Organizing at Scale: Feature Teams vs. Component Teams – Part 1

While continuing my work with a number of larger enterprises facing the cultural change, new practice adoption and organizational challenges of a large scale agile transformation, the topic has again come up as to how to organize large numbers of agile teams to effectively implement agile and optimize value stream delivery.

For the smaller software enterprise, it’s usually no issue at all. Teams will naturally organize around the few products or applications that reflect the mission. The silos that tend to separate development, product management and test in the larger enterprise  (hopefully!) do not exist. The teams are probably already collocated, rather than being distributed across disparate geographies. Creating an agile team is mostly a matter of deciding what roles the individuals will play, and rolling out some standard training.

At scale however, like most other things agile, the problem is dramatically different and the challenge is to understand who works on what and where. How do we organize larger numbers of teams in order to optimize value delivery of requirements? Do we organize around features, components, product lines, services or what? While there is no easy answer to this question, the question must be explored because so many agile practices – how many backlogs there are and who manages them – how the vision and features are communicated to groups of teams – how the teams coordinate their activities to produce a larger solution  – must be reflected in that decision.

Organize Around Components?

In Scaling Software Agility,  I described a typical organizational model whereby many of the agile teams are organized around the architecture of a larger-scale system. There, they leverage their technical skills and interest and focus on building robust components – making them as reliable and extensible as possible, leveraging common technologies and usage models, and facilitating reuse. I even called the teams define/build/test component teams, which is (perhaps) an unfortunate label. However, I also noted that:

“We use the word component as an organizing and labeling metaphor throughout this book. Other agile methods, such as FDD, stress that the team be oriented around features, still others suggest that a team may be oriented around services. We use component rather liberally, and we do not suggest that every likely software component represents a possible team, but in our experience, at scale, components are indeed the best organizing metaphor.”

I wasn’t particularly pedantic about it, but noted that a component-based organization is likely to already exist in the enterprise, and that wasn’t such a bad thing, given the critical role of architecture in these largest, enterprise-class systems.

In any case, in a component-based approach, development of a new feature is implemented by the affected component teams, as the figure below illustrates.

Picture 2
In this case, the agile requirements workflow would put backlog items for each new feature on each of the affected component teams. They minimize multiplexing across features by implementing them in series, rather than parallel. Moreover, they are able to aggregate the needs of multiple features into the architecture for their component and can focus on building the best possible, long-lived component for their layer.

Perhaps this is reflective of a bias towards an architecture-centric view of building these largest-of-all-known software systems. For there, if you don’t get the architecture reasonably right, you are unlikely to achieve the reliability, performance and longer-term feature velocity delivery goals of the enterprise. If and when that happens, the enterprise may be facing a refactoring project that could be measured in hundreds of man-years. A frightening thought for certain.

In addition, there are a number of other reasons why component teams can be effective in the agile enterprise:

  1. Because of its history, past successes and large scope, the enterprise is likely already organized that way, with specialists who know large scale data bases, web services, embedded operating systems and the like, working together. Individuals – their skills, interests, residency, friendships, cultures and lifestyles – are not interchangeable. It’s best not to change anything you don’t absolutely have to.
  2. Moreover, these teams may already be collocated with each other, and given the strong collocation benefits in agile, organizing otherwise could potentially increase team distribution and thereby lower productivity.
  3. Technologies and programming languages typically differ across components as well, making it difficult, if not impossible, for pairing, collective ownership, continuous integration, testing automation, and other factors critical to high performing agile teams.
  4. And finally, at scale, a single user feature could easily affect hundreds of practitioners. For example, a phone feature like “share my new video to utube” could affect many dozens of agile teams, in which case organizing by feature can be a nebulous and unrealistic concept.

Organization Around Features?

However, our current operating premise is that agile teams do a better job of focusing on value delivery, and this creates a contrary vector on this topic. Indeed, as traditionally taught, the almost universally accepted approach for organizing agile teams is to organize around features.

Picture 1
The advantages to a feature team approach are obvious: teams build expertise in the actual domain and usage mode of the system, and can typically accelerate value delivery of any one feature. The team’s core competence becomes the feature (or set of features), as opposed to the technology stack. The teams backlog is simplified, just one or two features at a time. That has to promote fast delivery of high value added features!

Other authors support the Feature-focused approach as well. For example, in Agile Project Management, Highsmith [2004] states:

“Feature based delivery means that the engineering team build features of the final product.”

Of course, that doesn’t mean to say that the teams themselves must be “organized by feature”, as all engineering teams in the end build features for the final product, though perhaps that is a logical inference. Others, including Larmon and Vodde [2009] have more directly (and adamantly) promoted the concept of feature teams as the only rational (well, perhaps, see Craig Larman’s comments below) way to organize agile teams. They note:

“a feature team is a long lived, cross-functional team that completes many end-to-end customer features, one by one.. advantages include increased value throughput, increased learning, simplified planning, reduced waste…”

Larman and Vodde state specifically that you should “avoid component teams” and indeed, spend an entire chapter with good coverage of the aspects of the  topic. However, the authors also point out several challenges with the feature team approach, including the need for broader skills and product knowledge, concurrent access to code, shared responsibility for design and difficulties in achieving reuse and infrastructure work. Not to mention the potential for dislocation of some team members as the organization aligns around these boundaries.

So What is the Conclusion?

So what is an agile enterprise to do in the face of this conundrum? I’ve asked a few additional experts for their opinion, and I’ll be providing my opinion as well, in the next post.
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References:
Highsmith, Jim. Agile Project Management. 2004. Addison-Wesley.
Leffingwell, Dean. Scaling Software Agility: Best Practices for Large Enterprises. 2007. Addison Wesley.
Larmon, Craig and Bas Vodde. 2009. Scaling Lean and Agile Development. Addison Wesley.

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