(this new version of this article has been updated as of 11/26/2012 with additional changes and more clarified content since it’s first release on 10/16/2012)
Organizations that develop software often succumb to working the way they know how. This article explores non-technical aspects of software that can be put in place in an organization that will create exponentially better results. Essentially, software organizations need to change how people are working together to ensure long term viability of their software products and their people. Organizations may need to first flatten their hierarchy a little to start to empower people at all levels. Following that, organizations need to ensure the architects are working collaboratively with the organization to ensure the developers are focused in the right areas and that the architecture of the product will be sustainable in the long term. The accountability brought into team members through self-organization and the right leadership will act as a motivator for teams to function at their highest level. Introducing multi-cross functional teams will further increase communication and knowledge sharing across the organization while creating a platform to easily identify future leaders for the organization’s success planning initiatives. Once formal and perceived constraints are eliminated and people become more empowered your organization will be better suited to create better quality systems that are executed with high performance.
Creating Enterprise Software Success through Organizational Change
Organizations centered around software often succumb to working “the way we know how” or by following supposedly best practices without considering better practices. Changing how people are working together, how organizational standards and new initiatives are created and collaborated on, and removing invisible walls can go a long way to greatly improving your effectiveness as a software development organization and essentially create better architected software with better execution while ensuring long term viability.
People tend to work within the constraints of the organization weather the constraints are a formal policy or a perception of how things operate. Changing how things operate and the beliefs of the people in the organization by empowering them can be a long process, but your organization will be highly rewarded in the long term.
The over importance placed on a hierarchy of people, each responsible, for those below them, can work, but there are many better ways to create a world class software development organization. Partly because of the hierarchical structure of many organizations, silos and invisible walls are created, and communication isn’t flowing as well as it should be. Collaboration is usually there, a little bit, but it isn’t as extensive throughout the organization as it could be. Flattening your structure to an extent that allows for the creation of multi-cross functional teams where people are encouraged to step up, lead, and collaborate on key decisions leads to very effective results and helps the organization to succeed. Naturally, more collaboration will lead to better communication and more innovation throughout the organization which ultimately leads to better results for the organization.
There are many ways to improve enterprise software development and prevent enterprise software development failure. This article is going to focus on a few people and organizational issues that can be addressed and improved to help create tremendous enterprise software development success. Important things like development process, agile methodologies, testing, pairing, code reviews, enterprise architecture strategy, etc, are all an extremely important part of a successful enterprise software organization, but are out of the scope of this article.
What happens to software with poor communication?
There are too many invisible walls that are preventing communication every day. People who don’t know each other well, don’t normally communicate very well either. This is very evident in enterprise software environments where teams of 50+ developers may only know a few of each other very well. They could be eight feet away in an office, or 2000 miles away in another country, but there is a slight discomfort with developers to voluntarily work together when they don`t know each other well. Especially, they will be less likely to collaborate, and much less likely to ask for help when working in the same area that the other person is much more familiar with. Even when they do work together, it isn`t as effective as it should be. This leads to inferior quality code and product, because the time being spent on development isn’t as productive as it should be and knowledge transfer isn’t happening as it should be.
Limit The Hierarchy
A limited organizational hierarchy approach helps flatten the structure a little bit and open up doors for communication and for more decisions to be made collaboratively. Structure is still important, and ultimately you need specific people who are each responsible for their specific areas, however flattening it a little bit allows good decisions to be made at all levels. It helps teams to become more empowered to make their own decisions and to work and collaborate the way they need to. This still keeps some much required structure and focus in place, but promotes good decisions to be made at all levels. Bottom up and top down.
Consider removing traditional Software Development Managers and Software Development Team leads and replace with well-rounded Software Architects. The architects are the ones that need to drive execution of the software and are ultimately responsible for the design, roadmap, and value delivered by the software developers. The architects will have the most exposure to developers and senior management, as it is a requirement to collaborate with executives, product management, development, and other areas in order to properly drive execution.
Ultimately, this level of collaboration by the architects will ultimately benefit the organization by allowing them to come up with the best approach. This will yield a much better and thought out, future-proof technological decision than if the architect was to come up with the technology requirements individually, which often occurs in ego driven organizations.
