Facilitating the Spread of Knowledge and Innovation in Professional Software Development

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InfoQ Homepage Articles The Culture Game - Extract #3

The Culture Game - Extract #3

You do not need to ask permission to use these tools. You do not need to obtain a budget to use them, and you need no authorization to use these tools. You can simply do these practices with other like-minded people in your organization, and you will tip the culture towards more Tribal Learning. Part Two is a toolkit populated with tools you can use to develop more Tribal Learning. By doing so, you will help to develop a more nimble organization that can respond to opportunities, threats, changes, and challenges. The focus here is on your team, your department, and your local sphere of influence. You can use these tools inside your sphere of influence to alter the way in which people interact and learn as they work together.

Part Two provides you with immediately actionable Tribal Learning Practices that you can do RIGHT NOW to manifest more learning in your organization. These practices are quick, effective, and inexpensive. Most of them do not cost a dime. When you do any one of them, you encourage other people to use more of them. When you do any one of them, you manifest more learning. Most of these practices originated in the Agile software development community. Some of them originated with me, culled from my experience coaching Agile teams. All of them are quick to implement and can help your organization learn faster leading to a stronger culture and better results.

Part Three contains specific information and guidance on how to socialize Tribal Learning in your organization. The primary technique is to use triads as described in the groundbreaking book on the subject, Tribal Leadership [1]. This section provides you with the concepts and facilities of the Tribal Leadership system as applied to socializing Tribal Learning immediately in your own organization.

Part Four is a rich Appendix with reference material, tutorials, and related information that supports your integration of all the material in this book. Part Four includes a rich bibliography as well as links to more material, that you may want if you are planning to put the concepts of this book into practice. Part Four is designed to support your implementation of the ideas found in the book.

Chapter 3 - Tribal Learning Overview

Tribal Learning Explained

Technology in general (and software development in particular) is a specific and powerful driving force in our society and culture. In the same way that the Medici bankers influenced culture during the Renaissance, technology and software development are influencing the period we are living through right now.

A perfect example is the Agile software development community, which continues to be a learning laboratory for teamwork. Designing and publishing software is a complex process. When teamwork on software teams is weak, it results in slipping schedules, cost overruns, failed projects, and very unhappy investors and end-users. The Agile community has figured out that teams must first become skilled at learning as a group. After this happens, the team produces high quality software. The Agile community has done the hard work of studying teams and teamwork, and now has the expertise to repeatedly create and re-create teams that rapidly learn. The result is working software that ships on time.

These teams are in fact small Learning Organizations as described by Peter Senge in his book The Fifth Discipline. The knowledge of how to create teams that learn is now available to any business leader who studies the available Agile software development literature.[2]

Scaling Agile to the Enterprise and Non-Technology Domains

There is a big demand to apply Agile techniques to non-technology domains like sales, marketing, finance, even executive leadership. The Tribal Learning Practices found in this book are intended to empower you to achieve this. These practices are distillations of specific Agile practices. For example, the Agile framework Scrum is based on iteration and very frequent inspection of results. The Tribal Learning Practices of Inspect Frequently and Examine Your Norms derive directly from Scrum. Likewise, Scrum prescribes a short set of meetings, and every one of these meetings has a designated facilitator. Tribal Learning extracts the practice of Facilitate Your Meetings and generalizes it for any team engaged in work that is complex and changes frequently. It is easy to apply Agile principles to non-technology domains by implementing the practices found in Tribal Leadership framework.

Everyone wants to scale Agile from the team level to entire enterprises. However, for typical organizations, scaling these Agile learning practices to the level of enterprise is a non-starter. Few (if any) organizations exist that currently serve as legitimate examples of enterprise-wide Learning Organizations as described by Senge. Fortunately, examples of teams that learn are very plentiful, thanks to the Agile software development community. This worldwide community, through trial-and-error, has learned how to develop and sustain teams that learn. The worldwide Agile community has solved the Learning Organization problem for a small and very specific organizational unit: the team, consisting of about 5 to 9 members.

Safe Space - for Learning

The problem is that Agile practices that work at the team level do not scale to the level of enterprise. Why? The primary reason is that Genuine & Authentic Agile teams operate in safe space. Creation of enterprise-wide safe space is a non-trivial problem to solve. This is the main reason that scaling Agile results to the level of enterprise is so difficult to achieve. Creating safe space for a team is easy; creating safe space inside an entire enterprise is hard.

Safe space is essential for group-level learning. Safety is a property of a social space where it is safe to take interpersonal risk. Safe space is a social space that welcomes the best idea, regardless of the source. Safe space encourages high levels of interpersonal risk taking, such as asking for help. In work-oriented groups like software teams, safe space creates a bias towards engaged, active, group-level experimentation with many possible solutions.

The creation of safe space is achievable inside software teams of 5 to 9 people by using Agile values, Agile principles, and Agile practices. Safe space creates the potential for very high levels of rapid, group-level learning. We know how to create teams that learn; the key is the creation and maintenance of safe space. The larger question is how to engineer the creation of even wider safe spaces – at larger scales – inside our organizations.

