In the 2010s, a new Swedish way of organising product development work took the tech industry by storm. Henrik Kniberg's whitepaper about scaling agile – full of hip new words like "squads" – was the defining management fad of the decade. If you're in tech, you probably have fond memories of a day some five or six years ago when you found out you and your colleagues were soon to be re-organised according to this model.
Some of us were so impressed that we were inspired to emigrate - leaving behind our families, friends, and favourite burrito places - and go to work for the company where the model originated. Many of us were astonished by the contrast between Sweden and the countries we’d left behind. World-leading union membership levels had won a level of dignity for workers here that was unimaginable back home. Six months of parental leave on full pay is commonplace here thanks to unions.
We didn’t have a collective agreement of our own back then. We didn’t much care either. We were more excited about that world famous agile methodology. And besides, we still benefited from the herd immunity of all the other Swedish companies’ collective agreements, since matching those collectively bargained compensation packages was a prerequisite of competing for talent in Sweden.
The 2010s are behind us now, and the 2020s are shaping up to be quite a different kind of decade. One thing I want to carry forward, though, is Sweden being an exporter of cool, progressive ways to improve organisations. For the 2020s, Sweden’s 70% nationwide union membership is what the world should be copying.
To explain why, I want to share this modern reimagining of that infamous 2012 scaling agile whitepaper, and try to bridge the union knowledge gap using ideas we’re already familiar with in tech. Just like the whitepaper was back then, this is somewhat aspirational. My colleagues and I haven’t achieved our collective agreement yet. This is the way for us to help keep Sweden at the vanguard of the tech industry, and give our employer a chance to enjoy another ten years as the most exciting, relevant and influential employer brand.
Command and control
We need to lay down some foundations first to create some perspective for the model itself, so let’s begin with a completely blank slate. Here's a hypothetical company with 24 employees.
The individual worker is the basic indivisible unit of this org chart. Each one sells their labour power to the employer in exchange for a salary.
The most simplistic organisational model is direct command and control, where the employer assigns tasks to each individual worker one by one. Here’s an illustration that visualises the employer’s line of communication with the workers under the command and control model.
Looks like absolute chaos, right? Siloing each worker like this would disincentivise collaboration and inhibit the formation of communities. People facing similar challenges wouldn't build relationships with each other, so opportunities to share experiences and uncover economies of scale would be missed. Nonexistent collaboration would lead to significant duplication of effort. The lack of transparency would breed suspicion and resentment about fairness. And if a worker became ill, for example, whatever tasks they were responsible for would simply stop happening. Bottom line: you'd make less money this way.
This approach to management is not trendy at all. Capital recognises that workers achieve better outcomes through organisation. Workers agree.
Let’s assume the different arrow colours in the diagram above represent different business goals that the tasks contribute to. Under Henrik Kniberg’s model we should get the people with the same mission together in squads and give those squads ownership of that mission instead of assigning each individual task from the top down. So let’s get our re-org started and set up some squads.
Company owners who are accustomed to the command-and-control model can find this quite a scary transition. And it’s understandable. Superficially, it’s a lot of power to relinquish. And all those new squads have leaders insisting on new things like autonomy and ownership, which initially feels more like a challenge to their central authority than a new kind of collaboration.
The results are impossible to argue with though. The increased engagement alone is worth equivalent to a doubling of the headcount. Workers pool their knowledge and discover that each individual had their own unique workflows and workarounds. The best workflows spread now, and everything speeds up.
The company owners discover that they have a lot more free time. Under command-and-control, workers required their constant attention. Each time a task was completed, a new one had to be assigned immediately. This reactive work ate up most of their time, reducing their availability for initiatives to explore potential new sources of value.
In exchange for a bit of trust and autonomy, the workers are able to deliver a significant increase in surplus value to the employer. Everyone's happy. The employer can grow the business, and the workers are that little bit less alienated from their product.
We're not finished yet, though. The dependencies and relationships between the squads are important, but this org design doesn't address them yet. If one squad needs something from another, but they're busy on another project, what takes priority? How do we ensure that the squad missions are working towards a coherent overall goal? Is that the company owner's job?
