Making Agile Squads work

To make Agile Squads work, you can make specialists multi-skilled to enable the Squad to prioritize across all disciplines within their squad – an important lesson from our Super7 experience.

Many companies are trying to emulate the success that Spotify has had with their Agile engineering culture (see YouTube: part1, part2). Traditional companies are now considering reorganizing into Squads, Tribes and Chapters. Let’s recap first:

A Squad is a small, multi-disciplinary team, much like a Super7 team, but more focused on developing and managing a product or product feature rather than processing customer requests.

A Tribe is more-or-less what we used to call a department, but again, focused on a related group of products or services.

A chapter is the ‘matrix-layer’, a group of similar specialism from different tribes.

As Spotify explains in their second video, strong growth has made the Squad & Tribe organization more complex. So how do you get this type of organization to work?

My observation is that the matrix of Chapters running crisscross through Tribes creates 2 potential problems.

1. Less autonomous problem solving power for the Squads because different specialists can’t help each other.

– Squad members are all specialists in their own field
– Each specialist will have their own list of priorities
– When one specialist’s highest priority is really critical, the risk is that his/her squad members can’t help this specialist, simply because they don’t know enough of the subject.
– Instead, they can only focus on their own priorities, sub optimizing the squad results

2. Requirement of more management because of complexity

– In the situation as described above, the specialist in need of help will turn to his/her chapter-members.
– This requires cross-squad or even cross-tribe prioritizing
– And this will require a lot of talk, compromising, decision making.
– In short, this will increase the need of management.

For these 2 problems, our experience with Super7 could hold the solution:

Use multi-skilled specialists, and enable the Squad to prioritize across all disciplines within their squad. A graduation study has shown that Super7’s that can rely on help from within their own Super7 are more effective and have better team-spirit than teams that need to lend a hand to other Super7’s on a regular basis. This emphasizes the importance of multi-skilled specialists.

How would this work for Squads?

  • Super7 shows us that specialists need to be able to help at least 2 other members of their Super7.
  • Translated to Squads: every squad-member needs to be a specialist in at least 2, but preferably 3 specialisms that are needed within the squad.

This will demand a lot of the people involved. They need to be trained. But as Toyota puts it: “we build people before we build cars”.

Menno R. van Dijk.