Team Topologies Book review

New insights that put you at the forefront of the agile marketing field

It was in my previous assignment at ING, an international bank known for its full adoption of the Agile Way of Working, that I came across Team Topologies and it immediately resonated with me. And after a while, I could explain why. This way of organizing solves a fundamental puzzle of today’s workplaces: how to be highly productive as a team on the delivery side and at the same time enable individuals in the team to engage in deep learning?

So I bought the book written by Matthew Skelton and Manuel Pais and read it. The book is a tough read and it took me some discipline to get to the last page. Luckily the authors present a reading guide in their preface, so if this book review triggers your curiosity and want to know more, you can navigate through parts of the book based on an initial question you might have.

Cognitive load

Imagine a typical day at work. A few meetings, colleagues emailing and texting, and your determination to meet a few small deadlines scattered throughout the day. There are days when this goes effortlessly but there are also those days where your head is so full after lunch that you only make it to the end of the day on willpower and routine. The cognitive load of work on those days is simply out of balance. Perhaps you have had to do too much context switching or maybe you experience a fuzzy layer in conversations due to office politics, an open space with lots of noise to work in, or unclear guidelines for delivering work. The list is endless.

We all experience cognitive load while working and learning, we can only remember so much. Our short-term working memory needed to learn new things gets overloaded very easily and when that happens it’s time to stop and process the new stuff – bring the new things over to our short term memory and eventually to our long-term memory.

Skelton & Pais name three types of cognitive load: intrinsic, extraneous, and germane. Intrinsic load is the load that comes with the complexity of new information. For example, if you are new to strategic marketing you have to learn about Porter’s 5 forces. Extraneous load is the extra load we have to take in while being busy with the intrinsic load. A lot of noise in the room while reading about the 5 forces, or a lecture on this subject in a different language than your mother tongue. And lastly, we have the germane cognitive load. This is the kind of learning where you blend the stuff that’s new with the stuff you already know so you make coherent schemas in your brain of how the world around you works. Something clicks in your brain and suddenly you have a clear approach for applying Porter’s 5 forces to meet the strategic objectives of your company. Obviously, this kind of learning adds business value.

To put these notions of cognitive load to use, remember this: you want to simplify the intrinsic load, reduce the extraneous load and maximize the germane load. Anything that violates these principles in work, Skelton & Pais argue, hampers the fast flow of delivering business results.

Team types

Most people help themselves through their workday by trying to simplify the intrinsic load and reduce the extraneous load. Therefore Team Topology patterns like team types and interaction modes are already emerging beneath the surface in most multi-disciplinary environments if you look closely. See if you can discern the team types described in the section below within your own work environment. Skelton & Pais point out four fundamental team types, each one with their own characteristics and purpose in the organization.

The main type in any organization is the Stream Aligned team. Other people might call this a product team or a squad. It is serving the primary processes of the business in a very direct way, delivering exactly that what is needed to get value delivered to the customer. For example, a marketing team within a consulting firm, delivering end-to-end marketing services like campaigns to the department operating in the domain of logistics.
Stream Aligned teams are always business facing and you can imagine that the demands on them are only growing and never decreasing, as is the cognitive load. The other three team types are supporting the Stream-Aligned team to do their work, by taking away specific parts of cognitive load.

Enabling teams are teams of experts in a specific area that collaborate closely for a limited amount of time with stream-aligned teams to help them gain the capabilities that they are missing. The marketing team set up for the logistics domain might get help from an enabling team specialized in test & analytics for optimization. Once they’ve bridged the knowledge gaps and the Stream-Aligned team can run and interpret their tests themselves, they are off to the next Stream-Aligned team. Enabling teams effectuates a culture of organizational learning.

Platform teams run their work as a platform for a product or service. The Stream-Aligned team can use the platform as a service in the same way they use electricity from a socket in the wall. For instance handing over the offline means of a campaign as standardized orders to a Platform team specialized in design and print.

