Interview with Matthew Skelton co-author of “Team Topologies”

I had the great pleasure of meeting Matthew Skelton for an interview about his view on complexity.

In this interview, Matthew discusses the different types of complexity and how leaders can maneuver in complex environments. He also talks about the Team Topologies framework, which is a tool that can help organizations become more adaptable to change.

One of the key points that Skelton makes is that traditional management approaches are not effective in complex environments. This is because complex systems are constantly changing and evolving, and it is impossible to predict the outcome of any given situation.

Instead, leaders need to focus on creating conditions for emergence. This means creating an environment where people are able to collaborate and self-organize. The Team Topologies framework can help leaders do this by defining different types of teams and how they should interact with each other.

By using Team Topologies, leaders can create organizations that are more agile, resilient, and adaptable to change. This is essential in today’s rapidly changing world.

If you want to hear more from Matthew, please sign up for the Leading Complexity program.


Hi and welcome to this interview. With me today I have Matthew Skelton. Matthew, welcome to both this interview and to the program leading complexity. For those that don’t know you can you please present yourself.

Sure thanks so much. Good to be here. I’m Matthew Skelton. I’m the co-founder at Conflux and I’m the co-author of the book “Team Topologies”. Looks like this. This is now almost four years since published. It was published in September 2019 and we did a follow-up book called Remote Team Interactions Workbook that was published in early 20-22. It is a little bit like an appendix that deals with some of the remote and hybrid working challenges that organizations now find themselves in. My background is in software engineering but increasingly over my career, I’m being involved more and more in helping work be more effective.

I’m working with teams and am looking at the flow of work. Looking at the way in which tools interact with teams and their ability to do things effectively or not. And that, obviously up to four years ago, led to me writing the Team Topologies book. Since then, last four years we’ve been heavily involved in helping lots of organizations around the world to think about fast flow. Think about cognitive load. Think about Conway’s law and all kinds of things we talked about in the Team Topologies book. I guess seeing the scale of the challenge that really exists in industry across many different sectors. Team Topologies are helping with that. Helping to address that challenge. But the challenges are quite substantial as we, as organizations, try to grapple with complexity, uncertainty volatility, and all these kinds of things.

I’m really happy that you wrote the book. It’s one of my favorites and for everyone listening to this, that have not read it, please do. It’s helping a lot to understand the idea of the organization and how to get a better flow. So, Matthew, this program will be about complexity and I guess you have a lot of things to say about complexity. What is complexity for you and what are your best advice for leaders who are maneuvering in complexity?

The first thing I would say to leaders is: “What kind of complexity are you really talking about?” Is this complexity like “all these things are really difficult, lots of different parts, and lots of different things are interconnected?” That’s one kind of complexity but there is obviously the complexity that is different from something being complicated, drawing on the definitions from Dave Snowden and plenty of other people too. To indicate that actually, there are different ways of responding in different situations.

Some situations might actually need lots of expertise but it’s still, to some extent, kind of mechanical. In other situations, you’ve got this emergent behavior from distributed actors deciding to operate independently in the space. Of course, the IT industry discovered complexity through the emergence of cloud computing and web-scale systems. If you go back to the software systems of say the 90s and early 2000s these were often under the control of a single organization or single software provider. The actual amount of emergent complexity comes when you start to connect together computer systems from around the world, doing random different things, and they’ve got slightly different errors.

And when behavior emerges out of that kind of system it needs a very different kind of way of operating. Working with those kinds of systems (even system of systems) often, I think it’s fair to say that traditional management training and education in the MBA and this kind of approach, doesn’t deal with emerging complexity. There are certainly very few education systems worldwide that have that kind of emergent behavior as part of the core curriculum. Perhaps almost none since, well, forever effectively. Maybe here and there but not as a general rule. So, we have an entire generation of leaders and emerging leaders who are only just getting to grips with this way of thinking.

We can’t control the outcomes directly. We can’t control it by more project management, by people, by more rules, more auditing, or any of this kind of stuff. You can’t control this stuff because it’s fundamentally the wrong way to operate in that kind of environment. This is really disorientating lots of people in general whether they’re managers or not.

It’s important to describe the kind of approaches that actually can work in this space. Back from the IT side, observability is part of the picture. We’re actually going to observe what’s going on in these IT systems and then decide how to act. This is different from how people might have done it before where they just planned to do something and then it will just magically appear. Obviously, in a very simple kind of context that’s probably a reasonable way to approach it but we’re working in a context which are far from simple.

The starting point is to try and work out what people mean when they say complexity. What’s their mental model of how they need to approach this stuff. Some people might just think “We just need to understand it better. We need to decompose it better. We need to label it better”. There’s a certain amount of value in that but if you think that that’s the only solution then you are going to be heading in the wrong direction.

