Software Engineering Lessons For Business Management: The Single Responsibility Principle

IT professionals eager to take the next step in their careers beyond technology development often look at brand new horizons in the vast corporate space. While pivoting towards more business-oriented paths can be fruitful, there are many factors to consider when shifting gears to management roles. Tech-savvy individuals, in particular, such as computer programmers, may find that dealing with the idiosyncratic traits of human nature can be somewhat challenging when delving into the discipline of people leadership.

Luckily, several lessons learned from software engineering are transferable to business administration. In this article series, we will take a deeper look into how concepts of information systems design can be applied to implementing organizational structures and business strategies, as well as addressing common challenges observed in the day-to-day life in the corporate world.

Let’s kick off the discussion by looking at one of the most essential notions of software development: the Single Responsibility Principle. First introduced in 2000 in Robert C. Martin’s paper Design Principles and Design Patterns, it states:

“There should never be more than one reason for a class to change.”

In summary, the idea is that things that do similar tasks must be grouped inside their own logical containers. Said containers, in turn, must have one, and only one, responsibility in the larger ecosystem. There are numerous advantages to writing code that adheres to this law in application development, such as better maintainability, sustainability, and predictability, which ultimately leads to better performance and implementation efficiency. Similarly, applying this concept to business management can yield parallel benefits.

Specialists versus Generalists

The first layer upon which the Single Responsibility Principle can be applied is the individual. Professionals of all areas eventually have to choose between becoming experts in specific domains or having a more general view of the big picture. Of course, there are pros and cons to both sides.

Specialists are laser-focused and have exceptional understanding of one subject – it’s a role that comes with substantial technical authority. In contrast, generalists often wear a number of different hats and can navigate across various disciplines, but usually with average knowledge of the different areas. On the cons side, even though specialists can generally reach for better salaries, ideal positions may be harder to find. On the other hand, generalists can find relocation more quickly, but are more easily replaceable.

There is a place for both in the work environment. However, people managers, who generally strive for optimized performance, may benefit from the obvious fact that a more effective enterprise is fostered when employees are outstanding at what they do. To make it happen, responsibilities must be clear, well-defined, and accurately delegated. In addition having, processes that respect duty boundaries are paramount.

Employees who have one single duty are focused, more efficient, and become increasingly competent over time, as they are given the space to grow and excel at their jobs. There is a motivational element to that, too. Becoming an expert offers people the opportunity to work more closely with decision-makers, creating a sense of ownership and belonging, as well as the chance to affect a more significant impact on the business. For example, having the same person do sales and marketing is likely to yield sub-optimal results. The lack of focus on each activity can only hurt the company due to the direct impact on revenue and customer reach. Thus, it seems fair to conclude that individuals should have one single responsibility in the workplace. While this may run contrary to the cost-saving paradigm, it will likely yield long-term benefits to both the individual and organization.

Teams and Departments

Likewise, the Single Responsibility Principle can be applied to a broader context. Let’s consider a concrete example, usually observed in software development teams. It’s quite common to find organizational structures where the group of individuals writing new system features is the same one handling support escalations. Especially for smaller companies, this is a typical caveat, as the lack of resources makes multi-tasking a necessity. Unfortunately, many leaders in larger, well-established companies seem to take this route as an attempt to manage operational gaps and cost savings more easily. However, the likelihood of it being a counterproductive strategy in the long run cannot be overlooked.

Particularly in projects with tight deadlines, relocating a programmer from feature development to support with user escalations has notable impacts on the project timeline and deliverables schedule. If you’re familiar with project management, you know that such a change also impacts implementation costs.

Moreover, an impact on the individual can again be observed, especially on juniors and new hires. Switching back and forth between development and support prevents the analyst from specializing. Consequently, not enough time is invested in either area, significantly slowing down the learning process. The psychological factor can become a burden due to sentiments of incompetence caused by the lack of observed progress over extended periods.

Therefore, a better approach is to specialize teams in specific domain areas. In this example, having entirely separate teams for new development and support can lead to more productive results. This allows team members to focus on one duty, accelerating the learning curve, and ultimately creating a healthier overall environment where contributions and advancements are more easily perceived.

Companies and Startups

Another angle to which the Single Responsibility Principle can be applied is the organizational focus of companies. Every now and then, we find ourselves interacting with a firm (either as an employee, customer, or business partner) that seems to be exploring too many different avenues chasing growth and profit. Sometimes, they have too many products in their portfolio. Sometimes, they are pursuing business in completely different markets. Once again, the lack of strategic focus poses significant challenges to the entrepreneur.

Companies that appear to be all over the place struggle to establish a reputation. That is because it is less intuitive for potential clients to create a mental model of their purpose and understand the value of their products or services. For example, consider an accounting firm that also offers investment funds. Now, imagine they realize that many of their customers would like to invest in real estate. So, without thinking twice, they decide to start working on that area, too. At this point, it becomes one single company that can do your taxes, offer investment options, and help you buy a new home. What a mess! Not only is this model likely to confuse potential consumers, but it also struggles to sustain its internal operating structure and to define a clear vision as a business. Furthermore, from a risk management standpoint, it concentrates all possible liabilities inside the same legal entity, which may not be ideal.

Instead, a better strategy would be to create separate business entities, each of which targets one specific market segment. Then, each company can be autonomously led by specialized teams, significantly simplifying the decision-making process and increasing the chances of success. In the end, the individual firms can all be subsidiaries of a parent company, which is a model vastly explored by larger corporations worldwide.

In conclusion

Overall the Single Responsibility Principle goes far beyond software engineering, and is greatly applicable to management. The numerous advantages of its adherence can be observed across different levels in the business realm, ultimately helping define practical standards and streamlining internal processes. The message is clear: avoid assigning more than one duty to an employee, team, department, or even business. Instead, strive for a model where distinct ideas are handled by separate entities. As a result, such an approach can bring significant value, such as operational sustainability, simplified management, isolation of liabilities, and, most importantly, sustainable growth and profitability.

About the Author

Luiz Parente is a senior software engineer who is passionate about systems design and technology. Having started his journey in computer programming at the age of 14, his core expertise is centered in solutions architecture with .NET technologies.

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