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One Big Team

There's a notable difference between working for a start up and working for a large company. One major distinction is focus. Start ups that aren't focused don't tend to last long. Large companies can afford to go many directions at once. But they often do so at a cost. By fighting against themselves with cross purposes they lose some of the leverage that their size could provide.

I once worked with a company that had a rather large product line. Thousands of users. Hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue. The product line was sliced and diced such that there were over 150 options on how to buy it. Each of these was treated as a distinct product. Each had someone championing it. Each had its own release schedule. You can imagine the complexity. Which version of x works with which version of y?

But that wasn't the biggest problem. The biggest problem was that it resulted in local optimization rather than focusing on what was best for the company as a whole. Each team was doing what was best given their context, but if you looked at the bigger picture, it resulted in an approach that wasn't the best use of people's time. And although this was a rather extreme example, a similar problem exists at many companies today.

Some action items towards eliminating the issue:

  • Cut back the complexity. Reduce the number of things that you treat as products, projects, etc. In the case of this large product line, we ended up treating it as one product.
  • Clarify your priorities. One way to facilitate this is to reduce the number of backlogs. There's a certain magic to ranking things. You have to make choices. This results in discussions that putting things into buckets of high / medium / low avoids. By putting the current priorities in a single visible place, you reduce the ability for people to go different directions without having the hard conversations.
  • Move to a single heartbeat. Synchronize your iterations and your releases. Do release planning together. Integrate constantly. Do a scrum of scrums. Demo together. We began treating the product line as a single release. This resulted in a significant reduction in complexity. No more interoperability issues. No more issues from being at different points in the release cycle. We gained the ability to focus the market rather than watering down the message across so many.
  • Simplify the organization. Reduce dependencies by creating cross functional teams that can achieve items from the backlog without involving several other teams. Align management with the team structure.

Get a little closer to your inner start up.

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