25 July 2023
Any large software effort, such as the software estate for a large company, requires a lot of people - and whenever you have a lot of people you have to figure out how to divide them into effective teams. Forming Business Capability Centric teams helps software efforts to be responsive to customers’ needs, but the range of skills required often overwhelms such teams. Team Topologies is a model for describing the organization of software development teams, developed by Matthew Skelton and Manuel Pais. It defines four forms of teams and three modes of team interactions. The model encourages healthy interactions that allow business-capability centric teams to flourish in their task of providing a steady flow of valuable software.
The primary kind of team in this framework is the stream-aligned team, a Business Capability Centric team that is responsible for software for a single business capability. These are long-running teams, thinking of their efforts as providing a software product to enhance the business capability.
Each stream-aligned team is full-stack and full-lifecycle: responsible for front-end, back-end, database, business analysis, feature prioritization, UX, testing, deployment, monitoring - the whole enchilada of software development. They are Outcome Oriented, focused on business outcomes rather than Activity Oriented teams focused on a function such as business analysis, testing, or databases. But they also shouldn't be too large, ideally each one is a Two Pizza Team. A large organization will have many such teams, and while they have different business capabilities to support, they have common needs such as data storage, network communications, and observability.
A small team like this calls for ways to reduce their cognitive load, so they can concentrate on supporting the business needs, not on (for example) data storage issues. An important part of doing this is to build on a platform that takes care of these non-focal concerns. For many teams a platform can be a widely available third party platform, such as Ruby on Rails for a database-backed web application. But for many products there is no single off-the-shelf platform to use, a team is going to have to find and integrate several platforms. In a larger organization they will have to access a range of internal services and follow corporate standards.
These days everyone is building a 'platform' to speed up delivery of digital products at scale. But what makes an effective digital platform? Some organisations stumble when they attempt to build on top of their existing shared services without first addressing their organisational structure and operation model.
This problem can be addressed by building an internal platform for the organization. Such a platform can do that integration of third-party services, near-complete platforms, and internal services. Team Topologies classifies the team that builds this (unimaginatively-but-wisely) as a platform team.
Smaller organizations can work with a single platform team, which produces a thin layer over an externally provided set of products. Larger platforms, however, require more people than can be fed with two-pizzas. The authors are thus moving to describe a platform grouping of many platform teams.
An important characteristic of a platform is that it's designed to be used in a mostly self-service fashion. The stream-aligned teams are still responsible for the operation of their product, and direct their use of the platform without expecting an elaborate collaboration with the platform team. In the Team Topologies framework, this interaction mode is referred to as X-as-a-Service mode, with the platform acting as a service to the stream-aligned teams.
Platform teams, however, need to build their services as products themselves, with a deep understanding of their customer's needs. This often requires that they use a different interaction mode, one of collaboration mode, while they build that service. Collaboration mode is a more intensive partnership form of interaction, and should be seen as a temporary approach until the platform is mature enough to move to x-as-a service mode.
So far, the model doesn't represent anything particularly inventive. Breaking organizations down between business-aligned and technology support teams is an approach as old as enterprise software. In recent years, plenty of writers have expressed the importance of making these business capability teams be responsible for the full-stack and the full-lifecycle. For me, the bright insight of Team Topologies is focusing on the problem that having business-aligned teams that are full-stack and full-lifecycle means that they are often faced with an excessive cognitive load, which works against the desire for small, responsive teams. The key benefit of a platform is that it reduces this cognitive load.
A crucial insight of Team Topologies is that the primary benefit of a platform is to reduce the cognitive load on stream-aligned teams
This insight has profound implications. For a start it alters how platform teams should think about the platform. Reducing client teams' cognitive load leads to different design decisions and product roadmap to platforms intended primarily for standardization or cost-reduction. Beyond the platform this insight leads Team Topologies to develop their model further by identifying two more kinds of team.
Some capabilities require specialists who can put considerable time and energy into mastering a topic important to many stream-aligned teams. A security specialist may spend more time studying security issues and interacting with the broader security community than would be possible as a member of a stream-aligned team. Such people congregate in enabling teams, whose role is to grow relevant skills inside other teams so that those teams can remain independent and better own and evolve their services. To achieve this enabling teams primarily use the third and final interaction mode in Team Topologies. Facilitating mode involves a coaching role, where the enabling team isn't there to write and ensure conformance to standards, but instead to educate and coach their colleagues so that the stream-aligned teams become more autonomous.
Stream-aligned teams are responsible for the whole stream of value for their customers, but occasionally we find aspects of a stream-aligned team's work that is sufficiently demanding that it needs a dedicated group to focus on it, leading to the fourth and final type of team: complicated-subsystem team. The goal of a complicated-subsystem team is to reduce the cognitive load of the stream-aligned teams that use that complicated subsystem. That's a worthwhile division even if there's only one client team for that subsystem. Mostly complicated-subsystem teams strive to interact with their clients using x-as-a service mode, but will need to use collaboration mode for short periods.
Team Topologies includes a set of graphical symbols to illustrate teams and their relationships. These shown here are from the current standards, which differ from those used in the book. A recent article elaborates on how to use these diagrams.
Team Topologies is designed explicitly recognizing the influence of Conways Law. The team organization that it encourages takes into account the interplay between human and software organization. Advocates of Team Topologies intend its team structure to shape the future development of the software architecture into responsive and decoupled components aligned to business needs.
George Box neatly quipped: "all models are wrong, some are useful". Thus Team Topologies is wrong: complex organizations cannot be simply broken down into just four kinds of teams and three kinds of interactions. But constraints like this are what makes a model useful. Team Topologies is a tool that impels people to evolve their organization into a more effective way of operating, one that allows stream-aligned teams to maximize their flow by lightening their cognitive load.
Andrew Thal, Andy Birds, Chris Ford, Deepak Paramasivam, Heiko Gerin, Kief Morris, Matteo Vaccari, Matthew Foster, Pavlo Kerestey, Peter Gillard-Moss, Prashanth Ramakrishnan, and Sandeep Jagtap discussed drafts of this post on our internal mailing list, providing valuable feedback.
Matthew Skelton and Manuel Pais kindly provided detailed comments on this post, including sharing some of their recent thinking since the book.
The best treatment of the Team Topologies framework is the book of the same name, published in 2019. The authors also maintain the Team Topologies website and provide education and training services. Their recent article on team interaction modeling is a good intro to how the Team Topologies (meta-)model can be used to build and evolve a model of an organization. 
The model in Team Topologies resonates well with much of the thinking on software team organization that I've published on this site. You can find this collected together at the team organization tag.
1: To be more strict in my modeling lingo, I would say that Team Topologies usually acts as a meta-model. If I use Team Topologies to build a model of an airline's software development organization, then that model shows the teams in the airline classified according to Team Topologies's terminology. I would then say that that the Team Topologies model is a meta-model to my airline model.