Team Topologies and the Flow Framework

Symbiosis: The Flow Framework® meets Team Topologies

In Episode 42 of the Mik + One Podcast, Dr. Mik Kertsen sat down with Manuel Pais, renowned IT consultant and co-author of Team Topologies: Organizing Business and Technology for Fast Flow, to discuss the relationship between Team Topologies and the Flow Framework®. They highlight three areas of symbiosis in the shift from project to product.

Find the full podcast here

Reminder: A Brief Overview of Team Topologies and the Flow Framework® 

Here is a quick overview of each of the two approaches:

Team Topologies

Team Topologies is an approach to software delivery that emphasizes the importance of team composition and structured interactions. Manuel Pais and co-author Matthew Skelton outline four types of teams: stream-aligned teams, enabling teams, complicated subsystem teams, and platform teams. Put simply, stream-aligned teams focus on the end-to-end process of value delivery, while the other teams help make the stream-aligned team as efficient as possible. Team Topologies takes a humanistic approach and uses the concept of cognitive load as a North Star to guide team composition and scope.

The Flow Framework

The Flow Framework, described in Project to Product by Mik Kersten, provides a blueprint to bridge the gap between IT activities and business goals. Businesses that successfully apply the Flow Framework are organized around product value streams, rather than projects. The Flow Framework allows software delivery companies to model and measure complex software delivery processes, with the ultimate goal of reducing waste and bottlenecks across the entire value chain.

The ideas in the Flow Framework and Team Topologies complement each other. Team Topologies helps shape the organizational structure to meet business goals, while the Flow Framework keeps organizations focused on those goals and provides a mechanism for measuring improvement and getting real-time feedback.

In their discussion, Mik and Manuel delved into the ways that the Flow Framework and Team Topologies dovetail to drive truly product-focused value streams. For those who didn’t get a chance to listen to the full episode, below are the three key takeaways.

Shifting from project to product involves a shift in organizational design

The Flow Framework helps businesses model and measure the flow of value, the dependencies between teams, and the bottlenecks that slow down delivery. This visibility and measurability is essential to achieving good end-to-end flow, but the possible gains won’t be fully realized until companies reorganize teams to best support the value streams.

Team Topologies provides the effective structures, i.e. the organizational piece needed to help implement the shift from project to product. When teams are organized around value streams, it becomes more practical to fund products, rather than projects. In addition, the end-to-end ownership of a product’s value stream by a single team allows for greater agility to adjust to the customer’s changing needs.

Many businesses are wary of having different teams for each product value stream, for fear it will result in the duplication of capabilites developed. But it’s important to realize that a certain amount of duplication can be beneficial, if it improves flow. In the podcast, Manuel gives a simple example to illustrate why stream aligned teams make sense:

A business in the hospitality industry provides a service through which people can book travel and accommodation. They have identified two main customer segments:

  1. Luxury travellers who want top range hotels and first-class flights.
  2. Budget travellers who want the best value for their money.

Because each segment has different priorities, the business should have different teams working on two different value streams. These teams may repeat some functionality, for example a promotion service. But this duplication may be the best thing for them in terms of customer experience and flow, because in the short-term each segment will have the autonomy to adapt to changing demands from their respective segments without getting bogged down by dependencies on other value streams. Later, it may be determined that promotions should become a core service provided by a platform team, which both customer segments can use.

As teams are re-aligned and stabilized, executives need to be able to measure the impact of these changes on the business. Here, the Flow Framework comes in useful again; it provides continuous feedback, enabling agility and improving insight into the unique and ever-changing needs of the business. To relate this back to the example above, the Flow Framework would help businesses see that this strategic duplication can actually improve flow.

A shared vocabulary empowers change

Effective communication can’t happen unless everyone in the room understands each other, and without effective communication, decisions become more erratic. This might seem obvious, but many companies have been put at risk because of poor communication between technical teams and leadership. Still more companies suffer from superfluous communication which is ultimately ineffective, with individuals flooded by Slack channels and an overabundance of emails. The Flow Framework and Team Topologies provide vocabularies that foster more intentional, more effective, and more sparing communications.

The language in Team Topologies is, unsurprisingly, centered around teams. There are four types of teams: stream-aligned teams, enabling teams, complicated subsystem teams, and platform teams. These labels give each team a clear understanding of their domain and purpose.

Team Topologies also provides a way to talk about interactions, categorizing them into three types based on their purpose and duration: collaborating, facilitating, and providing a service. Having this language can help businesses realize when interactions are becoming too unstructured or when teams are too closely linked.

Similarly, the Flow Framework provides a common language to bridge the gap between IT and business leadership. For example, the language of Flow Items and Flow Metrics elucidates the relationship between different types of technical work and the value they provide for the business. These metrics and the visual and graphical language in which they are represented, can help business leaders understand the trade-offs technical teams face every day.

Together, the vocabularies of Team Topologies and the Flow Framework enable effective communication in a product-oriented business. Combining concepts from each, a business might discover, for instance, that its goals would be served by allocating more resources to platform teams, in order to pay down technical debt and facilitate feature delivery. It might also find that new roles are helpful, such as a “flow enabler” or a “flow coach”, to keep teams aligned with the goals value stream. A company-wide understanding of these terms allows teams to communicate their needs clearly with executives and frees up space in executives’ minds to think about strategy.

Transformation takes time, but there’s no reason not to start

Switching from a project- to product-oriented approach is not something that can happen overnight. In fact, Mik and Manuel recommend against overhauling an organization’s structure and technology all at once. As Manuel points out in the podcast, big reorganizations leave people tired and unmotivated, often with nothing to show for all the work they put in.

A better approach to re-organization is to use value stream management (VSM) practices to tackle one value stream at a time. Start small, and, using Flow Metrics, measure the effect that the organizational changes have on business goals. When a business has built a value stream that flows with fewer disruptions and dependencies, and when each team working on the value stream has a manageable cognitive load, these changes can be applied to other value streams with increased confidence.

The shift from project to product itself has five stages. Discover your stage with the Project to Product Maturity Assessment

The “ideal” organizational structure is one that is constantly evolving to meet changing needs and shifting priorities. Although Team Topologies prescribes stable, long-term, internally cohesive teams, Mik and Manuel agree that these teams must have the autonomy to change their scope in order to optimize flow. The Flow Framework supplies the continuous feedback needed to achieve true agility and effective teams.

Combine both approaches for best results 

The purpose of the Flow Framework is to help drive faster flow, but to do that, businesses need to understand which activities add value, and they need to structure teams with value streams in mind. Team Topologies supplies the organizational piece of the puzzle, while the Flow Framework keeps goals in sight. Used in conjunction, the two approaches synergistically drive the change towards a product-oriented and truly agile business.

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