Colin D Ellis
Leadership | Culture | Success
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Tribes, Squads, Neighbourhoods and Confusion

I was chatting to someone recently who said that their organisation was changing the names of their roles and moving everyone into squads and tribes. I asked what that meant to them and their colleagues and they said, ‘we think they’re trying to improve teamwork, but it feels like we’re following the latest trend and using it as an excuse for a restructure’.

Teamwork continues to be one of the biggest stumbling blocks to project and operational delivery. Organisations low in delivery maturity talk a lot about toxic cultures without ever doing much to change it. Exercises such as office refurbishments and renaming teams (the current favourite) are undertaken to try and lift performance, without ever correcting the behaviour of the people that work within them.

Great teamwork is a key differentiator.

Most of what organisations do today happens between people in different teams, often on different floors or even in different parts of the world. There is still a misguided assumption that we can throw a group of people – with disparate skillsets, personalities and behaviours – together and expect it to immediately work. The truth is that, of course, it takes time, skill and the collective agreement of those on the teams to do it well.

The days of drawing a structure as a hierarchical diagram should be long gone as this is the opposite of what great teamwork is. There’s no ‘top’ and ‘bottom’ when it comes to team, there is just an interconnected group of people doing their best to deliver against a business idea.

Atlassian, in a paper titled AI – The Future of Teamwork, found that 50% of the people they interviewed were more motivated by team success over organisation success and that 56% were more confident working in a team than individually.

Indeed, Atlassian, like many organisations that I’ve researched for my recently published white paper, encourage their teams to compete. Not to outdo each other in a low emotional intelligence way, but to stretch each other professionally.

Spotify does this too.

Spotify has divided its organisation into tribes – groups of connected people focussed on delivery in one specific area – who also share knowledge with other tribes via guilds – groups of teams who knowledge share and develop each other. In this model, the learning between teams becomes cyclical. Everyone learns from everyone and they all push each other to success.

Like most good ideas, this one is being copied around the world.

Names such as tribes, squads, neighbourhoods, guilds and chapters are seen as the way forward in the agile organisation of tomorrow. Of course, simply changing the name of a team in a move towards a more flexible way of delivering is pointless without careful implementation.

Without people with high emotional intelligence, having a strong sense of belonging, displaying a different set of behaviours, who are trusted and empowered to deliver, this ‘regrouping’ exercise will fail and those who implemented it will blame everything but themselves.  

Enhanced collaboration requires a strong social contract to be built between the members of the team.

An agreement on how they’ll behave towards each, what ‘collaboration’ looks like and some shared principles to bind them together. Atlassian has five values, Spotify and Netflix each have Playbooks. Simple statements of what it means to be part of a self-organising team that’s striving to be successful.

These teams know how to talk (and listen) to each other and how to provide honest feedback on performance. They understand the priorities of the organisation, have space and time to work on other things and care deeply about wellbeing and lifestyle. They accept responsibility readily and strive to evolve the status quo.

Jack Welch talked about this years ago in his assessment of what it meant to lead well, saying: ‘'People with passion care – really care in their bones – about colleagues, employees and friends winning.”

So, before organisations rename their teams, they should first ask themselves whether they’ve done enough to develop a culture that supports healthy competition. Otherwise, the result of the exercise will be enhanced confusion, not enhanced collaboration.

You can download my white paper on the future of project delivery here.