Friday, January 13, 2017

Agile Tribe leader is the spider in the web of teams

The hierarchy in an agile organization is a hierarchy of competence and not a hierarchy of authority (Hamel and Denning). The smart members of the tribe leadership team(TL-team) operate as a spider to link teams together, to facilitate an effervescent network of teams. Along with the agile coaches they buzz around the teams and grab every opportunity to have a positive influence on them. The TL-team is settled in "her" network, makes part of it and is not positioned outside or above it. It is a pleasure for every product owner to share sprint results with a mindful leadership team. In order then to return with a briefcase full of ideas and suggestions for a conversation with the customer and the planning meeting with his or her team. 

Together with Jeroen Molenaar, agile consultant for the INGbank, I wrote in our previous blogpost about the agile work environment as an example of an agile learning ecosystem. An agile work environment based on values and culture, where trust and autonomy of employees and teams are of paramount importance. In our second blogpost we wrote about the three leadership roles in teams. In this blog we write about the so-called tribe leadership team (TL-team), managing a few teams with more or less 150 people (Dunbar number). Remarkably, the scrum guide does not clarify the role and tasks of the manager (tribelead). We are inspired by the experiences at Spotify and ING and add our own point of view.
Figure 1: Henrik Kniberg & Anders Ivarsson (2012) at Spotify
Spotify works with tribe leadership teams and ING has a 'tribelead’ working closely with the product owners or with the POCLAC's (team leadership). Teams in a tribe are also called Scrum-of-scrums (Jeff Sutherland, 2015) and a tribelead: chief product owner (CPO). CPO is a name that is also used in other agile scaling models. Basically these roles have much in common; the tribe lead or CPO is responsible for a team-of-teams realizing maximum value.

Based on the vision and long term goals of management the tribe leadership team (TL-team) devises its course. They monitor whether the results of the various teams are still on schedule and after each sprint they discuss the results with the product owner(s).
At ING, after each sprint, the tribe organizes a so-called 'marketplace'. The tribelead, product owners and chapter leads (CL) come together and the meeting is conducted by one of the agile coaches. In general the other agile coaches are present as observers. Initially, it was not thought that chapter leads would participate, participants in this session would just discuss the (backlog) priorities. What do people with a main task in knowledge building and personal development then have to seek in such a session? In order to optimally facilitate people in their development, it appears that you have to be close to the discussion on prioritization. That is leadership; continuously adjusting the process in order to be effective.
The TL-team (TL, CL, PO AC) has regular contact with the (C-level) management and provides information on what happened in the other teams of the tribe and other tribes. Of course they can also change the strategy set, based on input from the customer (sprint review meeting), by market trends, bottom-up and top-down meet in a free space where you can set the best solution or strategy. At the tribe level ING organizes a quarterly business review (QBR) to reassess the strategy. This may mean that the route of the tribe is shifted slightly and that may have an impact on the 'purpose' of the respective teams. Obviously you discuss it in a constructive discussion with the product owners of those teams.

Hierarchy, alignment en autonomy 
The role of management in a network of autonomous teams is a discussion. Agile organizations are hierarchical and it is a network. The (tribe) manager operates as a servant leader with respect to the team and shares responsibilities with the team for getting things done. But at the end of the sprint, the manager is ultimately accountable for what will actually be delivered, according to the sdLearningconsortium (2016). While the formal accountabilities remain largely vertical, the actual conduct of the activities and responsibilities are increasingly horizontal and network-like. This causes a feeling of tension. Would you say that the teams still hang in a tree structure?

This is remarkable, in the above picture with autonomous teams in a tree structure, hierarchy wins. In such a situation, the tribelead systematically exceeds the so-called autonomy-axis of the teams. When this happens you often see that the distance between the team and the tribelead is too great and that team members consider the tribelead as not visible enough. The tribelead is too busy to fill all kinds of big holes in such a structure. At ING they saw for example that the productowners had difficulties to operate at a tactical / strategic level and prioritize. This justifies hierarchical support. Denning (2016) calls this a structure with agile teams in a bureaucracy and Hamel(2016) is critical about bureaucracy. Denning also observes that many agile teams have a short term and operational focus and that is a risk. Large organizations with a rich history, in most cases, will say goodbye to the tree structure one step at a time.