You don’t need the title “Software Architect”, but the role should be as described here. It’s not only a senior developer who understands software architecture, design patterns, etc – and has architected systems or features in existing applications. To me that implies a great skillset for a senior developer and a skillset that is sometimes difficult to find. But to be an architect working with large software projects at the enterprise level, you need a broader range of skills. The architects also need to be able to motivate and lead a team. By leading a team, I mean encouraging process improvements upon the team, but leaving the team to decide the organization and completion of the work, letting the team work collaboratively to get things done, but constantly raising the bar of the team so that they continue to excel and so that they don’t fall into a mediocre cycle of maintaining or lessoning their current level of productivity. The Architect has to be able to lead in such a way that allows the team to understand direction, priorities, and to allow the team to focus on the right objectives. In the end, if you call this role a “Manager” or an “Architect”, it doesn`t matter – the role of the position is what is important.
Self-Organizing Teams and Accountability
Even within teams there are often invisible walls or silos. Self-organizing teams go a long way to help ease this and improve software greatness as well. For a self-organizing team to function at a high level, you need to ensure that people are working together as a team and focusing on winning as a team and accepting losses as a team.
Self-organizing teams work best when they are empowered to work as a team and there isn`t a feeling of an established hierarchy. There aren`t dedicated team leaders, as leadership will be shown within the team and everyone on the team has a voice and has a chance to step up and lead on decisions. This greatly improves knowledge sharing as well as the team is working together very closely and knowledge gets shared throughout the team more easily. Typically a well-functioning self-organizing team operates at a very high level. They fail as a team and succeed as a team, and therefore work together to do what it takes to improve, succeed, and meet their goals the way they need to while collaborating and helping their fellow team members. Members of self-organizing teams feel accountable to the rest of the team.
Self-organizing teams are great and highly recommended, but ultimately they still need external motivators to make sure they are continually raising their own bar and to ensure they are focusing on the right things. Architects along with the rest of the leadership team need to play a role in this. While the Architects are ultimately responsible for the delivery of the software product from a technical perspective, the accountability for getting the development done comes from within the development teams themselves. This accountability that comes from, and grows from within, a functioning self-organizing team greatly encourages individual team member productivity and responsibility for getting the work done the best way possible. This is why Architects, in the definition for this role, can’t just be regular senior development guys who understand software architecture. They have to understand how the aforementioned things, along with execution, are really important if you want a successfully architected piece of enterprise software.
Key Software Decisions
When making key decisions that will affect the software, try to involve a small team to discuss. Get the biggest experts across your organization, preferably from all business areas impacted, and gather around and discuss ideas. Having a process dictated by a group of senior level individuals without adequate consensus can completely demoralize a development team and lead to gaps in the process or an ineffective process altogether. I am not saying to eliminate leadership from making key decisions, because your leadership essentially should be very qualified to make decisions. However, the best leaders draw on the experience of team members across the organization to make the best decisions. Enough feedback must be solicited from the organization to ensure that the decision or initiative is the best approach and will have the biggest impact. Without talking to the team, getting input, a consensus, and feedback, even good leaders will make bad decisions or create useless initiatives and processes.
Certainly, there are sometimes quick decisions that need to be made solely by those that are qualified to make them. This is ok as well when it is necessary and doesn’t necessarily warrant the overhead in getting others involved, but always make sure that when this happens that the door is open for improvements and ensure that any member of the organization is welcome to help improve the process or help remove the existing barriers which lead to the process to begin with. This is why we need a culture of open communication. Typically, when decisions are made this way, they have an impact from the get go, but because they didn’t necessarily have the buy in from the organization, suggestions and alternatives drawing from the experience of others in the organization were not considered which could have an even bigger impact. Don’t form a committee or introduce unnecessary overhead, but just make sure you get the required input you need to make the best decision.
Once new processes or process improvements are in place, the rest of the organization needs to know why they are in place, what they are trying to solve, and know that anyone in the organization is welcome to further discuss this openly with the stakeholders. Inviting that communication goes far in helping establish trust and helping the people of the organization understand that every process is open for discussion and improvement by anyone. It removes tension that many people feel when a process was jammed down their throat without any collaborative input from them.
Rewarding Change and Improvements
When someone takes the initiative to change a process or suggest a process improvement, make sure that that individual feels rewarded. Even saying something like “That’s a great idea and I think it will work well” goes a long way toward building further trust and showing the rest of the organization that this is a company that takes pride in the collaboration, input, and improvements lead by any team member. Ignoring input of contributors, good input or bad, is the absolute worst thing an organization can do. It creates tension, inhibits growth, and absolutely ensures that the people trying to contribute will feel unvalued.
