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Squads, pods, cells? Making sense of Agile teams

Workers are now organized in new types of groups as a result of the movement known as Agile at scale. However, to succeed, the changes have to be more than in name only.

As more companies adopt Agile principles to move fast, stay competitive and engage in digital transformation -- also known as Agile at scale -- they're changing how they group their workers together.

There are Agile teams, which are often capitalized to distinguish the Agile Team from the rest, and then there are pods, cells, squads and pools; prides, packs and cohorts; and guilds, chapters and tribes. There are even some flocks and villages working out there. Those leading these groups may be Scrum masters, shepherds or mentors -- or maybe just old-fashioned managers and bosses.

All of these terms represent a way of structuring workers, particularly those focused on delivering technology capabilities either in enterprise IT or at technology companies. The idea is to have cohesive, tight-knit groups of workers that solve real business needs in a faster, most efficient manner.

While the objective is simple enough, for many organizations, the move to Agile can be confusing. It requires a move away from traditional departments and hierarchical structures to these more egalitarian worker groups -- a move that has created a new set of terms for Agile teams that are often misunderstood or even misrepresented.

"In IT, we love our framework. And every framework introduces some new vocabulary, and it can be confusing," said Jayne Groll, CEO of the DevOps Institute, a global member-based association.

Agile teams: Different names, same concepts

Some of the terms can be -- and are indeed -- used to represent the same concepts, but that is not always the case.

Look at some of the options for organizing workers:

A Team is a small group of people tasked with the development and maintenance of a specific product, project or initiative. They work in sprints, or short segments of time -- usually mere weeks in the world of software development, developing a new piece of their product at the end of that time.

Different sources give varying details of the origin of the term Team with the capital T, but many point to the Scrum Guide as having solidified the definition. A Team generally has three to nine members working with a Scrum master, who guides the team and a product owner. The Team shares accountability for the product's success.

A squad is similar to a Team. The term, as it applies to organizing workers, comes from the music streaming service Spotify, which developed its own version of Scrum, now commonly known as the Spotify Model.

"Spotify uses Scrum, but they renamed Team to be a squad, because, No. 1, they wanted to create a level of ownership, and, No. 2, they wanted to add their own nuances to Scrum," said Dave West, CEO and product owner of Scrum.org, which provides comprehensive training, assessments and certifications.

The Spotify Model also created guilds, chapters and tribes. A tribe consists of multiple teams, all of which work on products in the same functional area.

You have to support your teams, whether it's with guilds or chapters or something else. And you need to incentivize people to work in a team and make sure the incentives don't undermine transparency.
Dave WestCEO and product owner of Scrum.org

Meanwhile, individual workers also belong to guilds -- communities where people share information around similar interest -- and chapters, where people who do similar work can come together to hone their expertise, in addition to working in their squads. Workers can, in fact, belong to more than one guild or chapter.

"These chapters and guilds make the ability to interact more flexible," Groll said.

Team and squad are the most commonly used terms for the small groups of individuals working in an Agile fashion, but there are a slew of other terms, such as cells and packs, used to describe groups of workers. Experts said these terms generally represent the same concepts as Team, squad, chapter and guild, with some of these alternative terms being developed by individual companies or groups to put their own unique mark on Agile concepts.

"The spirit is very much the same, but there are some subtle differences," Groll said.

For example, Capgemini, in an article from March 2017, used team and pool to describe groups of people, with a team consisting of workers "with a full set of complementary skills" and a pool being a group of workers "with the same skill set." A pod, it said, is a "cross-functional and multidisciplinary team."

Business needs drove new work structure

The need to react quickly to market demands and to transform into a digital organization drove the rise of these autonomous, self-organizing workgroups. "It all comes out of need for speed," Groll said.

However, West said some CIOs, IT departments and organizations, as a whole, adopt the Agile team terminology without actually reorganizing their employees.

"They take their existing departmental structure and call that a tribe. So, they've renamed it, but it's the same as always," West said.

That is not enough for success or transformation. Experts said companies cant just rebrand the same old way of working; they truly need to rethink how they put workers together in Agile teams if they want to move fast.

"You've got to align your teams to real customers and real customer problems. If you don't do that, it doesn't work," West said. "You have to support your teams, whether it's with guilds or chapters or something else. And you need to incentivize people to work in a team and make sure the incentives don't undermine transparency. It doesn't matter what you call them, to some extent. But, because of all this confusion, it's important to be very explicit on what people mean by these terms."

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