The Tapas of Delivery

Towards greater understanding and ownership in teams

I like metaphors for work. More specifically, I like metaphors for work that are good. I especially like good metaphors for work that involve food.

My work is making digital products and services in the UK Parliament. We have multidisciplinary teams working on these things. I have been thinking about what good multidisciplinary teams look like and how they behave.

I have also been thinking about the challenges of building services (like a new website for the UK Parliament) where fundamental components (like a new data service) are shared, and don’t fit neatly into any single multidisciplinary team’s area of responsibility to deliver.

I think it’s important for everybody in the team to be engaged in the entirety of the work at some level. If they aren’t, there’s a risk of silos forming, or ineffective collaboration across disciplines due to people just staying in their professional comfort zone.

I remembered a metaphor that reinforces these risks, and came up with a tastier one in response.

The Iceberg of Delivery

I am totally sure that I didn’t come up with the iceberg of delivery. Maybe I’m butchering something that’s actually really clever, in which case I am sorry [1].

This iceberg of delivery is fairly simple, and this sketch I did should make it clear:


The six elements aren’t meant to be an exhaustive list, but I think they cover most things. Note that the blue fish has no significance other than the confused look on its face.

My iceberg of delivery suggests that

  • there is more to building a service than what you can see above the surface of the water [2]
  • the things above the surface are easy to understand
  • the things below the surface are difficult to understand
  • in order to deliver the service, there’s more work to do under the water than above it

The iceberg of delivery is alright, but it could be better.

there is more to building a service than what you can see above the surface of the water

Nothing should be under the water. Everything should be visible to everybody inside and outside of the team. Also keeping things hidden under the water inhibits opportunities for change.

the things above the surface are easy to understand

Just because a wide range of people have OPINIONS about these things doesn’t mean they are understood. And even if they are understood, it doesn’t mean that they are easy to do. How many times have you heard “how hard can it be?”, or “but of course, I knew that already”?

Some examples of things I’d put ‘above the surface’:

  • Lots of people have opinions about design, but being a good designer is a rare skill
  • The ceremonial aspects of ‘agile’ working are totally meaningless in and of themselves
  • User research is powerful and great, but it is hard to be driven by evidence in the face of (say) a hippo’s opinion
  • If push came to shove and it was 2002 still, I could do some ‘front end development’ on a website. I really wouldn’t recommend it though, because the GeoCities aesthetic died with GeoCities
the things below the surface are difficult to understand

I want to work in an environment where the starting position is that all work is considered equally difficult. Being opaque about any aspect of the greater whole isn’t constructive.

If (say) the continuous delivery pipeline is hard to understand at an appropriate level for everybody in the team then either 1) the people working on the continuous delivery pipeline should work harder to explain it to their colleagues; 2) their colleagues should pull up their brains and try harder to understand; or 3) both.

in order to deliver the service, there’s more work to do under the water than above it

This is where the iceberg is fundamentally wrong in my opinion. In an ideal situation where underlying services are shared, people aren’t difficult, bureaucracy isn’t soul-crushing, and the data is good, then at least half the iceberg would be above the surface of the water. That ideal situation might be unrealistic in practice, but I’d prefer not to use a metaphor that implies building a service is mostly doing mysterious things that hardly anybody understands.

The Tapas of Delivery

I don’t eat out much [3], but I do like tapas.


The tapas of delivery is a better metaphor for work than the iceberg, particularly because

Everything is on the table

In addition, tapas really facilitates sharing. I also like that tapas is inherently diverse, unlike an iceberg (which is a huge block of ice).

In software terms, an iceberg would be a monolith (which is bad), whereas tapas would be smaller, manageable components that can be delivered often to the table [the internet] [4].

With the tapas of delivery, it’s clear what the meal [service] is comprised of. Somebody ordered the soul-crushing bureaucracy, and it needs eating. Everybody in the team can see that it tastes disgusting, and there is an opportunity to complain. Maybe the recipe will get changed, or better still it will get taken off the menu.

Having everything on the table provides opportunity for change.

Much like tapas, you can pick and choose which aspect of the service relates to what. Thinking about some of those ‘difficult to understand’ elements above, maybe hosting infrastructure is the plates. Perhaps data is some of the raw ingredients. It could be that the waiter is the continuous delivery pipeline. I could go on, but expect that you get the idea.

The main thing for me is that the meal [service] is something that’s openly greater than the sum of its parts, and everybody shares in making it happen.

I hope you agree that tapas is better than an iceberg. Please get in touch with me on Twitter if you want to stretch food / work metaphors to breaking point some time.

[1] If there is a source, I will retrospectively credit it in an edit to this post

[2] *nods sagely*

[3] I work in the public sector

[4] Thanks, Dave