3 min read

Single Threaded Teams

Single Threaded Teams
“The best way to fail at something is to make something someone’s part time job” (Dave Limp, VP Kindle @ Amazon)


One of the best books I read recently was Working Backwards by Colin Bryar and Bill Carr. The book introduces the concept of a Single Threaded Leader & Single Threaded Team. Both of these concepts really resonated with me - as I’ve been thinking about how to best to design our Product & Tech organization to give the teams a stronger focus, more ownership, and increase their ability to move fast.

The other crucial component of the STL model is a separable, single-threaded team being run by a single-threaded leader like Tom. As Jeff Wilke explains, “Separable means almost as separable organizationally as APIs are for software. Single-threaded means they don’t work on anything else.” Such teams have clear, unambiguous ownership of specific features or functionality and can drive innovations with a minimum of reliance or impact upon others.

Why this works

The challenge with most product teams is not the lack of things that they can work on. Often times, it’s the sheer number of things that they work on in parallel, the gigantic volume of things they have to do, or the lack of cohesiveness amongst their work on that impacts their ability to deliver strong outcomes.

As a company grows, it’s a company’s responsibility to ensure that more focus is given to teams by helping them stay on course on their primary opportunity that will yield an outsized impact. A great way to do that is to put a single-threaded-leader in charge of a single-threaded-team.

"Generating activity is not a problem; in fact it is easy. The fact that it is easy makes the real problem harder to solve. The problem is getting the right things done - the things that matter, the things that will have an impact, the things a company is trying to achieve to ensure success" (Stephen Bungay - Empowered by Marty Cagan).

How to make Single Threaded Teams work?

  1. Technical investments: One of the critical prerequisites is to build engineering foundations so that teams can truly work independently with minal dependencies. This is no easy feat and requires strong Engineering leadership at a Technical Architect level to make work (especially if you have significant technical debt).
  2. Split teams to give more focused ownership: As your organization scales, leaders should aim to continue splitting teams that own large swathes of product areas into component parts. Start with the teams whose backlogs look like they are a mix of a few too many big themes, and start the mitosis process.
  3. Put your strongest leaders on the toughest problems; but help them cut distractions: One thing that we often do is to add more onto our leaders’ plates without helping them focus on less. When appointing a Single Threaded Leader, make it clear what their number one priority is. Leaders who are taking on big new initiatives without making it their #1 thing are set up to fail.

Challenges of implementing Single Threaded Teams

One of the toughest things that Company Leadership has to wrangle with is the fact that by implementing Single Threaded Teams, they have to make tougher tradeoffs.

If the assertion is that teams should have a primary problem that they are solving with no other distractions, the Company has to make deliberate decisions of what can and should be parked without further investment.

Further, the company also has to make a decision to not start an idea until a team is well funded. At bare minimum, the Product, Design, Engineering, and Commercial leaders need to be in place to frame the opportunity and direction.

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