Also, consider giving random rewards to team members who are continually contributing and stepping up above and beyond their required responsibilities. This is important, so that your key people are always rewarded and feel important, and it will help to motivate others as well.
If you’re a thought leader (or want to be) in your organization and someone sends you an email asking for advice or offers an improvement suggestion, talk to him or her. Or at least send out an email suggesting you meet to discuss in the future. It shows appreciation and it decreases invisible barriers. It really doesn`t matter what your position is, if you don’t want people to communicate with you or suggest improvements, change your attitude because you are creating a new invisible wall and it will slowly drag down those people around you. This goes for any form of communication – don’t create invisible walls – work hard to remove walls and increase communication and collaboration.
The Right Leadership
Architects and your other senior people need strong specific knowledge in the technologies being used and they need to pick up, learn and understand business requirements quickly. They need to be able to form solid relationships with Product Management, Sales, QA, and Executives to get the big picture and to use that to help create a solid architecture, foundation, and technology roadmap with the rest of the team.
Understanding, learning quickly, team leadership, and strong technical knowledge need to be in place. So, if you have a software leadership team that just talks, manages, dictates, or doesn’t collaborate, they may be better suited to another role or kept on to help them grow into a role where they are working better with the rest of the team. However, the point is clear that they aren’t ready and they wouldn’t be effective leaders in the organization. Notice how I mentioned “just manages”? I purposely used “manages” as a term relating to managing people. Aka – making sure “their people” are working, giving reviews related to their performance, checking their attendance, ensuring processes are being followed and all of the things that “managers” do. The point is that successful product and development teams need leaders and not managers. Managing doesn’t improve process, but leadership can drive improvements. Some management may be required by a leader, but leadership should be at least 10:1 the responsibility of management.
Multi Cross Functional Collaboration
I’ve created the expression “Multi cross functional collaboration” as a way to define how to make cross functional teams more collaborative, and even more engaged with other cross functional teams and other parts of the organization.
When people in the organization don’t know each other, it’s a problem. In fact, it’s a bigger problem than most organizations realize.
In order to remove barriers to communication, start by getting everybody to know each other. In Agile environments, Agile teams should already be cross functional teams. You need developers, quality assurance testers, business analysts, product managers, and potentially others, all working together on the same team. This allows the process to flow smoothly from product inception, development, to testing. However, even in this environment you tend to still create silos where communication becomes blocked as there are typically barriers of communication between members of this team and members of other teams. This needs to be addressed, because in software, especially enterprise software, a siloed team still needs open doors to the other teams and to the rest of the organization.
If you expand on the idea of cross functional teams and create the multi-cross functional team, essentially, cross functional teams across your cross functional teams, you are helping to bridge the communication gap by exposing people within existing teams to people in other teams. You are bringing together people who are experts in their specific areas to work together and come up with the best solutions. You are having them work together more closely, sharing knowledge, collaborating, and building new inter-enterprise relationships. You still keep the original teams intact, but you create other permanent or temporary teams that work together to help improve process or solve different problems.
Multi Cross Functional Teams In The Real World
As an example, you could have five software teams that are cross functional – three developers per team, one QA tester, and a business analyst. This is great, because the teams involved in delivering pieces of the software product from end to end are working together as a team. But often the teams still aren’t working with the rest of the organization that well, and this needs to be addressed.
Think about this real world example. You want to implement a new extension to your product and want to figure out the best approach or brainstorm ideas about it. You don’t want to develop a solution yet, but you just want to gather ideas and determine architecturally what is the best approach to proceed, what technologies could be used, and how to improve existing standards to better facilitate future development. This new potential product extension will reach across several software disciplines in the organization and across the functional areas of many existing cross functional teams. What do you do? One approach would be to ask the architects or leadership how to proceed, but a better approach is to create a team comprising of individuals across different existing cross functional teams at all levels (not just leadership).
To create the new team, invite a few key people who definitely will be able to provide big value to the team. Encourage others to volunteer to step up and join. Now you’ve got a new cross functional team that spans multiple existing cross functional teams. And you’ve got a handful of people most likely who are now working together who haven’t likely communicated much in the past due to existing barriers to communication and also because they just don’t know each other that well. The team can work together to come up with solutions to the problem they are trying to solve and also help share their progress with the rest of the organization. It also gives people who wouldn’t normally have a chance to step up and be a leader to step up and help collaborate and lead direction on another team. This is a huge step for an organization for relieving communication problems over the long term while getting new and important side projects started and finished, and exposing team members to new people in the organization (internal or remotely).
