In his book, Blink, Malcolm Gladwell tells the story of marriage counselors who can tell whether a couple will stay married or get divorced after watching a very short video of the couple talking. The researchers have been able to spot subtle signs of contempt that would eventually lead to divorce.

When it comes to scaling enterprise agile, organizations have their own subtle signs of contempt, things I (and any other person, really) can observe that would lead to the conclusion that any attempt at agile will not have long-term success in that organization. With issues that cut so deep, trying to scale them will fail.

What is that sign? What do companies do that sabotages their attempts to improve?

The answer is simple: teams.

More specifically, it’s how organizations treat their teams.

If you have truly cross-functional teams that stay together, empowering them and allowing them to learn from each other and proceed through the stages of team development, then your chances of success will be very high. True teams, with trust, a sense of commitment to each other, and the ability to develop a sustainable pace of delivery, will lead your organization to bigger and better things.

Conversely, if you treat teams as mere boxes into and out of which people are shuffled, if teams are built up and torn down when the priority of projects change with the direction of the wind, and people are not allowed to stay together long enough to form bonds, you will never succeed.

I know, I know; that seems like a pretty dramatic statement, but it is true.

You will not succeed.

You may have some short bursts of “success” that come from heroic project work and a few rock stars, but that is not sustainable. Do not let this “success” fool you. You are not creating sustainable teams that will be able to constantly deliver valuable software.

It is not just keeping teams together; they must be truly cross-functional. Many companies are still holding onto the old vestiges of shared services models or “component and feature” team models. These will work, but will dramatically cut into your ability to scale.

Simply put, your ability to scale will be limited by the shared team with the lowest capacity. It does not matter what that shared team provides; I have seen it in many different flavors: security, EDI, data warehouse, and other internal specific applications. Whenever you lead yourself into believing these teams are “special” and need to be separate from the others, it will be difficult to scale.

Let’s look at a couple of examples.

First, we have a shared team that is supplying work to the feature teams. Notice how all of their velocities are similar (velocity scores are in the circles). The primary reason is that the shared team is holding them back. The teams are fighting for the scarce resource (the shared team) and waiting for deliverables from that team is artificially throttling their velocity. In other words, they could go faster, but cannot because of the bottleneck.

More troubling, if you have to focus all of the teams on one important goal, you would not be able to achieve your goal as fast, and their velocity would most likely drop due to their reliance on that shared team.


Now let’s look at a development group with truly cross-functional teams. First, you will notice that the overall velocities are higher, mainly because there is no shared team throttling their work. Second, if you had to focus all of the teams on one goal, all of the teams would be able to drive in that direction. No one team would become a bottleneck, and all are contributing to the goal.

So… how do we create cross-functional, sustainable teams?


First, know that it is not easy. It takes dedication, empowerment, and a top-down willingness to make it through the transition. We know from Dr. Bruce Tuckman, a researcher into the theory of group dynamics, that teams will struggle in the beginning. As they are going through “forming and storming,” productivity will crater. However, your patience will be rewarded once they normalize and then reach performing level.

Second, don’t be afraid to take risks with teams. Blend your “A” players with some junior people. Teams of all “A” players tend to linger in the storming phase as everyone is trying to be the alpha dog. Maybe let the teams choose themselves (just beware of the playground last-to-be-picked problem).

Finally, break up any cliques. Especially if you’re moving from a shared service model, those folks will most likely want to stay together. Why? They have been a team! But you need to spread their skills around (remember, we want CROSS functionality), so they need to find new teams.

The lynchpin to being able to consistently deliver great software is the empowered cross-functional team. They are the foundation of predictability within an organization. Without sustainable teams, executives tend to fall back into the “just get it done by X date” model. This model only serves to burn out the people and does not help the organization to achieve its goals. Building a solid foundation of teams takes time, effort, and patience, but the rewards greatly exceed the cost to get there.

Find out how VersionOne empowers successful teams with TeamRoom.


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