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SDM Implementation Patterns: "SDM owns only part of the output"

Updated: Jan 29, 2023

This article is part of the "Finding your SDM" series, and it describes one of the "dysfunctional" implementation patterns for the role.

The Story

Ann and Keith are the managers in charge of a development service supporting a Business Line through the development of a digital product. The service includes an upstream team of Business Analysts and UX specialists and several small downstream development teams.

Ann is the Product Manager and is considered by the organization as the visible face of the service; she also takes care of managing the upstream work. Keith is a Delivery Manager, and mostly focuses on managing the downstream teams. Their relationship is very collaborative and, when it comes to the delivery of product related features, customer support, and product related projects, they make decisions together and in a coordinated fashion (SRM/SDM Tandem)

However, from time to time, people in the organization outside the Business Line (most notably, IT), submit some work for the development teams that is not directly related to the product they develop (Technical Upgrades, for example, or special infrastructure related projects). To do so, they interact with Keith, who then makes decisions about committing and scheduling this kind of work.

Additionally, some senior developers that are members of the downstream teams have been given the authority to initiate “internal projects”, mostly related to “Technical Debt repayment”. They usually discuss these projects with Keith, but they generally enjoy a considerable degree of autonomy, and often times Keith learns about these projects after they have been initiated.

Ann is aware of this separate stream of work, but she assumes no specific responsibility to manage it. She knows that Keith is on top of it, and assumes that he takes that into consideration when discussing product feature development with her. She has observed, however, that “surprises” are common about what the teams are really focusing on, and that overall delivery tends to be more and more unpredictable.


  • A service with two (or more) managers accountable separately to different groups of stakeholders, representing multiple sources of demand.

  • Different stakeholders see different managers as the entry point for the service.

  • One of the managers assumes that they “own” the full capacity of the service, even though they know there’s other work going through the service.

  • Often, there’s also a stream of internally originated work.


  • One of the managers is in charge of the main stream of work, while the other becomes the “back door” for other kinds of work.

  • Each manager makes commitments independently to different stakeholders/customers.

  • The two managers collaborate to manage the flow of work, but none of them completely takes ownership of the whole output of the service.

What makes this pattern "dysfunctional"?

The existence of a "back door" for work essentially means that it's very easy for the service to become overburdened. Scheduling work becomes problematic, preemption is common, and delivery often becomes unpredictable.

Depending on the power dynamics between the managers involved, some kinds of work may end up being neglected, and delivery becomes a “competition” between various streams of work. This is usually the case for internally generated work (like "tech debt"), which usually looses in that competition and needs to find its way via "stealth" tactics.

The flow of work from commitment to delivery is then not managed holistically, often leading to unpredictability, and it becomes very difficult to introduce process improvements.

Moving away from this pattern, and towards something like "SRM/SDM Tandem" can resolve these issues.

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