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Feature Teams: First Among Equals

by Olga Kouzina, 10 October 2013 | The Agile Blogosphere

This content is syndicated from Edge of Chaos | Agile Development Blog by Olga Kouzina. To view the original post in full, click here.

Last week, in the When One Product Owner Is Not Enough post, I shared some thoughts on when a team might consider replacing one product owner with several feature owners. This time I’d like to tell more about feature teams, and their guiding principles/values, should some of you decide to try this setup in your organizations.

The very first thing to do would be to pick up the feature owners. These people would ideally spend several years working in the organization, where they would track the evolution of the product, having the general awareness of the priorities and business objectives. Of course, the priorities and objectives can be shared and discussed in a conversation with a relatively new person, but someone with the intrinsic knowledge would fit much better. Someone who’s been in the product context for quite a while, as a dev, or as a QA, or as a UX designer, would be able to balance the strategic priorities projected on their feature. A feature owner would eventually become an informal leader, based on the “first among equals” principle (or primus inter pares, as in Latin), where this person doesn’t have the formal “order-forbid” rights, but is viewed by the other peers as a competent authority, as someone who champions the team. The feature owner would also paste this feel of awareness on the rest of the team, thus fostering engagement.

the coat of arms for feature teams

The coat of arms

Next, the #1 goal of a feature team is to release their feature as fast and as best as they can… and then re-iterate based on the feedback from customers, of course. Anyone in the team has to be aware of that, and keep that in mind. They have to learn to think in the context of the whole feature, not only their one user story, or task. In other words, go beyond their primary knowledge domain. The notorious UX-dev clashes, when developers say something like “it’s very hard to do this UX in terms of development”, have no right for living. Yes, sometimes code-related things make it hard to implement a nicer UX solution. But this is not to be left hanging in the air. Developers and designers in a feature team are supposed to sit down and discuss best viable alternatives, considering all the challenges, pros and cons from both the sides. The faster things are discussed, the higher the chance that a good approach is found faster, and this would bring the team closer to their ultimate #1 goal. That’s what integrity as a feature team value is about. 

In a feature team, there’s no subordinate relationship. A feature owner is not supposed to assign work as such. Neither it is supposed to work as “I have no tasks left, tell me what to do?”  A feature team is even more about a collective ownership of a feature, so if a team sees some challenges, they need to talk, discuss and decide by themselves. There’s no micro-management either. If there’s a bottleneck at the UX stage, or at the development stage, or at the QA stage — it’s up to the team to come to a solution. That’s what autonomy as a feature team value is about.

A few more words about engagement. This is something that really has to be in place for feature teams to exist. It can only be rooted in the culture of an organization. The genuine interest, and broad outlook, looking beyond “this is my task, and that’s all I know”. Such awareness of shared goals and priorities in product development is a must, and it’s a job of the strategic management to keep people on the same page with the objectives, updates and changes (share feedback from customers, communicate changes in the priorities, making sure that people in the team make sense out of them).

Finally, the “first among equals” principle might be better known to some of you as “organizational flatness“. In brief, this means no formal authority. The most recent example of effective organizational flatness that comes to my mind is Valve, the video games company. They have some interesting insights in their handbook for new employees (it’s a .pdf file). But one has to be aware that absolute flatness as a goal is futile. It can be reached to some extent, but it really depends on the culture of genuine engagement. And, let me re-iterate, that “flatness” as such rather means the “first among equals” setup. There’s no way for a group to go without a leader, be it a formal or an informal one. I hope to write more on organizational flatness in one of my future posts.

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