The final season of The Walking Dead is currently airing so I thought I’d use the show’s premise – surviving the zombie apocalypse – to explain how agile teams and agile release trains (ARTs) work, as well as the difference between the two.
The executive summary is that:
- An agile team is like your family unit – your survival is integrally linked to how well you work together as a team and utilise your complementary skills to overcome your daily challenges.
- An ART is like your village – a community of family units who, when working together effectively, can achieve much more (and survive much longer) than individual family units.
- Moving from a family unit to a settlement requires giving up some autonomy but the benefits of being part of a team of teams in a settlement vastly outweighs the loss of absolute autonomy.
Let’s begin by imagining that the zombie apocalypse is upon us and civilisation as we know it has ended. What are the skills you’d need in your family unit to survive?
Off the top my head essential skills would include hunting, fighting / self-defence, foraging, cooking, edible plant knowledge, gardening / farming, carpentry, general DIY skills, medical / first aid and water purification.
It’s unlikely that any one person will possess, let along be an expert in, all of these essential skills. However, team members who are multi-skilled are more valuable to their family unit – and the more complementary skills there are in the family unit, the better are their prospects of long-term survival.
There are no job titles in the family unit – anyone can hunt for food, not just someone with the job title “hunter.” There are also no artificial organisational constraints in place about what you are allowed to hunt. For example, an inexperienced hunter is not prohibited from taking a shot at a moose because the rules state that only someone with the job title “senior hunter” is allowed to hunt moose.
You would expect the family unit to work together and mentor each other to increase their complementary skills and reduce keyperson dependencies. If you’ve only got one person with any medical knowledge and they get munched by a zombie, your family unit is in trouble.
Big decisions like “Should we stay in this location or move on?” and “Should we allow this new person to join our family unit?” are made collectively. If someone is not pulling their weight, the other members of the family unit pull them back into line quickly or they are kicked out of the team and are left to face the elements on their own. You want to know that you can rely on and trust the other people in your family unit. If someone in the family unit does something stupid it puts the whole team at risk*.
* In the zombie apocalypse genre, people do ridiculously stupid stuff all the time. This helps to move the plot along but hopefully your team members are more rational and sensible than the average survivor in The Walking Dead.
The good news is that being part of a high performing, multi-skilled family unit will drastically increase your chances of survival. The bad news is that even high performing, multi-skilled family units will eventually succumb to the diverse and relentless post-apocalyptic challenges – unless they can find a settlement. Joining a settlement radically increases your life expectancy.
There were a number of settlements that rose and fell over the course of The Walking Dead series, I am going to use the names of three of them for this illustrative example: Hilltop, Alexandria and Oceanside. For simplicity’s sake (and for those who have not watched The Walking Dead), correlations to the actual plot are tenuous.
“The whole is greater than the sum of the parts” is true for teams but even more so for a settlement (or team of teams). There is a massive compounding factor when a team of teams works effectively together. A roving family unit has complete decision-making autonomy. When a family unit becomes part of a settlement, the benefits they gain in terms of security, access to resources and personal growth opportunities far outweighs the sacrifice of absolute autonomy.
A settlement enables economies of scale and more sophisticated skills, initiatives and teams. For example, it is unlikely that a single-family unit would be able to build a furnace and forge iron even if they had someone with blacksmith skills. And the amount of effort required to build a furnace to smelt iron for a single family unit would probably not be worth the effort (because this would be done at the expense of doing other higher priority work). The majority of a family unit’s weekly capacity in the zombie apocalypse is spent on short term survival activities and there is little time and energy left over to for longer term initiatives.
However, in a settlement the chance of having someone with metalworking skills and the ability to build the technology and infrastructure to start smelting iron is far more likely. Once you can forge iron you can build better weapons, better farming implements and stronger fortifications. In addition, the forge becomes an enabler that makes other far bigger initiatives (or epics), like building a windmill, possible.
