Seasoned CTO - Tech' Enthusiast, Strategist and Opponent of standstill - Tech Advisor & Coach for Tech Leaders

Working ON a system & Working IN a system

— February 06, 2024 —

This article is about one fundamental principle of how software engineering is set up at Trusted Shops.

As context always matters, let’s start with it:

System-thinking and beyond

Now that the context is clear(er), let’s look at the fundamental principle:

Many companies use their disciplinary structure to handle operational work. To illustrate this, one example are Team Leads or Head of Engineers who take technical decisions for their teams. Operational work dominated by the disciplinary structure works fine for repetitive work. But it hardly works for knowledge work. Knowledge work is about solving complex problem(s) which requires expertise, critical thinking and interpersonal skills.

Working IN a system

To address this demand we highlight the operational structure. It’s described as “Working in a system”. “Working in a system”, there are no disciplinary hierarchies. There are only individual contributors with different roles and technical responsibilities. The decisive factors are skills and experience. Cross-boundary collaboration (e.g. to manage dependencies) is handled via network approach. This means, there are direct connections between teams where needed and when needed.

Working ON the system

Working on the system is represented by the hierarchical structure. In our case these are Engineering Managers, Director Software Engineering and CTO. The goal is to provide an effective environment on all levels. This starts with the organizational setup and the hiring and the development of talents. But it’s not “people business” exclusively. It’s also about the involvement in one-way-door decisions, defining standards, applying best practice and solving systemic issues - to name a few -, always based on the mindset to measure and improve the environment. This work happens more on a tactic and strategic level. It still requires a technical background even though it contributes only indirectly to the overall success.

At the end the disciplinary structure is serving the operational structure. But this doesn’t mean it’s less important. The system can only unveil its potential if both complement each other.

[1] The Common Thread: All Social Organizations as Systems

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