Tribal Knowledge In Agile Teams

Agile Teams

Close knit agile teams are capable of delivering at a high velocity, navigating complex tasks, and reacting correctly to ever-changing environments. They are self-managing and able to fill whatever gap exists with the required knowledge to complete a task. One of the primary reasons for this success and longevity is that the team has accrued what is known as tribal or cult knowledge over time. The amount of tribal knowledge on a team is typically related to the amount of time a team has spent together and/or the amount of experience they have with a given project. As a result of this, teams document less simply because they know what they need to and can communicate it to those who do not. Tribal knowledge can be both a strong benefit and a hazard for teams. Teams that can navigate this tight rope correctly, typically, are very high performing. 

The best way to begin effectively sharing knowledge throughout a team is to actively find a way to burn down silos of information. If a ticket gets assigned to a particular person because they know a given integration best, a silo exists. If a ticket does not get assigned to someone because someone else could do that task faster or with a higher quality, a silo exists. The best way to knock down a silo like this is to find the individuals on the team who know the most and  least and have them work together to accomplish the task. As a side note, this gets particularly challenging in agencies where resourcing and client budgets come to the forefront. However, the argument could be made that over time the benefits to destroying silos will make up for the additional cost upfront to share information throughout the team.

While it sounds great on the surface, there are definitely challenges to an approach that puts more emphasis on communication over documentation. Teams are fluid. Individuals come and go over time. As new team members are added, onboarding becomes more of a hands-on process when there is less documentation to review. Or, sometimes the documentation available is actually rather out of date. This results in wasted effort when things are unintentionally done the wrong way. On the flip side, team members who leave also cause challenges. The team member may take information with them that is going to be useful down the road. Legacy implementations all have nuances, and understanding those is key to maintaining them effectively. What happens when the most knowledgeable person for a given integration goes and a bug arises six months later? Also, sometimes the most knowledgeable person is on the team but they are wrapped up in something else. With little to no documentation available, interrupting them or waiting for them both lead to inefficiencies.

In summary, tribal knowledge can be key for some teams and a hindrance for others. Understanding the team and what makes them efficient is very important. Some teams use documentation frequently, and some teams like to just chat it out. Both are viable options for success. Implementing a methodology that will be ineffective over time is only going to lead to waste. However, if the team is up to the challenge, find some silos of information within the team and destroy them. Oftentimes, they are easier to find than expected.