Team Organization: Star or Diamond?

Short term and long term projects need different types of team organization. Short term projects, say those up to 6 months, tend to have a “star” configuration while longer term projects are better served with a “diamond” shaped configuration.

In a “star” based organization, the team hinges around one strong lead resource while the others are like spokes around it. The word ‘star’ also fits in the sense that such a project succeeds because of a star performer. This organization is efficient and the line of communication is very clearly established. The major risk with this type of organization is that attrition or burn out of the key resource may happen. This makes it unsuitable for longer term projects.

What works better for a long term project is a diamond shaped structure i.e. one that has a few highly skilled resources, a large mix of medium skilled and a few low skilled resources.  Each of these serve a function while making the project both low risk as well as low cost. Fred Brooks in his book The Mythical Man Month states that the difference in productivity between the most skilled and an average programmer is about 10 times with the difference in cost being just twice 1. The problem is that these highly skilled resources are scarce and volatile. A number of times, I have found that it is not so much salary or financial consideration that drives such people, but purely intellectual challenges (it does not mean that they can be treated unfairly!). To sustain their interest the manager needs to to apply their soft skills and ensure that they continue to be challenged through out the project. At an organization level, they need to be cared for across projects.

What I call the diamond shape is what has been termed as The Surgical Team by Brooks2. Brooks uses the following metaphors to define the various roles in the project team:

  • Surgeon
  • Copilot
  • Administrator
  • Editor
  • Secretaries
  • Program Clerk
  • Toolsmith
  • Tester
  • Language Lawyer

My own classification of the various skills required in a project team are slightly different than those mentioned above, but the idea is very similar.

1: The Mythical Man Month page 30
2: The Mythical Man Month page 32

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