The Family Pattern for Team Collaboration

This post is the third in a series on scaling Agile. It continues the comparison between the base unit of scaling, the team, and the base unit of society — the family — which was started in my last post, Why Focus on the Team Rather than the Individual?

In the workplace, collaboration happens on teams, but we first learned to collaborate as children, as members of families.

The family pattern for team collaborationThe family is not only where collaboration is first learned, it’s also where collaboration naturally occurs, where for us humans it first evolved. We were born with the ability to collaborate just as we were born with the ability to speak. All we need is to be situated in our natural environment, the family, and collaboration will naturally occur. By modelling our workplace collaboration on the family pattern for team collaboration, we follow the most natural, the most robust, the most successful — indeed, the mother of all collaboration.

The family profile

The family is strongly aligned on a shared purpose: Survival. It doesn’t get much more compelling than that. Alignment is so strong that family members have a collective identity, including a shared name. Family members are mutually dependent and devoted to mutual welfare. They also are cross-functional, including at the very least the distinct roles of mother, father, and child. Families are small and persistent, lasting for a long time. Families are amazingly robust and resilient. When the family is able to develop over time, members naturally develop strong bonds, deep trust, and intimate communication. Once family bonds develop, families can survive outrageous misfortunes, including the death of members and years of separation.

The family environment

Families exist within a shared inviolate sanctuary, where members can “be themselves” and freely communicate without fear of censure by outsiders. The shared intimacy of the family space is a private domain separated from the public world.

The family manages its own affairs and creates its own rules with little outside interference. We usually assume that when greater society intervenes in family affairs something is seriously wrong with the family or the society.

Family as system

Family systemFamily members form relationships that cohere into a holistic system that maintains dynamic equilibrium. The well-being of each family member depends upon the others. Small changes with one member can result in big and surprising changes elsewhere in the family.

Like all systems, the family is defined by a boundary that unifies its constituents and separates it from the rest of the world. The family system emerges as the members self-organize through their interactions, and as the family responds to ever-changing external conditions. The family establishes a shared culture or character that is more than the simple addition of the personalities of its members.

From our above discussion of the family, we can abstract the family pattern for team collaboration as six success criteria for establishing healthy teams.

The family pattern (for team collaboration): 6 success criteria

1. Small – Teams should be family-sized (>2; < 10).

The small size is needed because deep collaboration requires intimate communication and intimate communication does not scale. This is a key reason why scaling Agile requires integrating many small teams rather than increasing team size.

2. Long lasting – Teams should be built to persist.

People need time to develop into teams. However, once they do, their performance increases exponentially compared to what they could do individually (if at all). Team performance should also improve over time. Agile teams should be treated as business assets with enduring business value, not as operational expenses. Like all business assets, they are investments managed to produce an optimal future return.

3. Clear boundaries – Clarity on who is on the team, what the team controls, and what the team is responsible for.

If team membership never stabilizes and the team can be penetrated at will by outsiders, then it will be difficult to create the environment necessary for the team to make significant commitments to each other or the broader organization.

4. Shared objective and purpose – The team needs to willingly agree to commit to a common objective or purpose.

Without a shared objective it will be difficult for team members to work through dissent and develop the consensus necessary for meaningful progress.

5. Private, shared space – A place the team can work together without external disruptions.

The team needs a shared environment and privacy to build the trust and relationships necessary for effective collaboration and that shields them from external disruptions.

6. Empowered – The team is able to organically self-organize and create their own procedures and policies.

Without the ability to self-determine, the team will have difficulty getting aligned, making collective commitments, and forming a collective identity.

7. Single team assignment – Each team member is dedicated full-time to one team.

There are exceptions: Specialists such as DBAs or UX experts may be shared across teams. However, team members mostly need to be dedicated. Multiple assignments inevitably leads to unresolvable conflicts, unmeaningful commitments, and lack of empowerment.

Organizations that wish to scale Agile to large programs must first assure that the conditions needed to develop healthy teams exist and will be preserved. By conforming to the family pattern for team collaboration, organizations can be assured that they create an environment that is not only suitable for healthy team development but in many respects is the optimal collaborative environment because it emulates how collaboration naturally occurs.

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 United States License.