One of the interesting trends that we’re seeing within organizations taking a disciplined agile approach to solution delivery is the preference for stable teams. Stable teams, also called stable product teams or simply long-term teams, are exactly as they sound – they remain (reasonably) stable over time, lasting longer than the life of a single project. This blog explores the differences between project teams and stable teams and then overviews the advantages and disadvantages of the stable team approach. We also explore the issue of how stable teams evolve over time.
As you can see in the following diagram, with a project team approach we say that we bring the team to the work. What we mean by that is that we first identify the need to run a project, perhaps to build the new release of an existing solution or to build the initial release of a new solution, we build a team to do the work. Once the work is done, in this case the solution is successfully released into production, the team is disbanded and its team members move on to other things.
The stable team approach is a bit different. In this case we first build an effective team then we continuously bring valuable work to the team to accomplish. In this situation the work never really ends, but instead we replenish the team’s work item list (or work item pool depending on the lifecycle being followed) regularly. The team stays together and continues to produce value for your organization over time.
Of course the term “stable team” is a bit of a misnomer as they do evolve over time. For example, many people like to stay on a team for a couple of years and then move on to another team to gain new skills and perspectives. This is good for them and good for your organization as it helps to keep your teams fresh. Sometimes you will want to grow or shrink a team. Sometimes you will discover that two people aren’t working well together and you need to split them up. The point is that there are very good reasons for your stable teams to evolve over time.
We wouldn’t be disciplined if we didn’t explore the trade-offs involved with stable teams.
The Advantages of Stable Teams
There are several advantages to stable teams:
- Lower management overhead. There is clearly less “resource management” to be done because you’re not constantly forming and disbanding project teams. In fact, this lower need for resource management activities is one of several factors why agile IT organizations need managers than non-agile IT organizations.
- Easier team budgeting. The annual budget for a stable team is incredibly straightforward to calculate: Multiply the number of people on the team by the fully burdened cost of an IT person for your organization. Once again, less management work required for this.
- You build better teams. When you build project teams you tend to take the people who are currently available (often referred to as sitting on the bench). With a stable team approach you’re motivated to build your teams with the right people, and very often its best for the team to build itself by inviting others who they believe will fit in well.
- There is greater opportunities to build trust within the team. It takes time to build trust within a team. Greater trust leads to greater willingness to work together in a more streamlined manner. As Stephen Covey insightfully points out, trust enables speed.
- There’s a greater opportunity for safety. It takes time to build an environment where people feel safe. In safe environments there is a much greater chance that they will share ideas and be willing to try new things because they don’t fear being thought less of or even punished.
- There is less overhead from team formation. You’re forming teams far less often with a stable approach compared to a project team approach, hence there is less overhead in total for your organization.
- Better team performance. Consider the analogy of a train. Just like it takes time to bring the train up to cruising speed it takes time for the team to jell. Bringing work to a seasoned team that works together well is like jumping onto a train going at full speed: it’s faster in both cases because you don’t have to get going from a full stop.
- You have more efficient utilization of staff. With this approach it is far less likely that someone will be “sitting on the bench” because they will instead be an active member of a team. When someone is hired it is directly into a team. Throughout their career they will move from team to team as appropriate. The only time that they might not be utilized is when their on vacation, sabbatical, or if you purposefully disband a team. The first two reasons are something you still have with the project team approach, and the last reason should happen a lot less often.
- Your teams are more likely to improve. When a team knows that they will be working together for a long time, and particularly when they are responsible for the entire delivery lifecycle from beginning to end, they are more likely to streamline their work so as to make things better for themselves.
The Disadvantages of Stable Teams
There are several disadvantages to stable teams:
- Teams can become too stable. A real danger of stable teams is the potential for groupthink – everyone on the team starts to think and work in a common way, thereby being in danger to common blindspots. Luckily people still want to move to other teams for career management reasons, offering the opportunity to bring new viewpoints into other teams. In the Disciplined Agile (DA) framework we have the continuous improvement process blade which supports sharing of ideas across teams so that can also lessen the chance of groupthink. And, as mentioned earlier, some people may need to be motivated to move on to another team for interpersonal reasons.
- You still may need to do projects. Sometimes your business team makes promises to their customers. For example, in a software company a sales person makes a big sale and promises that by a certain date your solution will have additional features that the customer needs (in immature organizations they’ll even make such promises without first negotiating this with the delivery team). Another example would be a financial institution that needs to fulfill new industry regulations that require changes to existing solutions. In both of these cases there is a large amount of work to be done that needs to be delivered before a certain date, and this may motivate you to treat this work as a project. You would still bring this work to the appropriate stable team(s) to accomplish as you normally would. However, you would also track the performance of the work to ensure that it is delivered in its entirety as appropriate. The implication is that projects may not completely go away
Evolving Stable Teams Over Time
Stable doesn’t mean stagnant. Of course you still have basic people management issues such as people wanting to expand their skill set by working on something new by rotating to another team, people leaving the organization, and new people joining the organization. So the team itself may go on for many years even though the membership of the team evolves over time. Ideally these membership changes are not too disruptive: It’s not too bad adding a new person every month or so, or losing people at a similar rate, but gaining or losing several people in a short period of time can be painful.
Start experimenting with stable teams if you’re not already doing so. For most organizations the advantages clearly outweigh the disadvantages. In fact, you can see this in the Longevity decision point of the Form Initial Team goal diagram below.