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Organize for what you want to be a given then put energy into the rest

The constant evolution of software product development is remarkable. Things we used to consider novel and unique only a few years ago are now run of the mill and commonplace. The org structures and processes at play are no exception.   One thing remains constant, though.  The success of your product development team depends not only on the brilliance of your software solutions, but also critically on how well you can execute on that brilliance.  In truth, execution matters more. 

Unlike one-size-fits-all solutions that rarely work, crafting a successful organizational structure is a journey tailored to the unique needs of your company. 

… but first some history, lest we not learn from the path we have taken.

The evolution of Software Orgs

The evolution of software product organizations reflects the broader technological and business landscapes over the years. From the early days of software development to the current era of high-growth SaaS companies, these structures have undergone significant transformations. 

The 1960s and 1970s: The Dawn of Software Development

In the 1960s and 70s, software development was a nascent field. Organizations typically followed a rigid, hierarchical structure mimicking other well known business structures. Development teams were part of larger IT departments within corporations, focusing mainly on in-house operations and efficiency. The 'Waterfall' model of software development, which is sequential and linear, was predominant during this era. The focus was on timely delivery of up front defined functionality.

The 1980s: Birth of the PC and Rise of Software Companies

The 1980s saw the advent of personal computers, which democratized computing and spurred the growth of software companies. These companies began adopting a more project-based structure, with teams dedicated to specific software products. This era witnessed the early stages of the 'Silicon Valley' startup culture, emphasizing innovation and rapid product development. The limiting factor of on-prem delivered software remained, and thus the structure and processes changed little beyond expanding to dedicated teams outside of IT.

The 1990s: Internet and Agile Revolution

The 1990s marked the beginning of the internet era, fundamentally changing the software industry. This decade also saw the rise of the Agile methodology, which emphasized flexible, iterative development, collaboration, and customer feedback. Software organizations began shifting from hierarchical to more cross-functional and team-centric structures, enabling faster response to market changes. The path towards our current state began to form.  

The 2000s: Globalization and Outsourcing

Globalization characterized this period and the rise of outsourcing. Software companies started to leverage global talent pools, leading to distributed teams and more complex organizational structures. This era also saw the birth of the SaaS model, which required a different approach to product development and customer service than traditional software. No longer was software bound to the server rack at the co-lo. 

The 2010s: Cloud Computing and DevOps

The widespread adoption of cloud computing in the 2010s revolutionized software product organizations. This represented the biggest shift in thinking to date.  The DevOps movement emerged, advocating for closer collaboration between development and operations teams. This led to the integration of these functions within teams, further breaking down silos and fostering continuous delivery and deployment practices. CICD opened the door to a new way of thinking that went beyond the old planning processes.  Agile frameworks started to become restricted and ironically lacked the “agility” truly available at this time. 

The 2020s: Remote Work and AI Integration

The 2020s have been defined by the rise of remote work, accelerated by the global pandemic, and the integration of AI in software development. These trends have prompted a shift towards more decentralized and flexible team structures. The focus has been on building resilient organizations that can innovate and adapt rapidly in a digitally connected world. 

As we have evolved processes, we’ve seen companies adopt various processes and structures to achieve common goals.  The success stories abound. 

The Dangers of Imitation

In the quest for organizational effectiveness, it’s tempting to look at highly successful companies and attempt to replicate their structures and processes. This approach often leads to disappointment and failure. The reason is simple: each company’s organizational structure and processes are uniquely tailored to its specific context - including team dynamics, product characteristics, company culture, tech stack, priorities, and business goals. 

Successful companies have structures and processes that have evolved over time, shaped by their unique circumstances. A tech giant like Google has developed its processes around its vast resources, specific product range, and innovative culture. A startup trying to mimic Google’s approach without considering its own scale, resources, and market position would be a nightmare.

Every successful organization’s structure and processes are part of its DNA, evolving from its inception through various stages of growth and challenges. Numerous factors influence this evolution - from the founding team’s vision to the specific challenges faced in its market niche. When another company adopts these practices without the same evolutionary journey, the transplanted ideas often fail to thrive. It’s like moving a house onto a completely different foundation. Without a foundation to match its unique structure, it’s unlikely to stand.

