How teams are structured impacts reporting relationships and the way work is organised. It says a lot about the culture, function and leadership of a company. Understanding the implications of team structures in a tech company early on can make your continued growth much easier.
As organisations grow, especially in tech, they move from being a team of generalists wearing multiple hats to teams of specialists each performing a specific function. Each time new functionality is added or an existing functionality expanded on, new roles are needed and existing roles and responsibilities need to be split. Sometimes these additions require new skills which may evolve into new teams.
If organisational growth is unmanaged, it results in chaos. Ownership suffers, boundaries become blurred, responsibilities unclear and decision making suffers. Uncertain lines of communication results in over or under-communication, noise, misdirection, conflicting priorities, poor and slow decision making. Efficiency suffers as teams become dysfunctional.
Effective communication requires a defined structure.
There are three main styles apparent in the majority of businesses: military style, matrix style and pod style.
You're in the army now
Military, or functional, style is an increasingly old-fashioned, but still common way to structure a business. Whilst strong for defining clear structure and roles, enforcing standards and fostering growth in a specific area also has a host of downsides. One major drawback is the potential to create silos in a business, or an 'us versus them' mentality. Problems can arise where one department or function can use another as a scapegoat, and 'we can't do that until they do their part' becomes a commonly used phrase.
In addition, whilst people will be aware of their role or speciality, they can be less aware of the wider implications of their input on the wider business. Or they become too caught up in hierarchical structures to be able to see their own potential or opportunities to be better, and are less exposed to different aspects of the business and opportunities to learn new skills.
There is no spoon
A matrix style, in contrast, groups employees by both function and product or project. Teams consist of employees with different roles, working towards a common goal. They work together so understand the processes and timescales needed to reach their targets. People get to see and build skills outside their speciality, and see a project through from concept to fruition. They can more clearly see how they are contributing to business strategies, rather than one specific element.
This structure can bring issues in terms of clarifying the chain of command between functional managers and project managers, which can be confusing for employees' understanding of who is next in the chain of command.
However, the matrix structure also has significant advantages enabling the spread of information across task boundaries to happen faster. It allows for business to ensure specialist experience and knowledge according to specific project needs. This contrast between people and project aims to maximise strengths and minimise weakness by complementing skills.
Peas in a pod
The pod style meanwhile is similar to the matrix but provides more flexibility for change and adaptation. It is based on the premise that people are capable and willing to form strong, self-organising groups independently. Pods are common in startups, where there is less legacy and more agility.
A pod essentially has the freedom to be its own startup. Employees are given the opportunity to be involved in a particular project, are set a specific goal and empowered to work together to get the job done. Whilst valued by employees, who feel this project gives them more fulfilment, progression and room to learn new skills, it is difficult to ensure focus. Excitement for a project isn't enough – there is potential room for projects to steer in the wrong direction and management must ensure clear project metrics are set to ensure project goals correlate with business strategy. Larger companies often find it hard to fit this style in with their more rigid workflow processes.
Different styles suit different companies. But the two key features that stand out in each organisational style are the importance of ensuring all teams are working towards a clear goal, and ensuring employees feel they have opportunities to learn and develop with your company.
Whichever structure you choose you need to get this balance right, whether that be adopting a military style but implementing processes that expose staff to different areas of the business, or setting clear metrics for your empowered pod style teams.
- Pravin Paratey is CTO of Affectv