Writing by Peter Hilton

Call a team a team

Rejecting bro culture and gratuitous culture hacking 2023-09-05 #culture


When I talk about work, I often talk about the team, and how we work together. In some companies, especially during rapid growth, you spend a lot of time talking about teams in general: team structures, team dynamics, and even team topologies. Some companies complicate this topic by having more than just teams.

Matrix organisation

Companies often introduce a more complex structure than a simple hierarchy. In addition to their place in the hierarchy, people belong to other groups, such as specialism-based communities of practice.

Matrix management introduced this idea of structuring an organisation by more than one of business unit, product line, job function, geography, etc. People in a matrix organisation report to more than one manager, as a result of belonging to more than one of these groups, in addition to their main team. But some companies have decided that they don’t have teams.

Culture hacking

Companies use culture hacking to tweak the employee experience with (often small) intentional changes, such as in-house jargon and employee perks. Unfortunately, companies endlessly imitate each other until the hacks become tasteless clichés: table tennis/football in the break room, and adopting a new words for team.

A famous example in tech originates in a report about Scaling Agile @ Spotify (PDF), which describes organising teams into an overlapping matrix of:

Despite the authors’ warning that their article described a ‘current way of working - a journey in progress’, the Spotify model meme became endemic in agile software development circles. Today, we see the meme’s success in the number of companies that have copied its team naming (but not necessarily the agility).

Sport and military team types

The least tasteful examples of abandoning the word team feature military jargon:

This jargon reflects deeply entrenched (!) warfare metaphors in business, along with targets, campaigns and market penetration. Sometimes, CEOs even tell staff to prepare for ‘wartime’.

Military metaphors further inspire the sport jargon that companies also like to adopt. For example, IT consultancies typically refer to staff as on the bench between assignments. Software development teams often like to adopt sports team names, typically based on wild animals (not the cute kind).

While I consider sport metaphors in business less tasteless than military metaphors, I’d hardly call them inclusive. Meanwhile, bro-culture and culture hacking combine to replace team with arbitrary meaningless synonyms.

Words mean things

In an similar vein, Martin Fowler questions our metaphors, focusing on the trap of identifying software development with another profession:

I’m very suspicious of using metaphors of other professions to reason about software development. In particular, I believe the engineering metaphor has done our profession damage

Fowler warns against the danger of trying to follow metaphors and analogies too closely. Similarly, many alternative team type names hinder the sense of belonging that a good team creates. When you reflect on how you and your colleagues organise yourselves and your work, start from what the word team means, not from some military, sport or feudal medieval analogy. In particular, question the suggestion that you and the people who you work with every day shouldn’t proudly call yourselves a team.

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