From values such as confidence, empowerment, teams and autonomy, you have no other option than to delegate the responsibilities to the team and the product owner. After each sprint the product owner presents the results to the customer and to the TL-team and I doubt if accountability is the right word. The product owner obviously has a duty to provide information and discuss the successes, opportunities and also uncertainties in the TL team. His or her story gives the leadership team the opportunity to give advice, ask awkward or pertinent questions, which the product owner can use in the dialogue with their team. It resembles the duty to ask advice in self-organizing organizations (AES in Laloux). It is also useful to engage the agile coach, so that the TL-team input can be discussed in a constructive manner with team members.

Hamel en Denning (2016) argue that in the agile era it is no longer a hierarchy of authority but a hierarchy of competence. There will always be people who are smarter or may add more value. Those are the people that everyone wants to join in a conversation, because you know that you will receive great advice. It may be clear that we are not writing about professional competence, for example in a bank expertise about mortgages is found in the teams. Is that hierarchy? Hamel wonders. It's hierarchy aimed at supporting people so that they can do their work properly and add value for customers.

The TL-team also provides support and protection, when external forces threaten the teams. The product owner can request support and a clever tribelead pro-actively anticipates, sometimes in such a way that the product owner does not notice. And sometimes a threat contains disempowering information and discomfort can be beneficial for the team process. As a spin doctor you just wait and see, you let the discomfort does its job and of course you keep a very close eye on how the team picks it up. The threat can also come from above (MT). The psychological safety within teams, so crucial to excel, is quickly at stake. The TL-team will use all its possibilities to influence in order to protect the teams. And sometimes there is no other option and then the TL-team has to take care of the difficult task that the new direction makes a soft landing.

Of course the tribe management has the power to intervene when a team is not performing. The tribe management will do everything to prevent that it comes to that. On receiving the first alarming team signals they will first talk with the POCLAC leadership team. Together they devise interventions to get the team back on the right path. If this does not work, the tribe manager will join the team. Obviously this is carefully prepared with the agile coach; they have to operate smart and sensitive to ensure the psychological safety and put the team to act.

Dynamic network van teams 
In addition to the purpose and alignment the TL-team orchestrates its network of teams, resulting in a dynamic network, with experiments on all sides and learning a lot (scalable learning). In this way you make work of agility in a disruptive environment. The TL-team operates as a spider in the vibrant web of its teams and seizes every opportunity to connect teams or team members from different teams. The TL-team is settled in "her" network, makes part of it and is not positioned outside or above it. 
Figure 2: Tribe leadershipteam as spider(doctor) in her web of teams 
The tribelead has a sharp eye for every opportunity to positively influence (is mindful); every opportunity is seized to empower, inspire, enthuse, to give a push to teams and teammembers and to increase the "velocity" in the sprints. The tribe lead is like a gardener who does anything that will germinate seeds and water vulnerable young plants to flourish (Stanley McChrystal, 2015). She regularly consults with the agile coaches (AC) how to revitalize the network and it helps that agile coaches support several (2-3) teams. Together with the agile coaches they facilitate exploratory behaviour of teams and team members. Together they are alert to best practices for the benefit of all people.

Build a strong and mindful TL-team. It is often difficult to make a team of the product owners in a tribe, especially when you meet only once every two weeks to share a few things. Discuss with the agile coaches how to ensure that there is and actually develops a mindful TL-team. In the case of the ING marketplace you cannot speak of a team, therefor too many people do participate. It will require a lot of skill of the AC as a facilitator, making sure participants will respond in an alert and sensitive manner with sincere attention to each other.