Tribal Learning is the next step, the application of powerful team learning practices in the sweet spot – above the level of team and below the level of enterprise. Tribal Learning framework is a set of specific interaction practices that any manager can immediately deploy in pursuit of great results inside his group of direct reports. Tribal Learning effectively scales Agile results to the next level – the departmental level, the next level up from teams. This is where managers have the greatest formal and informal authority and influence. This is the sweet spot – where wider-scope cultural change is achievable and can happen quickly.

Tribal Learning is a set of tools and techniques any manager can use to influence culture in an organization intentionally. One manager using Tribal Learning can make a difference. Several managers, each with direct reports, working together – as a tribe – can strongly influence the entire culture of the enterprise.

Tribal Learning is most powerful when deployed by tribes of aligned managers and their direct reports. Tribes are groups of about 20 to about 150 people who hold a shared mental model about the tribe, the work, and the culture. Managers who work together to deploy Tribal Learning are, in fact, creating a mid-sized Learning Organization – a learning tribe. Multiple informal learning tribes can tip your entire culture in the direction of genuine, enterprise-wide learning as described by Senge.

This book is a how-to manual that provides you with everything you need to deploy Tribal Learning in your organization.

The Three Essentials of Tribal Learning

The beauty of Tribal Learning is threefold.

First, Tribal Learning builds on the well-documented success of Agile principles and practices for teams. You leverage these proven principles and practices inside the Tribal Learning framework.

Second, you need no permission or budget to implement Tribal Learning in your organization. This means you do not have to appeal to higher-ups for permission or request a budget to get started. You just start to do it right now. If you are a manager, you have already been authorized to implement Tribal Learning in your group. You do not need to ask permission. This means you can start using Tribal Learning Practices immediately. Most of the practices involve simple, small changes to the meetings that you currently convene.

Third, the Tribal Learning strategy builds on the strong social structure of informal triads, which are three-person social structures. [3] In a triad, three people function with aligned values, where each person is responsible for the quality of the relationship between the other two. In Tribal Leadership, the authors describe how to create, maintain, and sustain triads to informally organize work around shared objectives and build on their underlying shared values in pursuit of great results.

Tribal Learning is a set of tools for creating safe space, a lot of play, a lot of learning, and great results inside groups of 20 to 150 people. Tribal Learning is easy to learn, easy to explain, and easy to do. When aligned managers engage in implementing Tribal Learning together, they can tip the entire culture towards more safety, freedom, learning, and amazing results.

Figure 5 depicts the three-part framework for Tribal Learning, where we create safe space and group-level learning for managers to operate. This operational space exists just above the level of team and just below the level of enterprise. Tribal Learning is a learning framework that any manager can deploy today – alone, and with others – in pursuit of great results that will effect corresponding cultural changes. Tribal Learning builds upon a foundation of Agile practices, automatic authorization, and mid-sized, informal social networks known as tribes.

Figure 1: The Tribal Learning Framework

Tribal Learning, Part 1 – The Practices

The first component of Tribal Learning is the set of practices that are all rooted in the Agile software development community. These practices are all group-level behaviors exhibited by the very best Agile software development teams that I have observed. Most Genuine & Authentic Agile teams display all the Tribal Learning Practices, and thus support elevated levels of organizational learning in teams and tribes. Effective software teams usually contain 5 to 9 people [4]. Tribes number 20 to 150 people. Learning tribes tend to do the Tribal Learning Practices.

This community figured out how to convert typical, low-engagement teams into engaged, high-performance Learning Organizations, through outstanding work habits. Some of these habits, such as {Inspect Frequently}, are identical to standard Agile practices, while others developed because teams were doing genuine Agile and Scrum. For example, {Be Punctual} is a significant behavior that is a consequence of doing good Agile.

Agile practices and frameworks like Scrum encourage additional meta-practices, like managing your boundaries, paying explicit attention, punctuality, and so on. Agile practices like Scrum strongly support behaviors like punctuality, and vice-versa. These practices, such as facilitating your meetings, encourage very high levels of team learning. These practices are the first of the three essential parts of Tribal Learning.

Here is an example. You may recall from Figure 2 in Chapter 2 that the Scrum framework has five values. They are Focus, Commitment, Openness, Courage, and Respect. By implementing Scrum in a genuine way that honors these values, people doing Scrum begin to be more punctual. This is because punctuality strongly reinforces three of the five Scrum values: Respect, Focus, and Commitment. {Be Punctual} is a Tribal Learning practice that aligns with and supports Scrum values.

About the Author

Dan Mezick advises leaders, teams and organizations. An expert on culture design and business agility, Dan speaks frequently at industry conferences on culture change, organizational learning, and teamwork. He is an organizer of the agile CULTURE Conference, the signal event coming to Philadelphia & Boston in September of 2012. Sponsored by INFOQ, this event is keenly focused on the emerging art & science of culture design for teams and organizations. You can learn more here.

Dan's organization New Technology Solutions provides training programs, consulting & coaching to businesses of all sizes that are seeking more business agility. You can reach Dan at , by phone at 203 915 7248, via Twitter @DanMezick, or via his blog.


[1] Logan, D., King, J. P., & Fischer-Wright, H. (2008). Tribal leadership: Leveraging natural groups to build a thriving organization. New York: Collins.

[2] See the Appendix for a list of Agile-related books, links, and papers if you are new to Agile software development methods.

[3] as described in the best-selling book, Tribal Leadership – see footnote 7

[4] The phrase Seven, plus or minus two is common in Agile

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