Chapter Leadership 

What is a chapter? 

According to the original paper about Spotify’s engineering culture and design by Henrik Kniberg: 

The chapter is your small family of people having similar skills and working within the same general competency area, within the same tribe. 

Examples might be: 

  • Developers 
  • Quality Assurance people 
  • Business Analysts 
  • UXers 
  • Product Owners 
  • Scrum Masters 
  • Coaches 

As Henrik notes: 

Wait a sec, isn’t this just a matrix org? Yes. Well, sort of. It’s a different type of matrix than what most of us are used to though. In many matrix organizations people with similar skills are “pooled” together into functional departments, and “assigned” to projects, and “report to” a functional manager. Spotify rarely does any of this. Our matrix is weighted towards delivery. That is, people are grouped into stable co-located squads, where people with different skill sets collaborate and self-organize to deliver a great product. That’s the vertical dimension in the matrix, and it is the primary one since that is how people are physically grouped and where they spend most of their time. The horizontal dimension is for sharing knowledge, tools, and code. The job of the chapter lead is to facilitate and support this. 

What is chapter leadership? 

I define it as: 

Stewarding a group of similarly skilled people or a functional group toward greater mastery. 

From Henrik: 

The job of the chapter lead is to facilitate and support this (sharing knowledge, tools, and code)… In matrix terms, think of the vertical dimension as “what” and the horizontal dimension as “how”. The matrix structure ensures that each squad member can get guidance on “what to build next” as well as “how to build it well”.

 

This matches the “professor and entrepreneur” model recommended by Mary and Tom Poppendieck. The PO is the “entrepreneur” or “product champion”, focusing on delivering a great product, while the chapter lead is the “professor” or “competency leader”, focusing on technical excellence. 

There is a healthy tension between these roles, as the entrepreneur tends to want to speed up and cut corners, while the professor tends to want to slow down and build things properly. Both aspects are needed, that’s why it is a “healthy” tension. 

From Aaron De Smet @McKinsey:

Each chapter leader is responsible for building a capability: hiring, firing, and developing talent; shepherding people along their career paths; evaluating and promoting people; and building standard tools, methods, and ways of working. The chapters must also deploy their talented people to the appropriate squads (teams), based on their expertise and demonstrated competence. In essence, chapters are responsible for the “how” of a company’s work. However, once talent is deployed to an agile team, the chapter leaders do not tell people what to work on, nor do they set priorities, assign work or tasks, or supervise the day-to-day. 

How to lead 

First, chapter leadership doesn’t need to be done by one person. Nor does it even need to be done by someone with positional authority, like a manager. Goals should be to share across delivery-team boundaries. 

When we consider chapters as being places of learning, we see how important it is to that core intrinsic motivator of mastery. And we know that healthy learning environments are psychologically safe. So creating safety should be a primary concern of a chapter leader.

Who leads? 

Typically, people in management roles assume chapter leadership. That said, positional authority isn’t required; in fact, any positional authority needs to be at least balanced with personal power, such as expert power. Leadership can be rotated or shared by multiple people. 

One role of chapter leaders is to make people aware of the existence of good kaizen examples so that they can go see for themselves, gain the knowledge and improve upon it further. This is the role of curator. An important subtlety: Some managers may be in the mindset of curating practices but then telling their colleagues to copy them or enforcing “best practices” on them. This transgresses the idea of respect for and development of people and isn’t really the spirit of creating a learning environment. 

Options 

  • Rotate someone to share each meeting on a topic. 
  • Meet regularly as a group. Monthly is usually appropriate. 
  • Coaching dojos, a place to practice with each other and get feedback in safety.
  • Create competency models (perhaps pair with HR or talent development) and supporting learning pathways
  • Make experiment boards, share learnings at chapter meetings

Yokoten: Horizontal Deployment

One of the organizational benefits that chapters provide is encapsulated in the Lean/Japanese word yokoten. Yokoten means sharing learning laterally across an organization. According to Mark Graber:

It entails sharing and improving on kaizen ideas that work. You can think of yokoten as “horizontal deployment” or “sideways expansion.” 

Yokoten is horizontal and peer-to-peer, with the expectation that people go see for themselves and learn how another area did kaizen and then improve on those kaizen ideas in the application to their local problems.

It’s not a vertical, top-down requirement to “copy exactly”. Nor is it a “best practices” or “benchmarking” approach nor is it as some organizations refer to a “lift and shift” model. Rather, it is a process where people are encouraged to go see for themselves and return to their own area to add their own wisdom and ideas to the knowledge they gained.

An effective Yokoten process is a critical step to building capacity within the organization and becoming a true learning organization. It truly is one of the capabilities of outstanding organizations.

Chapters provide this horizontal deployment of ideas, competencies and innovation.

Sources and Resources