Over the last 15 years at thoughtbot, we have seen hundreds of mobile apps, web-based apps and other software products. We have noticed a growing trend where some of the most successful products are built by flat teams, where members have the same status as one another. We predict that over the next decade, this team structure will become the new normal.
For a digital product to be successful, three areas must be considered: the product must serve the business, the needs and expectations of business stakeholders must be managed, and the build quality of the product needs to be high.
It is important that these three areas work harmoniously. Too much attention given to one causes the others to suffer, resulting in failure. Think of a stool with three legs – each of them needs to be sturdy or you will end up on the floor! Similarly, a project needs to ensure that all three areas are given enough attention to hold up.
First, if a product does not serve the business, the chance of the wrong thing being produced is high, which results in it not being used by its users (according to Statista.com, 21 per cent of users abandon a mobile app after a single use).
Second, it is essential to consider the needs and expectations of the stakeholders. Often the design and features change during the build phase, deviating from the stakeholder’s original vision. If expectations are not managed, the project may end up cancelled before it sees the light of day.
Finally, failure to focus on build quality causes future developments to be expensive, or even impossible. The project becomes less like a stool and more like a game of Jenga. In addition, the morale of the team working on the project suffers.
Coming back to our stool analogy, it is important not to spend too much time strengthening one leg only to run out of time to work on the others. We have seen that flat teams are better at finding the optimal trade-off between these areas, ensuring no risk is overmanaged at the expense of others.
Flat teams consider all three areas while agreeing on objectives and sharing an overarching goal: the success of the project. They encourage open communication, which is only possible with equal-status roles, allowing an explicit focus on managing the trade-off between the three areas.
Fifteen years ago when we started thoughtbot, our five founding members believed in flat teams, and we are still using them today. We have learned it is a very rewarding approach, though it is often challenging. Clear communication is just as hard as in traditional teams, and career advancement is difficult to recognise without status-based promotions.
Despite these challenges, we have seen widespread adoption of flat teams in companies that build software products, as well as in non-technical organisations. Zappos, Valve, and Buffer are a few successful companies that have received acclaim for their use of flat teams. This will doubtless become even more popular in the future.