jade rubick

Liaison - the spy you'll love to send to other teams


Today, we’ll talk about the use of Liaisons.

What is a liaison?

A liaison is a person who serves as a coordinator with another team or group of teams. They attend relevant meetings, and share context in both directions.

For example, product marketing has a dependency on engineering, product, and design. Product marketing needs to know many things to market to customers:

  • When the team will deliver the feature.
  • What benefits the feature provides.
  • How the team talks about the feature.
  • What terms the team is using.
  • What the feature will look like.
  • How the feature will fit into the existing offering.

A liaison can be very effective in this situation. You attach a product marketing person to a team or set of teams. They attend meetings and learn the context they need. And they also share that context back with their organization.

When to use liaisons

A liaison is one of the best coordination models to use when you meet these constraints:

  • You are coordinating with another part of the organization.
  • That part of the organization comprises a team or set of teams.
  • You believe the liaison will be stable. They can be associated with a team or set of teams and that won’t need to change for a long time.
  • Your need for context is more than minimal. If you can replace a liaison with notes from a meeting or an email, you don’t need a liaison.
  • They can get that context from meetings. If the meetings aren’t sharing a lot of context, it’s wasteful to have a liaison.
  • You won’t exceed the rule of eight. Attaching a liaison adds a person to the meetings they attend. You are adding a cost to the meeting and making it more complex. If the meeting gets too big, you have to restructure the meeting or choose another model.
  • There is a natural way in which your people fit into other teams’ meetings. You should have a direct need for context. You are misusing this model if you sprinkle liaisons in many places. If you feel a need for liaisons everywhere, you might have other problems. That can be a sign your company has bad information flow. Look for signs there is something structural at work.

One of the advantages of using a liaison is that it is inexpensive. Using a liaison only requires a few meetings a week for one person.

You can scale liaisons as the organization grows. For example, our product marketing department might assign a liaison per product line. These product lines map to engineering teams or organizations. When the company introduces a new product line, you hire a new product marketing person. This person is then attached to the new engineering group.

When using this model

  • Make sure people understand what the liaison is doing. Using our example, many engineers don’t understand product marketing. They will have no idea why a product marketing person is at the meeting. When you add a liaison to a meeting, tell everyone what their needs are. Explain why they are there and what information they need.
  • Use the existing hierarchy if you can. When you map your liaisons to other departments, use the existing hierarchy. If you don’t, you make the organization complex. I have seen situations where there are three or four mappings and hierarchies at the same time. Using the existing hierarchy reduces complexity during reorgs.

Liaison versus other coordination models

A liaison is a limited version of the embedded model. When you need deep context, embed someone instead. When it makes sense to work together, prefer the embedded model. If your need for context isn’t significant, use a liaison instead.

When you want someone to be always available, a Rotation can be preferable. Rotations build less context. They also share the burden of being available better.

A collection of liaisons from many places forms a “Centralized Liaison”. For example, you might have each team send their technical lead to form a technical leadership group. The technical leadership group then shares information and coordinates with each other.

My advice:

  • Use liaisons with product marketing.
  • Use embeds or liaisons with security.
  • For support teams, use liaisons. Embedded support engineers would be a good experiment. For engineering teams, engineering Rotations with the support liaison create a natural pair. This pair can triage and sometimes solve customer problems together.

Next steps

Any important advice I missed? I love feedback.

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Coordination models

Liaisons are just one of many coordination models. Coordination models give you a menu of choices to choose from when solving your leadership coordination issues.

Image by Couleur from Pixabay

Jade Rubick

Engineering Leadership Weekly & Frontline Management

Point me at your organizational problems. I advise startups and help in a variety of ways.

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