Stop Looking for the Perfect Team

5 minute read

What’s the best team composition? If we listen experts in any field, we hear advice like “you should add a Content Strategist to the team” and “you should add an Information Architect to the team” and “you should add a Researcher to the team” and “Marketer” and “Growth Engineer” and “Product Manager” and… the list gets long if we pay attention to each and everyone.

These are all good advices.
It’s also impossible to do all of them.

When I look at every team I worked with in the past and the teams I work with today, there’s always something missing. Some role that can be added. If I take time and I review independently each one of these advices, I can only agree: it’s very valuable to have these roles. They would certainly add value to the product.

However, each role added increases the complexity of collaboration, and makes the team grow in size. To the point that it becomes a structural issue because then a team can’t ever be at a size where it’s at peak efficiency — around 8 people in my perspective — and we need to try out solutions where we create separate teams and we introduce processes to make these work together and so on.

Team = Strategy

Usually, the existing team composition is the outcome of the structural inertia of a company: they started in a certain way, and new roles are difficult to introduce because they require a massive shift in the structure.

From the Conway’s Law, we know that the product structure will mirror the structure of the teams working on it. If we think in terms of roles and team composition, this means we can approach things in two ways to accommodate an new role:

  1. We change the structure of the company
  2. We change the structure of the team

This becomes clearly a strategic decision to be made. What are the core principles driving the product? What’s the product lacking badly?

These are difficult questions because as mentioned earlier “of course!” we want to have the best at al the needed skills. In some situations this is evident: think of Google of a few years back, their product principles clearly didn’t include design. Think also of Microsoft, when they had to do a radical strategic shift to be a cloud company. They all put in a multi-year effort in driving these strategic changes, hiring the right people, changing how the company ran, and so on.

There’s no ‘best’ team composition, there’s only the ideal composition for the current company strategy.

How to introduce a new role

While every organization structure is different, we can consider few general approaches on how to introduce new roles:

  1. High Advocate — one or more people get hired in different business units, all reporting to the highest level
  2. Service Team — the new role becomes a new team
  3. Standard Team — the new role becomes an extra person in every team of the same type (i.e. product team)

The high advocate is more of a coaching advisory roles for the unit managers. They provide guidance and help the managers to identify way to introduce the new discipline inside the unit. Likely, having multiple advocates working across different units require coordination among them, but their action on the unit goes often through the direct mandate of the manager. This kind of transformation is often temporary, and is meant at the beginning to help the company to see if they actually can introduce the new discipline in their processes.

The challenge of a new service team is that they need to find a way to insert themselves into the existing processes. This is a steep challenge, and it means we need to hire at the beginning not just people that are good for their job, but also people that are able to be advocate for their job and are able to do change management. The way the service team works is dual:

  • They provide the discipline skills on demand, like an internal agency
  • They help change the processes so there are check-in moments with them

The standard team approach is the one that is usually the most intuitive and to a degree effective, but it’s because it relies on existing social dynamics within the team to facilitate the addition of the role in the day to day work. It’s also an approach that has a high cost and I’d usually suggest to proceed incrementally if this is the chosen way — start with few teams and assess the results.

These three approaches could also be imagined incrementally: you first hire a high advocate, and once the company is ready you shift to a service team, and finally you have the ability to spread the discipline further — and hire more.

Scale is also a consideration: it’s wildly different to do any of the above in a company of 10 people compared to a company of 1,000 or 10,000. A high advocate in a small business might not be that different from a standard team approach.

What about hybrids?

It’s notable that often the problem of adding a new discipline to a team comes in the form of… a requirement in the same job profile. In other words, a common but also often dysfunctional approach is to try to hire people that can do “also” the extra skill we wants. Which is why we often end up with laughable job ads that look for people that can do everything from creating a brand to writing backend code to running a marketing campaign.

While this approach to an extreme is destructive for the company — as it’s incredibly rare for an individual to have all the skills at the level allegedly required — we can still do this strategically, focusing on the idea of hybrids or T-shaped individuals:

T-shaped people have two kinds of characteristics, hence the use of the letter “T” to describe them. The vertical stroke of the “T” is a depth of skill that allows them to contribute to the creative process. That can be from any number of different fields: an industrial designer, an architect, a social scientist, a business specialist or a mechanical engineer. The horizontal stroke of the “T” is the disposition for collaboration across disciplines.
— Tim Brown, CEO of IDEO

This means that while we assume we can’t find people that can do everything, we can still try to edge for a “secondary” skill requirement in the profile. Knowing, clearly, that is secondary, and it will be harder to find these people.

Should we then stop looking for the perfect team? In part: we should stop thinking it’s possible, and always consider the kind of imperfection it’s effective in our specific situation. Asking ourselves if it would be useful to have this discipline inside the company is thus often the wrong question. We need to ask if it’s strategic for the company to do so, and if so how the company would need to be restructured.