The key to high productivity is “getting the right people in the room”. For a service that means an end-to-end slice of the key people involved in delivering and improving the service that sit next to each other every day. Traditional functional silos destroy productivity because they introduce big delays and buffers between groups, inhibit communication and make functions more important than the whole, putting personal agendas ahead of the business.
The most common problem I see in client organisations is functional specialisation of teams. The bureaucratic, siloed and slow-moving fragmented mess that often results feels a little bit like a war zone.
Who teaches this stuff? It is as if this is the “one true path” or only way to organise mandated by God. Nothing could be further from the truth.
There’s more than one way to organise. Most organisations think only in terms of a functionally-split hierarchy with different divisions and teams that each deal with a small slice of the end-to-end service delivery.
This makes HR happy with its neat boxes and reporting lines. It lends itself neatly to separation of responsibility. Which is exactly what you don’t want – responsibility should be collective if you want to stand any chance of running a successful service.
Let’s try first to understand the problems that this organisational approach causes. We’ll explore the issues and then look at what might be done about them.
Teams and departments are separated into “functions” where people who do the same kinds of work sit together with their own manager. The work of each function is tracked and measured locally with handoffs to other groups.
Functional specialisation of teams is founded in a damaging analogy with factory production work that has no place in modern service delivery.
The fragmentation that results means that no-one has a good understanding of the whole service and can only focus on their own narrow steps in the process.
This leads directly to local optimisation at the expense of the whole. Delivery of the function, not the whole service, becomes the primary obsession. Barriers are erected to other groups whose demands distract from the function, creating delays, waste and re-work. A natural outcome is “turf” that can be fought over.
Left to fester this dysfunction becomes so strong that improvement is impossible.
It doesn’t have to be like this. It is perfectly possible to follow an alternative pattern in your organisation that leads to a far better outcome. Let’s look together at what you could do instead and the positive consequences that will follow.
First we’ll examine what the alternative, Cross-Functional Teams, looks like:
People are organised into a series of small cross-functional teams composed of a selection of roles needed to deliver and develop each service. Work is tracked against end-to-end service delivery with a minimum of internal handoffs.
The key activity of any business is delivering value to customers. The best way to achieve this is to group people in cross-functional teams that directly line up to the services delivered to customers – involving all end-to-end aspects of service delivery and development.
This brings everyone far closer to customers, permeates a broad understanding of customer’s needs and acts to increase and grow knowledge of each service. Sitting together the people who need to work together to deliver each service also maximises communication and turns each team area into a natural collaboration space.
All of this eliminates handoffs, dependencies, delays, improves quality and allows teams to both compete and share good practice without the risk of destructive turf wars.
So how would you go about following this pattern in your organisation?
The great news is that cross-functional teams are easy to pilot and try out with low costs and risks. You just need to be willing to work in a different way. People often have a million questions and objections – the best way to deal with these is just to start, try it out and have the questions answered through trialling a new way of working.
If you are not sure about all of this yet then why not try out the Toe Dipping option as a first step?
Take a service and run a workshop as a thought experiment to identify the key roles needed for a small team that focuses on end-to-end service delivery and development. Map this out visually and annotate how the roles relate.
Why not set a deliberate corporate goal to have 80% of your staff sitting in cross-functional teams? That will force everyone to step back, consider end-to-end service delivery and come up with practical suggestions and pilots for a new way of working.
I often hear the objection: “But we have to have some functionally-specialised teams just to have basic cost-saving efficiencies…”.
That’s makes sense in theory but in practice it is true far less often than people think.
Functionally-specialised teams can work only when they are out of the main flow of the work, the service they provide to other teams is highly transactional, low variability (i.e. there’s a few simple fixed types of requests and responses) and extremely fast turnaround (no SLAs please).
You can do that for putting desktops on people’s desks but even in that scenario it is questionable. To properly support the IT needs of a collocated group requires understanding what they do and how their needs differ from other groups – which pretty quickly leads you to assigning them a permanent IT bod who sits with that team (part-time or full-time as necessary). In other words, make them part of the cross-functional team!
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