The last team type, quite rare, is the Complicated-Subsystem team. These teams are busy with sub-systems that need such deep skills and expertise – it doesn’t make any sense that all the stream-aligned teams would have that kind of expertise. Maybe a company still uses an ancient CRM application build custom-made 35 years ago in an obscure programming language. That would be a perfect candidate for a Complicated-Subsystem micro team.

Interaction modes

As you probably noticed, the team types are described by their relationship with each other. And the funny thing is, it is not intended that this relationship should be as close as possible. Preferably not even, because of the toll it takes on cognitive load. Skelton & Pais distinguish between three interaction modes.

The first one, Collaboration, is a way of working together for a defined period of time to discover new things. Collaboration is just what it says, people from two or more teams working closely together on the same tasks. This helps teams to explore a lot faster since two teams have more experience than one team and besides that a lot more people to have new ideas and even maybe some individuals with more motivation than average to discover new ways of doing things.

The second one, Facilitating is a way of working together while transferring knowledge from one team to another. It’s a faster way to overcome obstacles, and at the same time empower a team to apply new tactics or strategies. Enabling teams are most likely to work together with stream-aligned teams using this interaction mode. It feels a bit like training on the job and requires a special skill set from the facilitating team members.

The third one is called X-as-a-service, whereby X can be anything as long as it can be provided time and place independently. Printing as a service, for example. Or mailing addresses as a service. You get the picture. Often the teams interact in an a-synchronic and standardized manner. The aim is to provide the service in a frictionless manner. Platform teams are most likely to end up using mainly this interaction mode.

Evolving team and interaction patterns

For me as an agile coach, it took some adjustment to accept the underlying assumption of the interaction modes – that collaboration is not the default interaction mode. There is an evolutionary quality to these team types and interaction modes. You can start as one large team, maybe two or three separate teams working together very closely in the beginning. After a while, you can split up into two or more separate teams still working together for things that need more exploration. After some more time, it is possible to reach a stable state being able to consume or provide service from one team to other teams without the need for interaction at all.

How do you know you need to evolve? To move on from one interaction mode to a looser or tighter version? The organization has to sense it, state Skelton & Pais. They have also a golden tip I absolutely love: you can use awkwardness between teams or in interactions as a signal that there is some evolution work to be done.

Team Topologies in Marketing

Implementing agile ways of working in marketing and communication teams can be a daunting task sometimes. Professionals in those teams don’t allow themselves time off from their ever-growing to-do lists to engage in learning and experimenting with new routines.
The key to unlocking their priorities can be found in the concept of cognitive load. To sketch the pathway from close collaboration in large teams with time-consuming interaction structures to evolving in smaller teams with more distant interaction plus fewer things to take care of within each team. That is a new and different perspective than the mainstream agile benefits narrative, which might encourage professionals to take the first steps.

Emerging Team Topology patterns can easily be found in agile marketing departments. It is tempting to take a shortcut and start the division into team types immediately. However, Team Topologies is perceived as complex by people who first hear of these concepts. It is better to get some more people on board: managers, but also professionals who are willing to deep dive into these ideas and concepts. You can start a reading circle around this book. Whether colleagues are with you on this or not, reading this book will certainly give you new insights that will put you at the forefront of the agile marketing field.

About Mariëlle Roozemond

As an independent Agile Transformation Coach, she worked for companies like ING, Dutch Public Health Institute, and Port of Rotterdam. She also holds a part-time position as a lecturer at the Rotterdam University of Applied Sciences. Combining those roles Mariëlle has always been searching for gems at the borders of Marketing & Communication Sciences, Business, and IT. And Team Topologies is definitely the latest discovery!

As chairperson of the Agile MarCom Consortium, she has introduced agile practices, tools, and techniques to marketing and communication professionals. And as a board member of the Agile Consortium, Mariëlle is advocating the use of marketing & communication tools in the practice of agile coaching. She is the co-author of ‘Scrum in Actie’, the modern Dutch classic on how to use Scrum in non-IT situations.