Decouple Line Organization from Requirement Area

After almost 10 years, I got chance again to work on a LeSS Huge adoption. Facing different challenges and reflecting on my experience 10 years ago, I am proposing an experiment here to decouple line organization from requirement area.

NSN experience

In 2007, I experienced an organizational transformation in NSN (Nokia Siemens Networks) to adopt LeSS, at which time the name "LeSS" had not yet existed. We had transformed the organization into a LeSS Huge setting with a few requirement areas, in each area there was APO (Area Product Owner) and Area manager. Area manager was the line manager for the area. We used the same name for requirement area and line organization, for example, the area I worked for was Traffic & Transport, both as requirement area and line organization. So, requirement area and line organization are coupled.

Even though the workload in one requirement area is more stable than one feature, if we follow priority based on customer value, it is inevitable that the workload varies as time goes. So, today you need 5 teams working on this requirement area, tomorrow you need 6 teams. I am exaggerating, this would not be "today/this sprint" vs. "tomorrow/next sprint", but more like "this quarter/this year" vs. "next quarter/next year". Anyway, this happens. When it happens, LeSS recommends to move team, rather than individuals, to other requirement area. When requirement area and line organization are coupled, it means that the team would also change the line organization. As you can image, line change is never easy. Everybody may agree that this makes sense and support, the necessary justification and convincing others carries big overhead. Even today when I reflected back, I could still feel the very pain. Yes, the silo among requirement areas was clearly there and the coupling with line organization made it worse. Interestingly, the developed silo was also one of the reasons why we chose to couple line organization with requirement area, because that way, line organization would have more product ownership, not for the whole product, but for the requirement area.

Although it was painful experience to move teams to different requirement area, it did not happen often, as the workload seemed stable in requirement area. In retrospect, i suspect that the prioritization decision may consciously or unconsciously take the capacity of requirement areas into account.

New challenge

Recently, I encounter a different challenge. In the context of my LeSS coaching client, their workload between two requirement areas varies release by release. Say, there are 5 teams in each requirement area. In release 1, based on priority, 60% of work is from requirement area A, and 40% of work is from requirement area B. That translates into 6 teams for requirement area A and 4 teams for requirement area B. However in release 2, only 40% of work is from requirement area A, while 60% of work is from requirement area B. If we have requirement area and line organization coupled, we basically have two options. First, we do not follow the priority strictly and take the work considering the capacity in each requirement area. Second, we move teams to different  requirement areas release by release, as line organization is coupled, we change their line organization as well. As their release cycle is 3-4 months, it would be hectic to make so frequent line change.

New experiment

In fact, we have the third opinion, which is to decouple line organization from requirement area. Once it is decoupled, we may move teams across requirement areas but not change their line organization. Let's illustrate this with the below diagram (RA = Requirement Area).

Decouple line organation from requierment area.jpg

2 line organizations (A and B), each having 5 teams

2 requirement areas (RA1 and RA2), with varying number of teams

Release 1, 4 teams for RA1 and 6 teams for RA2

Release 2, 6 teams for RA1 and 4 teams for RA2

The name for requirement areas is often associated with product domains (customer domains, rather than architecture domains). Hotel, Flight, etc. would be suitable names for requirement areas in Ctrip type of product, assuming that each is big enough to justify as its own area. However, we name line organization without referring to product domains. It could simply be product line group A, B and etc.

In LeSS Huge, one rule says that each team specializes in one RA. In this case, we can't let A5 and B5 specialize in RA1 and RA2, respectively. Instead, we would like them to be able to work for both RA1 and RA2. Would that cause problem? Let's first understand the rationale behind the rule. It is usually difficult for any team not to specialize in any area, as the whole product in LeSS Huge is too complex for any team. This holds true by and large. However, there are a couple of subtle differences here.

  1. We are talking about minority of teams, for most teams (A1-4 and B1-4), they still specialize in one requirement area. It is likely to enable small number of teams who can specialize in more than one requirement area.
  2. Team A5 and B5 may not specialize in RA1 and RA2 completely, but to some extent, e.g. some sub-areas in both RA1 and RA2. The key is to have the flexibility in addressing the workload variation in requirement areas across different releases.

Another potential downside for the decoupling is that line organization would not develop strong product ownership. While this is true for requirement area, too strong ownership for one  requirement area may lead to silos within one product. Thus, the decoupling also has the potential in reducing silos if we can make any line organization care more about the whole product.


Regardless of what choice you make - either coupling or decoupling, I suggest you to understand deeply those forces in the dynamic, thus, make informed choice.

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