Some of this is very much a kind of eye-opening and awareness-raising exercise or program of activity really to help people get to grips with something that actually feels quite scary to an extent.

We can’t directly control this thing. Historically, through the Industrial Revolution and the 20th century, we get better and better at controlling these machines.

When we are working with Complex Adaptive systems these are not machines to control. These are more like an ecosystem where you might be able to put some boundaries and some constraints and see what emerges.

That is allowing emergencies to happen with maybe some boundary setting. It is so different from what so many people are used to. It’s so different. But the people who get it and start to be able to work with that we see good results from that kind of approach.

Words! You’re really describing complexity in a way that makes us all understand the problem with it or the challenge with it. It’s really great. I think it’s very important, this part that you’re saying, that as a leader we just have to live with uncertainty. The control is a way –  we can’t go for that.

So you will have a session in the leading complexity program and of course, everyone is curious about what will you talk about and what will they bring with them from that session?

There are a few things here that will end up talking about. The first thing to say is that we’ve actually been very pleased but also quite surprised by the contexts in which Team gies ideas are being used. For example, we know of a law firm in London providing legal services to corporations and individuals and so on. They’ve been using ideas from Team Topologies. We’ve been exploring this together with them – how they can provide coherent legal services to their customers without the problems associated with previous legal approaches to legal services. For example, traditionally in the UK, and I think in the US and some other places too, there’s a lawyer who is the one who is trained and is seen as the fee earner. They’re the one who brings in the money. If they’re working on a case and they go on holiday for two or three weeks, the case just stops because it can’t really progress without their input. Is that the way we want to provide modern legal services to our customers? Probably not.

The question then becomes – What would it take, for a team of people with a mixture of skills, to be able to provide ongoing legal services to their customers with skills that span multiple different kinds0 of legal domains?

Let’s say you’ve got a business owner. She is going through a divorce and needs to sell the house and deal with custody of the children. That’s three different kinds of legal areas. Traditionally she would be bounced from one lawyer to another. What if we could provide coherent legal services that dealt with all of that stuff? What would it take? You can start to use the Team Topology ideas in that case. We have an ongoing responsibility and we’ve got a mixture of skills. Maybe the fee earner acts more like a specialist or acts as a way to enable that team to work effectively. This has nothing to do with IT and software which is where we came from, me and my coauthor Manual Pais.

People have seen these patterns and adopted them outside, like in legal services. This wasn’t a push that we made, this is people coming to us.

We’ve also seen it in healthcare a couple of years ago, when someone who was a leading figure in the management of the National Health Service in the UK was saying “Look these Team Topologies ideas are great, we can use them for managing local doctors practices” and “Let’s apply these ideas across the entire of the health service”. We know of people using the ideas inside accident and emergency teams with specialists like a surgeon, a doctor, and a nurse, looking after someone who got covid, is pregnant, or has just been in a car accident.

We can start to think, okay what’s going on? If these ideas, in Team Topologies, can be used in IT and software, for sure, but they can also be used in legal services and in healthcare. We also know they can be used in education design and a whole bunch of other places like this. What’s really going on?

In the masterclass, we’ll dive into that and try to work out “What’s behind the ability of Team Topologies to work in these different contexts?”. At the heart of Team Topologies is the idea of flow, long-term ownership, and team cognitive load. These things point towards what we think is actually happening behind the scenes. Why people from well outside of IT are starting to find these ideas useful and putting them into practice? We’ll go through and explore some of this stuff together and try to derive why the ideas of Team Topologies might be useful and what’s behind them.

Then try to look towards the future to see some additional ways in which the Team Topologies ideas can actually be useful, particularly in this kind of uncertain world where we need to be very adaptive. Technology is changing very rapidly and the operating context of changing rapidly. The operating context might have legal regulations compliance. There might be trading relations with other countries changing all the time for lots of reasons and so on. The world around us is changing pretty rapidly. We’ve got climate change in the mix as well, quite clearly now this year, which is part of the reason why other things are changing. These things are connected so the need to change and adapt is not going to go away. The need to change and adapt is only going to increase as these kinds of challenges increase over the next few years. We’ll look at how Team Topologies can help us to think through how we help our organization continue to be adaptive.

It’s a move away from designing the ideal organization as a static thing and a move towards something that is continuous. It’s a dynamic of reshaping the boundaries inside the organizational responsibilities, ultimately for agility. I will look into that in these different contexts.

Hopefully, we will have a lot of lawyers and healthcare people as participants in the program. I think that is really great. Especially the thing you say that organizations today need to be adaptable. I’ve been studying a couple of books about the big companies in Silicon Valley and one thing that is common for all of them is the adaptability of the organization. Being quick to maneuver when something happens. How they could be really strong and flexible at the same time. I’m very happy to have you in the program and look forward to your session on October 26.

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