There is no such thing as a “functional organisation”.

Organisations are complex sociotechnical systems. And all organisations exist in various states of dysfunction all the time. Some parts of the organisation may briefly reach a “functional” state where everything works effectively, and everyone knows what is happening. But those states don’t exist for long. We can think of this as the organisational entropic force – the constant introduction of external and internal forces and changes mean that a functional state is rapidly drawn back to dysfunction.

We can constantly strive to reduce this dysfunction, and we should, but we must remember that there is no such thing as a truly, completely, consistently “functional” organisation, and there never will be.

SLAM Teams, or SLLLAM teams?

PepsiCo coined the term “SLAM” teams as a way to address teaming in large, complex organisations. SLAM teams are:

  • Self-organising
  • Lean
  • Autonomous
  • Multidisciplinary

These characteristics combine to foster agility, alignment, collaboration, and speed. Despite a large organisational size, this enables people  to act more like a network of small, tightly-knit teams. By organising around the work to be done, rather than the lines and boxes of an org chart, teams avoid becoming siloed and disconnected from value. These terms are usually associated with software delivery or engineering teams, and the concepts are part of the DevOps cultures and practices in general, but SLAM teams are appropriate for use in many domains from engineering to healthcare, and education to armed forces.

The people closest to the problem have the best information necessary to accomplish the task. A self-organising team has the freedom to decide how the work gets done and who completes which tasks. The manager exists as a coach and guide, not as a dictator.

There’s a limit to the amount of information we can store in our mind and the limitations of our working memory make it difficult to manage the complexities and communication overhead of large groups. Working in large groups slows us down, subjects us to greater decision fatigue and often impedes our ability to build psychological safety and carry out experiments. A Lean team is limited in size to 7-9 members, reducing communication complexity and improving decision capability.

Autonomous teams move quickly. We enable autonomy and reduce the number of external dependencies by clarifying what decisions can be made by the team members.

Having all the skills required in the team to make decisions and carry out the work from start to finish is the key point behind cross-functional, multi-disciplinary teams. If the team need to go outside the group to ask for decision support or worse, execution help, the pace of work slows down dramatically and the ability of the team to support the product also diminishes.

However, I’ve always felt there were some key points missing from SLAM teams. A key element of high performing teams is how long they exist for. Sure, we can have high performing teams that form and disperse over short timescales, but it’s harder, becomes very tiring over longer periods of time, and short-lived teams will never reach the very high performance that a long-lived team will do. So how about we make some tweaks?

  • Self-organising
  • Lean
  • Long-Lived
  • Autonomous
  • Multidisciplinary

SLLLAM teams not only self-organise, make their own decisions, and possess only the required team members with the right skills, but exist for a long time. The products we build should exist for a long time (or as long as is required), and the team should exist for at least as long as the product exists.