Under the supervision of the TL-team meetings are organized with all the tribe teams. Microsoft does this for example every six weeks and the department meets once every three months together. At ING, they call it the Tribe team lead and conduct a quarterly 'Business Review' (QBR). The article written by Henrik Kniberg about their planning event at Lego with 20 teams is also informing. Especially the development of a so-called dependency board in the planning session is interesting, showing the dependencies between teams with coloured post-its. The animated discussions about dependencies contributes to the team-of-team development and increases the chances that people from different teams will visit each other after the meeting. It is crucial that within the tribe a mild form of psychological safety is created with a contagious energy and learning climate. It is in these meetings you live up the values and culture about autonomy, trust and collaboration.
In order to deliver X (blue post-it), we need Y from you (red post-it)
Chapter leads 
The TL-team guides and supports chapterleads, allowing them to operate at a high level as masters and knowledge spinners. They talk regularly with each other on how to strengthen the skills of team members and identify whether there is still a need for something extra. The ING chapter leads participate in the tribe meetings because they have a good view on the employability of people. With an eye on business issues they can suggest who might start a particular task. In the long run or in the ideal situation , and what is ideal……, participation of chapterleads might be no longer necessary. Their participation is also an opportunity to discuss whether the IT architecture meets the requirements as assistant to do a good job. Along with the chapterleads the TL-team monitors whether there is sufficient time and rest for reflection to strengthen professional competence. Indeed the method of sprints entails the risk that people have only just enough time and attention to the agreed sprint tasks (short term).

The tribe lead is also in regular dialogue with chapterleads about employees who excel and who perform poorly. Periodically they discuss whether there are people who are not happy with themselves. They also monitor whether employees are dealing with private difficult circumstances and therefore require special attention and consideration. They also monitor in consultation with productowners if the workload is balanced (work in progress overload). This consultation with chapterleads requires some caution, because before you know it, it looks like the management team meeting of the past and that legacy is now just a trap which you have to step out of.

The tribe leadership team is responsible for a number of tasks that might not be well covered in the teams:
  • veto any applicant who falls below the minimum standards of ability; 
  • ensure performance appraisals are within the limits of company policy and take sensible decisions on promotions and rewards; 
  • dismiss an employee unable to do the required work. 
In all these discussions I would also involve as much as possible the agile coaches so that they can assist in the implementation of various actions and avoid that the psychological safety comes at a low level within the team.

Agile coaches
The TL-team also monitors the agile coaches. Its main task is probably to monitor if agile coaches meet and support each other. They monitor whether the desired culture is present and proposes how the desired culture could still be better supported. The latter is then picked up by the agile coaches. The TL-team is indeed again supported by one or two agile coaches. At ING, the agile coaches are not managed by the TL team. In this manner, it is much easier for the coaches to play an independent role and the threshold is lower for warning the TL-team when the TL-team exceeds the autonomy-axis of the teams.

Figure 3: Support from agile coaches or scrummasters
According to the scrum model it is the scrum masters task to reveal impediments in teams and eliminate them. Agile coaches have with the TL-team the task to remove as many impediments at the tribe level. The TL-team organize the conditions (including resources) so that teams and team members are able to work optimally.

In summary 
The tribe leadership team ensures that the network of teams can perform optimally. Henrik Kniberg from Spotify is talking about creating an environment where anything can happen without you as TL-team being involved. In practice, this means facilitating, encouraging, arguing, challenging, organizing meetings, visualizing and corridor conversations, etc. This sounds pretty vague, which makes it a difficult job. Make sure you get the right agile mind-set and then it is actually a piece of cake. It helps enormously if the management has internalized the agile mind-set.

We are already busy with the following blogs and have the following posts scheduled:
  • Agile HR: the role and contribution of People operations in an agile work environment.
  • Relevance of learning in an agile work environment and how to organize accelerated and scalable learning. 
Would you like to talk further about the topic of leadership in an agile work environment, please let us know:

We plan to organize a round-table with decision makers and key figures in the agile learning organization. If you are interested, please contact us for one of the limited seats at the round table.

For the Dutch translation of this article, click here.