How is Your Team Structured?

Thoughts on the value of a well-structured engineering team for engineering managers

In my experience working on engineering and project teams, a well-defined structure is the key to clear communication, and clear communication is the key to success.

In groups and teams of any size, a vague or poorly designed structure leads to confusion about responsibilities and expectations, lack of coordination across functions, and slow, broken decision making in the group. All of these things combine to create unnecessary complexity, stress, and conflict in groups and teams.

A good organizational structure defines the flow of communication amongst teams and helps engineers to understand how responsibilities are laid out.

If you are like most engineering managers, you understand the value of a clearly defined structure for your group. But have you documented and communicated your organization structure clearly to your team?

Team Structures

There are various ways to structure teams, but for engineering managers, the two structures that generally make the most sense are hierarchical structures and grid structures.

Hierarchical Structure

Hierarchical Team Structure

In a hierarchical structure, a manager is responsible for a group of team leaders. Each team leader is in turn responsible for a group of engineers. Information flows vertically from manager to team leader to engineer and vice versa.

Engineers have a single point of contact for technical and non-technical issues as well as a contact person for escalations if required.

Grid Structure

Grid Team Structure

In a grid structure, every engineer on a team has two points of contact. Typically, these contacts are technical experts and people managers. In this case, communication flows vertically (for people management topics) or horizontally (for technical topics).

Engineers have clear contacts for technical and non-technical issues and, if needed, the organization chart can be expanded to show an escalation point of contact.

Team Organization

The organization of engineering teams will vary a lot depending on the size of the organization. It makes sense to organization engineering teams around a common topic. In most cases, engineering teams can be structured around one of the following topics:

A leader

Team Organized Around a Leader

Everyone on the team is managed by a leader. The people on the team may work on projects for various customers and have various competencies.

This organizational model makes sense for smaller teams.

A competence

Team Organized Around a Competence

Everyone on the team has specific competence such as mechanical engineering, electrical engineering, controls engineering.

This organizational model makes sense when members of an engineering team specialize in specific competencies.

A customer

Team Organized Around a Customer

Everyone on a team works on projects for a specific customer. They are responsible for all projects related to that customer and experts in that customer’s requirements.

This organizational model makes sense when dealing with key customers that have specific requirements.

Scaling Teams

Without a well-defined structure, it can be hard to grow teams.

When new members are added, it's not clear who is responsible for them or how they fit into the group structure. Who coaches the engineer in terms of technical and non-technical skills? Who can the engineer escalate to in case of serious issues?

Having a well-defined structure makes it easy to grow teams. When the workload becomes too high, vacant spots are added to the organigram.

This makes it clear for existing team members that there will be a new member added and allows any new team member to slot into the existing structure easily. Since the new member is already a part of the organigram, she has a clear point of contact for issues and escalations.

Vacancies in Team Organigram

Organize your Team

If you don’t already have one, create an organigram for your team using either a hierarchical or grid structure.

When you’re happy, present the structure to your team. Make sure that it is visible when working in the office and accessible when working remotely. Ask your team to use the structure when deciding who to reach out to for help or support.

After a few months, hold a meeting to reflect on what value a clear structure brought to the team. Did communication go more smoothly? Did engineers have less trouble finding the right person to talk to?

Take the feedback on board and adjust the structure if necessary. If the feedback was largely positive, consider using similar organigrams in other parts of your work such as for project team structures.

Conclusion

Clear organization leads to clear communication. Poor organization leads to chaos. Most engineering managers know this is true but fail to organize their teams in a thoughtful transparent way.

By implementing team organigrams described in this post, you can streamline communication on your team and help to reduce the complexity involved in finding the right person to talk to for technical issues, non-technical issues, and escalations.

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