Squads, tribes and guilds: Is agile management the future of the workplace?

By Business & Finance
15 August 2017
Agile management squads tribes guilds

Agile management processes, beloved by start-ups, have shown significant productivity gains, writes David Burke.

Dave Burke

David Burke, Director, Harvey Nash

With words like squads, tribes and guilds, you would be forgiven for thinking this was about rugby or even Game of Thrones – but not quite. In fact, these are terms used in describing a new style of management process that is popping up in business: agile. When we say ‘new’ management system, agile has actually been around since the ‘70s and ‘80s, when Japanese companies such as Toyota and Fuji first implemented it.

That being said, recently more and more start-up companies are jumping on the bandwagon and seeing the benefits that agile management processes can bring to their business. Music streaming giants Spotify are a good case in point. However, what exactly is agile management, what advantages does it bring to companies and how does leadership work within the system?

Before we get into the nitty-gritty of agile processes, it is important to understand the key terms related to it. I know what you are thinking – business management has enough jargon surrounding it not to need a whole new lexicon of terms. To make things easier, I have tried to give a simplified version of some essentials you need to know about agile processes.

Agile Management

In a nutshell, agile management involves the division of a company into small teams of employees, each one acting like a start-up in its own right. The aim is to change the way in which your company runs to meet the ever-changing demands of the global market. There is even an ‘Agile Manifesto,’ which highlights the key messages behind the system – including self-organisation, collaboration and cross-functionality of teams.


The individual teams that make up a company in agile management are known as squads. The idea is that each squad has its own defined goal, which they work towards autonomously. Each squad has a ‘product owner’: they prioritise work to be done. However, they don’t tell employees how to work. Squad members also have access to an ‘agile coach’ to keep them up to date and well informed.


A tribe is the name given to a collection of squads working together. They can be seen as an incubator for the mini start-up squads in your company. Tribes will usually not exceed more than around 100 employees.


The idea behind guilds is that they glue the company together and ensure you avoid losing economies of scale without sacrificing too much autonomy. In other words, guilds allow for cross-referencing between squads.

Why do it?

Of course, this is only a taster of the agile management system – there are many more elements – but the big question is: why bother with agile processes?

Well, Wipro Consultants claim that the adoption of agile processes increases productivity by a massive 87%. Furthermore, there is no doubt that agile processes reduce bureaucracy and paperwork while prioritising face-to-face communication over hordes of documentation.

The entire team creates a shared mental model that they can all agree on and move forward on

The very nature of the agile system is designed to encourage flexibility, innovation and creativity – attributes that are quickly becoming essentials for any dynamic workplace in this day and age. Its proponents argue that the rigid structures of standard management systems are not capable of meeting the needs of the modern workplace where employees value company culture and flexible working conditions more than ever.

Distribution over Delegation

The whole system greatly changes the leadership structure within your company – especially as squads have no hierarchy. For the traditional company, this can be a daunting prospect. How do you ensure employees aren’t slacking off? If everyone is equal, how do workers map a career path? Who is in place to delegate tasks? These are just a few of the possible concerns with implementing agile processes. The key is that decision-making is distributed among the team as opposed to delegated by a select few.

The adoption of agile processes increases productivity by a massive 87%

This has clear advantages: the team will be more productive and motivated as everyone is on a level playing field working towards a commonly defined goal. In addition, processes will be quicker and more efficient, and workers will benefit from a more inclusive and dynamic company culture.

Focus on the ‘Best Bits’

There is no doubt that agile processes can help a company become more versatile and productive. However, the implementation of agile processes shouldn’t follow a broad-brush approach. The most important thing to remember is that the term agile management is subjective and should be interpreted to suit your business. Companies should mix and match the best bits of the agile processes according to your business needs.

Kanban & the can-do attitude

A visual system devised by Toyota in the late 1940s is still an integral part of agile team management.

The original kanban system, developed by an industrial engineer in Toyota’s car manufacturing plant in the 1940s, involved using coloured cards to signal to workers further down the production line in order to control the supply chain.

Today agile teams use scrum boards and kanban boards to visually represent tasks and workflow with ‘to do’, ‘in progress’ and ‘done’ categories. They can take the form of physical whiteboards for the whole team, individual freestanding desktop boards or digital boards (like the Trello app). While there are differences between the pure scrum and kanban sytems, the ethos of the boards can be distilled into use for all sorts of teams to manage projects.

One of the key differences is that the scrum system uses ‘sprints’ – defined amounts of time to produce a product or complete the to do tasks before beginning the next sprint.

Many people still believe that the old-fashioned whiteboard is best, as working with physical objects can create greater engagement. Information designer Ted Wujec, in his Ted Talk on ‘Three ways the brain creates meaning’, says: “The act of engaging and looking at the image creates the meaning… the act of engaging and creating interactive imagery enriches meaning.” He explains: “We make meaning by seeing, by an act of visual interrogation. Lessons for us are threefold. First: use images to clarify what we are trying to communicate. Secondly, make those images interactive so that we engage much more fully. Third: augment memory by creating a visual persistence.” He shows an example of how his organisation works, drawing out their entire strategic plan on one giant wall. “The act of collectively and collaboratively building the image transforms the collaboration… but instead the entire team creates a shared mental model that they can all agree on and move forward on.”