Tribes at work – proximity and culture rule in the age of tech

A recent study by The Atlantic via BoingBoing called my attention recently: people on conference calls don’t pay attention. They send email (63%), eat (55%), sit on the throne (47%), go on social media (43%) or shop (21%).

Conference call distractions

This got me thinking about a study I have recently led at work, looking at ways in which successful Digital organisations operate. One of the most surprising findings has been the strong correlation between working together in a shared cultural unit and business success.

The “two-pizza” team  pioneered by Amazon has become the norm, evolved along the way into a myriad variants. Superficially, these are small teams. Under the bonnet, these are groups of people from all areas of the business who come together to deliver a focused result (what Amazon used to call their fitness function). What’s most remarkable about this type of organisational unit is that they are not grouped by skill or division (such as tech, Marketing, finance, etc) but are multidisciplinary teams who share a common, clearly defined goal such as the success of a particular piece of functionality. Organised this way, the teams share accountability, autonomy and ownership. Teams of this size are less likely to need status update meetings and each compact team is extremely focused on improving individual aspects of user interface or experience.

2-pizza teams

In time, these transient tribes develop their own language and culture, grounded in that of the parent company but peppered with particular aspects evolved from their constant interaction. This in turn promotes their sense of belonging and a healthy competitive streak as they compare themselves with the wider corporate society that they are part of. Social media becomes a tool to augment conversation, not to replace it: in such an environment, conference calls are a thing of the past. The efficiency gained from this alone must surely be worth millions.