Learning vs. Copying

Learning from other organizations is undeniably beneficial, but it is crucial to distinguish between insightful learning and mere imitation. True learning involves grasping the underlying principles of successful practices and thoughtfully adapting them to fit your unique context. This process involves experimenting with various approaches, rigorously evaluating their effectiveness, and continuously refining them. It's a journey of aligning these practices with the specific strengths and weaknesses of your team, the distinct needs of your product, the nuances of your technological environment, and, fundamentally, the expectations of your customers.

Developing an effective organizational structure is not about replicating another company's blueprint, as each company’s path is unique and deeply ingrained in its organizational DNA. The risks of blindly copying are manifold, as what works for one might not translate well for another due to different trajectories and market dynamics. The essence of successful structuring lies in embracing your organization's individuality. By learning from others, but staying true to your ethos, you embark on a path of discovery. This path, though filled with trial and error, is integral to finding an organizational structure that not only reflects your specific circumstances and goals, but also paves the way for sustainable growth and resilience.

The most reliable route to building an effective and successful organization is through a balanced approach. This means learning from the success stories within your industry, while also being mindful to tailor these lessons to your company's unique journey. It's about striking a harmony between external inspiration and internal innovation, leading to a structure that is both robust and flexible, ready to evolve as the business evolves.

Understanding the Uniqueness of Your Organization

First and foremost, it’s vital to acknowledge that each organization is unique. The perfect structure for your company could be a complete disaster for another. Factors such as company size, culture, product type, market, and growth stage play a substantial role in determining the most effective organizational setup. This diversity means borrowing a blueprint from even a seemingly similar company can lead to unexpected challenges.

Organizational structures are not static; they need to evolve as your company grows. A structure that works wonderfully for a small, agile (lowercase) startup might become problematic as you scale. For instance, a flat hierarchy might foster innovation and quick decision-making in a small team, but could lead to chaos and lack of direction as the team expands. Understanding and anticipating these shifts is key to timely adjustments. Being observational of these challenges allows you to evolve vs the much more disruptive “change everything” restructuring that is all too common.

Focusing on Key Problems

No structure can solve all problems, so it's essential to focus on the most critical ones. Identify the primary challenges your team faces. Is it speed of development, quality of output, innovation, or market responsiveness? Once you’ve prioritized your problems, you can structure your team to address them efficiently. This approach helps channel your energy and resources towards the areas that matter most.

Analyzing the scope and depth of your teams’ responsibilities is crucial. If a team is spread too thin, their ability to delve deep into any area diminishes. Conversely, a team with a narrow focus may become myopic, polishing the same stone without contributing significantly to broader business goals. Striking the right balance between breadth and depth of responsibilities is a key factor in driving team effectiveness and innovation.

Organizational structure and processes, while fundamental to the smooth functioning of a company, are not panaceas for all challenges you will face. The key lies in designing your structure to solidify the aspects you want to achieve as easily as possible - the non-negotiables. Structure for what you want to be given, and put energy into everything else.

This approach acknowledges that while a well-thought-out structure can streamline certain processes and foster a conducive working environment, it cannot single-handedly resolve every issue. It’s important to avoid the trap of constantly reshaping the org to address every emerging problem. Instead, focus on building a strong, adaptable foundation in your organizational structure, and be prepared to actively and creatively address other challenges as they arise. This balance allows for a more dynamic, responsive approach to problem-solving, without the disruption of continuous structural overhauls.

Aligning Small Teams for Big Impact

The concept of keeping teams small, often inspired by Amazon’s famous ‘two-pizza team’ rule, is particularly relevant in high-growth SaaS environments. Smaller teams tend to be more agile and focused. However, the challenge lies in maintaining alignment and cohesion across multiple small teams. This might require grouping teams under a single leadership umbrella to ensure strategic alignment, or it might mean breaking down emerging ‘kingdoms’ to foster collaboration and prevent silos.

One size fits no one

Structuring your product development team is a balancing act. It requires a deep understanding of your unique organizational challenges, the ability to adapt to growth and change, and a focus on solving the most critical problems. By being mindful of these aspects, you can create a dynamic, effective structure that not only solves problems, but also paves the way for future success.

The perfect organizational structure is a journey, not a destination. It evolves as your company and market dynamics change. Stay flexible, stay informed, and most importantly, stay focused on what makes your team and your product uniquely successful.

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