A blacksmith can take apprentices and build a team that makes the skillset sustainable. The economies of scale are there for a specialist blacksmith team who service the needs of the settlement. For our purposes, let’s say that Hilltop has a blacksmith team. This team takes direction from the other teams within the settlement to prioritise work based on the current and future needs of the settlement.
Depending on the current challenges facing Hilltop and future plans (the settlement’s vision) they decide where items like farming implements, weapons, fortification building materials, big infrastructure like a windmill and even experimental devices / inventions should be prioritised on their backlog. The prioritisation is done by the settlement with input from the blacksmith team. The blacksmith team does not have complete team autonomy on prioritisation or decision making because they are part of a larger community. However, they do still have complete autonomy over how they execute their work.
In our example we’ve got three settlements, Hilltop has the blacksmith team but Alexandria and Oceanside also need metal implements. Therefore, they place demand on the Hilltop blacksmith team. This makes prioritisation discussions more complex than in a one settlement scenario and increases the communication and planning overhead necessary to try to meet each settlement’s needs.
In the event that a single blacksmith team can adequately support all three settlements, the dependencies need to be negotiated, planned and managed amongst the three communities. For example, the windmill project where most of the build happens in Hilltop’s blacksmith team will actually be implemented at the Alexandria settlement (and all three settlements will benefit from the expected food production increase).
Perhaps the demand for blacksmith work continues to grow and it becomes apparent that the Hilltop blacksmith team has become a bottleneck as demand far exceeds their capacity to produce. Failing to address this bottleneck places all the settlements at risk so they decide to start blacksmith teams in Alexandria and Oceanside. This requires redistribution of skills – and the settlements self-organise to determine the best and most efficient way of getting functional blacksmith teams and the infrastructure to support it for Alexandria and Oceanside. As the names suggests Oceanside is a coastal settlement and, once their blacksmith team is in place, they quickly innovate around fishing tool improvements. This results in less effort to catch more fish which in turn benefits all the communities.
Medical skills pose a slightly different challenge. Every settlement would need medical support but whether this is a dedicated team or a small number of specialists would be a settlement decision. Only one settlement, let’s say Alexandria, might have a full-blooded surgery where operations and complex medical procedures for members of all three settlements are performed. The medical team members from all three settlements would self-organise into a community of practice, share knowledge and negotiate amongst themselves as to the distribution of drugs and medical equipment based on their current needs. If a foraging party from Oceanside found a large cache of surgical equipment and drugs, they’d give it to the medical team at Alexandria for use in the surgery rather than keep it themselves.
You’d expect that the Alexandria medical team would prioritise medical care and procedures in their surgery above all other work. Some of this work can be planned (like regular check-ups) but often it will be unplanned (like a zombie bit my arm and I need an emergency amputation) so they need capacity to deal with emergency situations. Although they are a specialist medical team, in quiet periods they might take on some other work like assisting to assemble our windmill or harvest crops.
There is a level of self-organisation amongst the settlements and they might agree on certain protocols like how crops are distributed between the communities. If all the settlements contributed to the construction of Alexandria’s windmill and this results in an increase in food production, they’d need to have an amicable agreement so that everyone gets to enjoy the fruits of their labour.
The settlements might also agree on quarterly Zombie Apocalypse Planning (ZAP) which involves settlements balancing their own needs with those of the greater community. An effective ZAP means that each settlement is aligned around quarterly goals – and the settlements have identified, discussed and agreed inter-dependencies.
The quarterly ZAP aligns the work that the different teams within each settlement will undertake based on their capacity and resource constraints. Prioritisation is done on the basis of, “What is best for the settlement?” The local context contributes to the prioritisation discussion. For example, if we are facing security threat from a bloodthirsty band of psychopaths or massive approaching herds of zombies, we need a different plan to periods of stability when the settlement can focus on increasing sustainable food supply, infrastructure enhancements and improving the overall quality of life within the community.
Ideally each settlement has full control over their own destiny but that is not always possible. In the case where we have one blacksmith team at Hilltop, Alexandria and Oceanside want to know that they can rely on the commitments the Hilltop blacksmith team has made even though the team is part of another settlement.