Organizational Growth Through Engagement and Empowerment
Think about how engaging and empowering individuals to step up and contribute in more areas of the organization will allow your people to grow, and in turn allow your organization to mature. It will help prevent boredom or developer burnout by exposing people to new people, ideas, technology, and teams. Now, think about this. This is a tremendously huge opportunity for the organization to fuel their succession planning. Now you can see who is working on different teams, who is stepping up, who is taking on a leadership role for certain initiatives – even where it wasn’t even a requirement for their current role. This is huge for an organization trying to figure out who their best people are and help them figure out where they can fit them in to the succession planning process. You don’t want your best people to leave to pursue greater opportunities in other companies, so empowering people with a chance to step up, collaborate, and lead, will leave them with an avenue to be recognized in the organization as a leader or potential leader, collaborator, and asset to the organization.
This also helps go towards the problem of developer boredom which plagues software development projects. If you think developer boredom is caused by bad developers, think again. Boredom creates mediocrity and inevitably even extremely talented people become less productive. Unexciting or repetitive work typically creates the kind of boredom that can usually be relieved by leaving the organization and starting fresh on a new project. Get my point? Elevating boredom is huge for a company, and even allowing your people to spend part of their days exploring new ideas and projects (maybe as part of another team) that are not directly related to what they have been doing day in and day out for six months is a huge step for morale and will make their regular work much more productive as a result.
Other examples where creating a new multi-cross functional team is beneficial to the organization include: Nailing down some pairing and communication processes, R&D on potential new technology to incorporate into the project, exploratory research projects, defining new architectural standards or approaches, new development initiatives such as unit testing or code reviews, etc.
The point is to get the ideas started and then make sure that everyone in the organization knows what is coming up in terms of new initiatives or teams.
The Best Part – Employee Retention & Succession Planning
Great developers work hard, great developers get excited about new technology, product creation, and innovation. Great developers generally have a spirit of entrepreneurship towards their work in the sense that they love to try new things, fail, learn new technologies and try them out. This excites the majority of developers and ignites a passion in them. By including them in different projects, and giving them the opportunity to step up, they also gain a sense of importance to the organization. Think about how great this lends itself to employee retention.
Exposure to new technologies, people, and helping define processes shakes the work day up which helps prevent the mundane problem of boredom when working on the same things for too long.
Remember the fantastic side effect? Succession planning. This helps create a roadmap for succession planning in your organization. Now, multi-cross functional team member’s have an even bigger opportunity to shine by stepping up and joining (or better yet, starting) other new cross functional teams. In these teams they can prove their ability to work in different facets of the company and communicate, lead, and collaborate with different teams and people all while increasing their own technical, and communication skills. This helps management decide who should, let’s say, become the next architect, or lead a new software development initiative while also raising the skill level of everybody else who has been involved. It puts sustainable succession planning into motion within your organization.
Ultimately, the role of leadership is to create a vision and have buy in with the organization so everyone has the same vision, recognize the contributions of the rest of the organization, ensuring that people are collaborating to the best extent possible, eliminate invisible walls and silos, all while sustaining long term growth and evolution of the organization. The accountability brought into team members through self-organization and the right leadership will act as a motivator for teams to function at their highest level.
Using mutli-cross functional teams, and encouraging decisions and improvements to be made at all levels while getting the input of the people across the organization before implementing big initiatives will be valuable in ensuring that the best and most thought out decisions can be made. This helps empower people and leads to much better succession planning.
The right people are key, so having very smart people at all levels is a requirement to correctly implement the ideas presented in this article. It`s hard to build a relationship of trust and empower people within your organization if you do not have the right people who are intelligent, will step up, contribute great ideas, and open up doors of communication. Eliminating the formal or perceived constraints that people are working within in the organization can be a long process, but once you empower people your organization will be better suited to create better quality systems that are well executed. The advice and topics discussed in this article can go a long way to assist in achieving these goals and to help create an even more successful software organization.
Dan Douglas is a professional independent Software Consultant and an experienced and proven subject matter expert, decision maker, and leader in the area of Software Development and Architecture. His professional experience represents over 12 years of architecting and developing highly successful large scale solutions. Dan also believes that properly empowering teams with trust and responsibility yields the greatest results, and that creating better software goes well beyond just writing better code.
The opinions expressed in this article are my own and are based what I have done, what I have seen, and what I have learned while leading and working in many different team environments.