Self-contained teams

One of the items that came out of the Spotify video yesterday was their concept of a squad: a small (5-8) person self-contained group of people.  Now this idea isn’t new.  Jeff Bezos called it the “two-pizza” team.  The team should be no larger than what two pizzas could feed.  (This has also been extended to the two-pizza meeting where you shouldn’t have more than two-pizza’s worth of participants.  So, what was so important about the idea of a small team?

Glad you asked.

The largest “team” I ever worked on was somewhere around 115 – 120 people.  Except for a few of us who had specific roles (technical architect, DBA, team lead, etc.) everyone else was part of a single team.  Occasionally they separated them out so that this group of people would work on this functionality or that group of people would work on that functionality, but, in reality, it was one big team.

And it kind of sucked.

Jeff Sutherland, the co-inventor of SCRUM and one of the original authors of the Agile Manifesto, had an interesting talk on being more productive.  In an analysis of different styles of leadership he was led to a paper in the Harvard Business Review that compared and contrasted the traditional style (command and control style gantt charts) versus the SCRUM/Agile methods used by most successful companies in Japan.  The graphic presented was enough to make him try things out.  But what were the key attributes that he needed to replicate?

  • self organizing
  • self motivating
  • management needs to get out of the way so the team can figure out what to do

This matches up with what Spotify did successfully, particularly the part about management getting out of the way.

Back in the days of acoustic modems one of the leads on the project wanted me to configure the software we were something in a particular so as to make it easier for people to get the code generated that they needed generated.  The issue with that was that the problem he was trying to solve was not going to be resolved by me doing it the way he wanted.  There needed to be a completely different solution.  But, darn it, he was my boss and he knew more than I did (or so he thought), so I was forced to come up with a solution using his methods.  It failed.  It failed so bad that I had to reverse the change and regenerate thousands of lines of COBOL code so that people could get back to work.

Sometimes leadership knows the solution to a problem.  But quite often they don’t.  They feel that in order to maintain that mantle of leadership that they need to know the solution, own the solution and get it implemented.

What Jeff Sutherland espoused and what Spotify demonstrated, was that true leadership is giving the team a direction and then getting out of their way. Tell them the outcome you want (“I want to cross the river without getting my pants wet“) and then let the team figure out how to do it.  Leadership is understanding what you are good at, and what you are not, and letting others help you.

You don’t need to know everything, you just need to know who to ask.

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