against their powers combined.

Lastly, the elite engineering team takes ownership of narrow and complex problems like search and relevance scoring algorithms. Their schedule is cleared from all the noise to submerge in user behavior analytics and emergent querying techniques. Now, they’re the global gurus you consult anytime the search results seem off.

Giving each group purpose-aligned autonomy unlocks their potential. But building unique team cultures while regularly (but not too often) remixing people on those teams prevents silos. This way, when challenges emerge, you know exactly who to call, and it’s not Ghostbusters.

Plotting the Flow Between Teams

We often underestimate the drag of disjointed communication on productivity. When stakeholders pressure your designers, engineers, and product owners to accelerate timelines, tense interactions expose confusing processes.

Progress stalls. You can almost feel rising frustrations across stale meetings. People care deeply but struggle to align efforts stretched across teams. Tight coupling slows down responsiveness.

There’s an experiment you can try in this case. Map all hand-offs between teams using sticky notes. What you’ll uncover will likely astonish you. Well-intended collaboration accumulates into a tangled hairball of waste.

Chances are you’ll barely be able to follow multi-colored streams of paper from A to B to C and back. No wonder there’s confusion about ownership. These gridlocks erode morale and speed.

You must thoughtfully decouple routines clogging up communication to deal with this entanglement. Simply put, you must limit and streamline inter-team communication instead of encouraging it. Refactor meetings into memos. Redirect requests through dedicated Slack channels, not individuals. Crystallize services dedicated to specialized skills.

This is easier said than done, of course. But people operate much more efficiently within clear swim lanes. New async slack channels can automate workflows once required to chase down approvals. People relax as everyone has fewer distractions and regains their rhythm.

When organizational communication channels overload, you have to clear blockages. Examine the communication. Simplify obligations. Promote cleaner flows between teams. Then, watch how people freed up from endless meetings and instant messages rapidly move forward again.

Untangling your Team’s Spaghetti

Did you ever examine your teams’ dependencies? The first time I did it, I saw a mess of tangled strings looping back on themselves. When looking at processes like this, the rate of coordination mishaps makes sense — your workflow resembles a bowl of spilled spaghetti.

Misalignments become apparent as you trace paths. Engineers report to too many product managers with conflicting priorities. Customer support barely consults those building features. Product managers’ randomness amplifies and increases friction across teams. No wonder roadmaps reflect this chaos of mismatched incentives.

What your Conway’s law demonstrates so simply is this: Team topology mirrors system architecture. If cross-dependencies intertwine teams, confusion follows. But thoughtful restructuring can untie these knots.

The best way to untangle this hairball is to organize teams by domain areas. It isn’t easy, especially if everyone does everything right now and your system is a monolith. But just like microservices architecture separates concerns and enables rapid development by focusing on one subsystem at a time, well-structured and domain-oriented teams can work on things independently once you migrate to this organizational architecture.

Keeping Your Teams on Target

Your team’s focus gets lost quickly as competing priorities grow. People spin in different directions, misaligning efforts. Engagement briefly shimmers then dies out without fuel from a shared purpose.

To keep everyone on track, communicate the goals clearly. Tie quarterly objectives to business value, not vanity metrics. Keep reiterating and simplifying the objectives until everyone can visualize and vocalize core targets. Select team leaders to reinforce alignments during regular meetings.

Also, a bit of friendly peer pressure wouldn’t hurt. When people start asking, “How does this map to our roadmap?” when digressions emerge, it means that you’ve done your job well. Exploring tensions between what people want to do and objectives unblocks alternative paths.

Beware of celebrating output that’s not connected to the goals you set. The executives would be happy if the mobile team crushed their registration conversion metric. But these efforts were off-track if they didn’t ladder up to this quarter’s customer LTV North Star.

Teams need constant realignment to see themselves in goals. With targets brightly lit and people tightly bound to the mission, the momentum will start building up. That’s how you keep teams laser-focused despite all the turbulence.

Optimizing Your Team’s Attention Spans

Ever wonder why your once eager people now drag through days drained and distracted?

One of the reasons is the cognitive load that needs to be balanced. The number of things a person can keep tabs on about the current system is limited, even for the best of us. If everyone is responsible for everything, it’s only a matter of time before they get annoyed about re-learning different project parts each time.

Also, people need to focus on what they do best without a pointless grind. An excess of bureaucratic tasks taxes teams’ patience. Identify and remove energy-sucking work lacking purpose, like filling in endless fields in tickets. Retain only high-value contributions and automate as much as possible.

It’s also on you to match responsibilities to current competence. Getting out of the comfort zone and learning new things is fun, but not if you are never in the comfort zone in the first place. Extremes like too much boredom or chaos are a recipe for disaster.

Watch for signs of overload before bandwidth breaks. Check for lagging engagement, sniping tension, or churning inertia. Inspect workload types and calibrate demands before people get burned out.

With a balanced cognitive load focused on mission-aligned tasks, your teams will avoid melting down. Instead, their efforts will compound.

Organizing teams intentionally based on collaboration modes and system domains, setting clear goals, and managing cognitive load can remove friction, increase autonomy and mastery, and help teams to build better systems.

Could the right team topology make your organization more effective? I’d love to hear your experiences in the comments!

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