Work of any meaningful substance is likely to require many disciplines, more than any one person can manage on their own. Some people are focused on building the feature itself. They are from disciplines such as research, engineering, and design. We often refer to these teams as vertical teams. Other people work across many products to ensure decisions made locally within the feature don’t cause a bad result for the rest of the product globally. They are from disciplines such as security, legal, and design (many disciplines are represented in both camps.) We refer to these teams as horizontal teams because they work across vertical teams.

Vertical teams generally benefit from very clear goals and can take greedy approaches. But Horizontal teams face a tougher challenge. They are only partially involved in each project and often have the unhappy job of applying constraints to vertical teams in the name of balancing higher level objectives.

A common best practice is to have a clear planning process at the outset of a new vertical program that establishes clear expectations with respect to each horizontal to start with. But even when done well, there is some upper bound on the effectiveness of early alignment due to the dynamic nature of product work. The product definition inevitably evolves over the course of development and sometimes even the global landscape the horizontal teams are managing can change. So another common practice is to add additional checkpoints along the way.

I submit to you that these bottlenecks are an antipattern to be avoided.

The natural consequence of these bottlenecks is that your team of horizontal experts spends a majority of their time reviewing work that doesn’t represent any threat to the global optimum, because most vertical teams are mostly aligned with those things already. That also means the experts have less time to focus on the really tricky situations that do deserve their attention. Bottlenecks inevitably become a source of slowdowns that sacrifice real value for consumers and the company. And the more you try to hire to solve the bottleneck the more coordination overhead slows things down even further.

There is a better way.

In signal processing there is something called bandpass which allows certain signals to pass through unencumbered while others are attenuated or blocked. Instead of spreading themselves thin trying to examine every aspect of every vertical product, horizontal teams should create clear fast paths within which vertical teams can execute safely and with confidence. With tools like design guidelines, privacy standards, security protocols, and legal guardrails a majority of work can be untethered from expensive processes. In turn, those products which do require novel consideration will have much more bandwidth from their horizontal partners to work through the problems. Resulting lessons can be further integrated into the design guidelines to encode those lessons for future teams and allow everyone to move more quickly in the future.