Mathew Cropper

March 4, 2021

Great teams map dependencies. Amazing teams map ambiguity as well.

Originally published: August 26, 2019

Great teams know who else they're dependent on to get something done. Even with highly autonomous teams, dependencies are unavoidable. Great teams make sure dependencies are made visible somehow. I've found that this is often not quite enough.

"We have a dependency on Team X for Y" is a good start, don't get me wrong. I find that this on its own results in a negative framing of the dependency, though. It throws responsibility over the fence and, in many cases, teams feel it absolves them of the need to be involved.

To counter this, there's an exercise I like to do that turns that on its head. It highlights the lack of communication and involvement in a blame-free way. We map ambiguity, and then ask ourselves how we can make that better.

Here's how it works:

  • On a dry-wipe board, draw a bubble for each piece of work the team is responsible for.
  • In another colour, draw bubbles for all the work that other people are responsible for. Overlapped these bubbles with your own if they are dependent on one another in any way. The size of the overlap should be roughly how big you perceived the dependency to be.
  • Fill the overlaps with colour if the work is ambiguous in any way. Maybe the work is new and there is no plan, or maybe you don't know what is going on at the moment.
  • Scribbled notes next to the filled sections, saying why there is this ambiguity, how that impacts you (practically and emotionally), and who is owning it.
  • Set up time with everyone that appears on the board with one question; How can we make this less ambiguous?

You'll get something like this:

You will quickly find that the dependencies suddenly become a lot less stressful, either because you're communicating again, or a plan evolves to make things better.

If you give this a go, or do something similar and want to share some feedback on how I can improve, please let me know!