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InfoQ Homepage News Why Stable Software Teams Aren't Always Best: Self-Selection Reteaming at Redgate

Why Stable Software Teams Aren't Always Best: Self-Selection Reteaming at Redgate

Chris Smith believes that the idea that teams with very stable membership are best is an instinctively-held, traditional view. There are advantages to having the same group of people stay together, especially in achieving a time-bound software development project. However, in a world where we increasingly see product or stream-aligned teams who own long-living software from creation through to delivery, operation, and ongoing improvements, then optimising for very stable teams is not the best idea, Smith argues.

Chris Smith, Redgate’s director of engineering, spoke about self-selection reteaming at Agile Cambridge 2023.

Very stable teams can suffer from having a limited pool of perspectives and ideas, and they can become very fixed and comfortable, perhaps complacent, in their approach to software development and how things should be done, Smith said.

Technical and domain experts can find themselves stuck in teams, Smith shares. They feel unable to move to a different team, because others in the team and deliverables are entirely reliant on their efforts. In these cases, it often feels easier for an expert to quit a company than change a team within one, which is not good for the overall organization.

Smith believes that if teams hold on to their members jealously, this can create a lack of opportunity for learning new technologies or domains, and tackling new challenges. Many engineers see adding on to or improving their skill sets and experience as a key part of their career development. Limiting that by restricting them to a single team for a long time can damage staff engagement and, again, can lead to employee attrition.

Individual teams can become silos of practice, information and ideas, becoming little isolated ecosystems, Smith adds. These teams are disconnected from the wider organisation, and struggle to align their approach with a wider group of people or work in concert with other teams.

Smith suggests encouraging people to move between teams at a reasonable cadence. This allows good ideas and practices to naturally move with them. Social links between former teammates also protect against the dysfunction of siloed teams.

Redgate has an annual reteaming process to create more diversity of thought and experience in their teams. Over each of the last 5 years, between a third and a quarter of engineers have chosen to move teams during reteaming. While the teams themselves have had to sacrifice some efficiency to support these changes, Smith feels the benefit to the company is worth it.

Healthy teams have an element of change and renewal, and having new people, with their varied experiences and perspectives, join an established group leads to improved outcomes for the organisation, Smith concluded.

InfoQ interviewed Chris Smith about why aiming for very stable teams might be a mistake.

InfoQ: What are the possible downsides of stable teams?

Chris Smith: I remember joining a new employer and being put onto a great team on my first day, which was full of the most talented people I had ever worked with. Those folks had worked together for a long time and they had been really successful in delivering a new product to market, but what I saw when I started working with them was surprising.

The software engineers in the team worked way ahead of the test engineers, moving on to develop new capabilities once they considered the last one "dev-complete," while the test engineers struggled to keep up and ask for subsequent bug fixes. They were cargo-culting Scrum, doing a perfunctory job of ceremonies like sprint planning and retrospectives, but those sessions were delivering very little value. The architecture of the software was overly complex and the code opaque, plus people couldn’t really remember why things had been done the way they had. And so on.

These folks were brilliant and talented individuals, but they had significant issues in how they worked…. they had somehow grown to have a collective blindness to these issues, unable to even see the problems that were apparent to a less experienced, outsider like myself.

InfoQ: How might a leader address collective blindness in their team?

Smith: An antidote to collective blindness might be ensuring teams have "cognitive diversity". Quoting Matthew Syed from his book Rebel Ideas, "Groups that contain diverse views have a huge, often decisive, advantage". He states that by embracing cognitive diversity, fostering constructive debate, and harnessing collective intelligence, individuals and teams can improve their problem-solving, make better decisions and drive innovation in our rapidly changing world.

It’s this idea that pushes me to challenge the idea that stable teams are ideal. They might be best for the short-term, but in the longer-term ensuring team membership has a healthy turnover of people and introducing folks with new experiences and perspectives will result in better outcomes and a more performant organisation.

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