Continuing our re-org, let's identify our squads with related areas and put them in tribes accordingly. Our imaginary company has two. They're quite small for tribes really, but this model is all about scaling anyway so let's assume there are big expansion plans for both tribes.
This extra organisational layer maximises the strategic impact of the work of the squads. Tribe leads have a very broad perspective of the tribe's business context, enabling them to identify opportunities that may not be apparent at the lower level to product managers in squads.
It also further streamlines the communication between the employer and the workers.
The broader missions of tribes means they operate on longer timelines than squads. This enables employers to set a long-term goal and make the tribe leads accountable for delivering it. It deepens the strategic maturity of the company's operations, which are now unrecognisable compared to the command-and-control model from the beginning.
The incredible popularity of this model throughout the 2010s demonstrates that employers and workers understand that organised, autonomous groups of workers can deliver superior outcomes as compared to siloed individuals. Some of us felt strongly enough about the importance of this that it played a role in convincing us to move to Sweden to be a part of it.
But this old model only covers the employer's side of the business relationship. And employers are right to focus on their side: running a successful product development company is very difficult. Applying the lessons of this model to the workers' side of the relationship to meet the challenges of the new decade is our responsibility as workers. Only we can do it.
In much of the world, it's still considered normal to manage the worker's side of the business relationship with the command-and-control model. Each worker negotiates the terms of their employment individually with the employer, with very little transparency. Cooperation between employees is discouraged in favour of maximising the employer's influence.
This has the same inferior outcomes in this context as it does for product development.
The absence of a clear organisational channel to communicate about shared challenges leads to significant duplication of effort. Without a structured way to negotiate, workers resort to a system of ad-hoc petitions and word-of-mouth pressure campaigns. Each time workers undertake one of these campaigns they have to repeat time-consuming networking and promotional work.
For the employers, responding to these petitions is reactive work that's impossible to manage satisfactorily. Without a defined negotiation period, there's no way to get a holistic look at the workers' full set of demands. Last month they wanted reforms to the stock option program. This month they want to change how the fitness stipend works.
Put yourself in the employer's shoes and imagine trying to decide if this current request is the right one to fund. You can't fund them all. How do you know there isn't a more impactful and cheaper request coming next month that you'll regret not waiting for? The workers don't even know that themselves yet, because they're completely disorganised.
This is a solved problem, and the solution is the Swedish collective agreement system. Let's re-org our workers one more time. This time, they're joining a union.
This is an easy re-org compared to the squads and tribes. For one, it creates an order of magnitude fewer new leadership roles. Also, because the workers are very happy with their current terms, the initial collective agreement is easy to achieve.
Just like the transition from the command-and-control approach to product development, this moment is understandably a little scary on the employer's side. And the results are just as impossible to argue with: unions are how Sweden so successfully balances the needs of its workers and its employers, leading the world in quality of life and innovation simultaneously.
In our imaginary company, the chaos of the command-and-control model is gone, and the lines of communication between the employer and the workers are significantly streamlined.
The union's ownership of its mission empowers it to develop a deep understanding of the workers' current likes and dislikes about their working conditions. These can then be collected together, prioritised, and negotiated over in a structured way each time the previous collective agreement expires.
The holistic perspective of the workers' requests means the employer is more readily able to respond to them. The commitment to peace once the agreement is signed gives them a guarantee that there really isn't another set of requests just around the corner. That certainty empowers them to give workers more in return for their labour.
The time is now
My colleagues have inspired the world before. For years after I moved to Sweden, I would periodically hear from yet another friend back home in the UK whose employer was adopting Henrik Kniberg's agile model. It felt like the whole UK was doing squads and tribes at one point.
Thatcherism mortally wounded the union movement in the UK, kicking off a political crisis that's still smouldering today. Union membership levels back home seem to have finally hit rock bottom after decades of decline. What I really want right now is for my colleagues in Sweden to inspire all my friends back home one more time and kickstart their recovery.
If they see us do it, they might do it too. We hold tremendous power in our hands right now. We can be part of a hugely consequential international tipping point if we can find the will to use that power. Many of us packed up our entire lives and moved countries to be a part of the old model. So we already know we're brave enough to do a quick Bank ID signup for this new one.