Service teams and monocropping
“I’m getting a bit frustrated with it, but I want to see the service through to the end.” I’ve heard these words a few times from people on service teams. They’re dangerous words. They lead to disappointment and burnout.
In UK government, some services have teams for fixed phases lasting a few months (normally contractors). However, most teams have members that come on and off in a far looser manner. This length of time on a particular service can be years. Two times I’ve been on a service for 18 months. I knew someone on the same service for 3 years.
On the surface, this continuous presence can sound good. There’s a point of truth, someone with all the knowledge. But in my experience, it’s not. Here’s why:
- the person gets burnt out and cynical. I believe that anyone who cares about a service gets worn down by lost battles, politics and even not being able to fix their own mistakes. For example, the person who I mentioned was on a service for 3 years had started to act like they were in a failed marriage, quickly talking about past lost battles with exasperation and resignation. They weren’t a positive person to be around.
- the service may suffer with problems compounding
- any performance problems may not be picked up. I know of teams where serious problems in user research, design or technology were only picked up when the person left. While assurance points are ways to catch this, it’s still risky.
Don’t monocrop, crop rotate
To use a farming analogy, we can consider a service like soil and a peron like crops and nutrients. Having the same person for years is this is like monocropping. It seems efficient, but depletes the soil and crops. It also encourages fragility and risk into the ecosystem.
Instead, I’d encourage a crop rotation mentality. Create systems where people stay on a service for about a year and then move. This allows for:
- 3-6 months of learning
- at least 4 months of performing
- 1-2 months of handoff and handover
This regular refreshing is good for the service, person, and organisation:
- the service gets regularly reviewed by new eyes with the chance of a proper handover. I encourage handovers where the outgoing person points out everything they’d like to change. This gives the new person permission to challenge and redo elements with their fresh perspective.
- the person gets a chance to improve on successes and correct mistakes on the next service, rather than living with their past mistakes. I encourage people moving onto new teams to think about the thing they want to learn on the new service, based on previous successes or mistakes.
- The organisation get better documentation as it’s not left in the head of a person. Knowing you’re going to leave encourages better housekeeping. Keeping it away from the pure cadence of services stages also means that it can be fit in at quiet times.
I’ll admit that there are some challenges to doing this. Here are some things I’d consider.
- Moving people is hard. Moving people means having the capacity and capability to move people around. Some departments have more control of this than others. Ideally, this should be seen as a natural part of career progression.
- Move a team or move a person? I’ve got differing opinions on this. While I’ve seen changing DOS contracts mean an entire team shifted with a lot of disruption, this may have been because it was short notice. I’m also a fan of moving people around to share expertise.
- Fire breaks instead of moves? GDS run firebreak sessions every 6 months to allow for clearing of tech debt as well as further exploration. This may work. However I believe that GDS’s projects tend to run a lot faster than those in government departments (less than a year vs multi-year).
I’d love to hear stories about how people are managing resource and burnout on these multi-year projects.
- Hoffman, R., Casnocha, B. & Yeh, C. (2014). The alliance : managing talent in the networked age. Boston, Massachusetts: Harvard Business Review Press. The original inspiration for this piece. Based on the authors experiences at Linkedin, it suggests companies stop treating jobs like marriages and agree 6 month-2 year ‘tours of duty’ . I didn’t use this analogy as I wasn’t comfortable with the military implications, but the book is useful in showing how to reframe work. I particularly liked that a person’s last role in their ‘tour of duty’ is to hire and train up their replacement.