Perhaps Hilltop’s horses are loaned to Alexandria so that they can plough new fields in line with the windmill crop expansion. Alexandria might borrow Hilltop’s agricultural architecture to accelerate their farming scheme. Perhaps Oceanside has a mechanical engineer who is seconded to Alexandria for the duration on the windmill’s manufacture and assembly. Once the windmill is up and running, the engineer returns to her normal role at Oceanside and one of the onsite Alexandria teams assumes responsibility for the windmill’s ongoing maintenance and support.
After the quarterly ZAP, the teams within the settlements go off and execute their plans, periodically checking in with each other on progress. If an impediment arises, they work together to resolve or remove it. Perhaps a specialist part is needed for the windmill so the foraging teams of all three settlements agree to reprioritise their future expeditions to hunt down the elusive part as quickly as possible.
Perhaps everything is going according to plan but halfway through the quarterly ZAP our Alexandria survivors get wind of a massive herd of approaching zombies. Time to respond to change over following a plan! The settlement reorganises around the unplanned threat and sacrifices some of the ZAP’s objectives to deal with the new zombie problem. In some cases, the threat might be large enough that all three settlements need to realign around a new plan until the pesky zombies are dealt with.
The immediate needs of the settlement trump roles and job titles. I might specialise in horticulture but these skills are no longer needed when zombies come crashing through the gates. I’m a farmer not a fighter but fighting is what my settlement needs me to do right now. So I suboptimize for the good of the community, pick up my pitchfork (recently smelted by the Hilltop’s blacksmith team) and to put it to use composting zombie brains.
Although there might be some overarching rules between the three settlements, the majority of decisions, rules and conventions would be at a settlement level. For example, in the show, Oceanside is a female only community (and there are solid local context reasons for this). However, they might relax the rule temporarily if, for example, a large fishing vessel washes up but needs some specialist skills that only a couple of Hilltop men possess so that they can repair the boat and get it seaworthy again. Over time, Oceanside might decide to become an integrated multi-gender settlement but this would be Oceanside’s decision alone.
Alexandria might be a closed community that does not allow any new inhabitants whereas Hilltop does allow new residents provided they meet certain criteria, pass certain tests and the existing community is happy for them to join. However, new Hilltop residents may have to give up their guns for a specific period of time (and they’d probably have rules like people with mental health issues are not allowed guns at all). Essentially each settlement is self-organising and self-governing, with the citizens determining what works best for them to maximise their health, welfare and future survival.
The corporate jungle poses slightly different challenges to those trying to survive the zombie apocalypse but the same concepts apply. You can achieve small wins with an agile team but your luck will eventually run out or you’ll hit a blocker beyond the team’s abilities, no matter how high-performing and skilled the team. The best way to change the world and ensure the long-term survival of your organisation is to establish self-organising, self-managing settlements.
According to the old African proverb, “It takes a village to raise a child”. Similarly, it takes a village (or settlement) to survive the zombie apocalypse – and it also takes a village (or agile release train / team of teams) to successfully sustain the delivery of products and services in a complex environment.
Whether your current challenges are slow, lurching zombies in a dystopian future or fast, nimble competitors in the digital age, failing to scale your agile teams into self-organising settlements is a problem that is guaranteed to come back to bite you.
About the author: Stuart Mann is an agile coach at the Vitality Group who likes to write (and talk) about running marathons and agile. Vitality Group’s core purpose is to make people healthier and to enhance and protect their lives. We started our agile journey in September 2021 using the Scaled Agile Framework and have just split into three Agile Release Trains. If you’re interested in joining our team, click here for international employment opportunities or here for South African employment opportunities within the Discovery group.
Photo credits: All photos in this article are from the AMC produced series The Walking Dead. You can watch the full series on Disney+.
- This is a slide I use during training to enhance the explanation of agile teams and ARTs: Walking Dead & ARTs slide
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