Most of the reading I’ve done lately has been combinatorial in nature; that is, each book I pick up seems to reference another book I feel compelled to add to my reading list. My latest, Team Topologies, has been no different. This book has a pretty dry title but a really compelling pitch: it aims to help companies finally sort their org charts.
The book is structured with a “choose your own adventure” feel with an introductory section and a series of deeper dives that can apply more or less to different scenarios. In this way, a reader can skip straight to a section that’s likely to apply to a problem they’re experiencing. In working through the the first couple chapters, though, I was already experiencing “aha” moments.
A central source of inspiration for the ideas in Team Topologies is Conway’s Law, which features prominently in the foundational chapters, Conway’s Law suggests that organizations build systems that mimic their communication channels, so Team Topologies authors Matthew Skelton and Manuel Pais believe that the human factors of organizational design and the technical factors of systems design are inexorably intertwined, and in digesting this book, I found myself reflecting on scenarios that bear out this premise.
If there’s a vulnerability in this book at all, it’s that intertwining of organization and technical design. Strictly speaking, it’s not a problem with the book at all; rather, it’s an inexorable implication of Conway’s Law. To the extent you buy into that relationship, it means that no software organization problem is merely technical and no organizational problem can be fixed by sliding names around on an org chart. Ostensibly, this may make change seem harder. In reality, I believe it points out that no change you may have believed easy was ever really changed at all.
Author Allan Kelly has done some writing on Conway’s Law, as well, and I believe his assertion here carries deep implications:
Perhaps this connection of technology and organization helps explain the tremendous challenges found in digital transformation. I’m reminded of a conference speech I attended several years ago. The speaker was a CTO / founder of a red-hot technical startup, and he was sharing his secrets to organizational agility. “Start from scratch and do only agile things,” to paraphrase, but only slightly. Looking around the room at the senior leaders from very large corporations in attendance, I saw almost exclusively despair. While a neat summation of this leader’s agile journey, that approach can’t help affect change in the slightest.
Does Team Topologies help this problem? Indirectly, I believe it can. Overwhelmingly, just highlighting the deep connection between people, software, and flow is a huge insight. Lots of other books and presentations kick in to address flow, but the background and earlier research docuented by Skelton and Pais in the early chapters of the book helped create a deeper sense of “why” for me. The lightbulb moment may be trite, but it’s appropriate for me in this case. I found the book really eye-opening, and it’s earned a spot on my short list of books for any business or technical leader.