Tribalization at SumUp

Let us first start by taking you on a short journey back in time. In 2018 we had great ambition to scale our products and our team, however in reality we were a 1-product company. Let us take you back even further, to 2012, SumUp was born out of a thirst for disruption, a desire to disrupt the establishment and serve - with absolute focus - the underserved small merchants whose businesses craved flexible fintech solutions. As we grew we began to have teams across SumUp who had contributed to creating a very successful 1-product company and they wanted to do more, but they couldn’t, not without breaking the 1-product that we had. It was clear that we wanted to be able to empower these teams to start building the future for our merchants and start to work on providing more solutions in order to help our merchants grow their businesses. We began a period of mitosis (a strategic initiative objective is to enable a parallel and autonomous development of the core Sumup service) and eventually tribalization.

In 2018 we came together as a team to figure out how to move forward. We defined what SumUp is and what we wanted it to become and then we set off on a path to create Tribes. Essentially they would be teams that would have freedom to realize their vision of the next SumUp products, whilst being clear on the values, overall vision and maintaining collaboration & teamwork across SumUp.

Once we had defined this and began to explore what Tribalization could look like for us, we kick started an agile transformation to give ourselves the skills to be able to work in these Tribes. A Tribe is really a team that owns one or more distinct ‘Value Streams’ (A value stream is the set of actions that take place to add value to a customer from the initial request through realization of value by the customer. The value stream begins with the initial concept, moves through various stages of development and on through delivery and support. 

For example, the Acquisition Tribe delivers value along two main streams: it empowers the marketing teams around the world to use its tools for better customer acquisition and also ensures that each merchant has a smooth sign-up and purchase experience. While the Hardware Tribe designs, engineers and produces the world’s best hardware to make our card-present merchants more successful, the Online Payments Tribe empowers partners (the main one of which is currently SumUp itself) with its online payments tools and services. As a final example, the Platform Tribe exists to provide infrastructure, tools, services and best-practices to all other tribes.

For our tribes to be successful we believe in autonomy and collaboration even over efficiency and synchronization. For tribes to be autonomous in their decision-making we expect that they commit to the Advice Process for important decisions that affect others. 

We believe in a heavily tribalized organization, which means that each of the tribes should have the autonomy to shape its own culture (every Tribe is different and has different needs in its particular lifecycle, we try to give people the tools to realize the Tribes own culture and potential, whilst ensuring it still resembles and can live happily within the overarching SumUp culture and ecosystem). It may feel different Tribe to Tribe and there may be slightly different ways of working but people should still feel like they are part of SumUp, wherever they are. Each Tribe does hire for and build its own skills, infrastructure and tools. However, we don’t want this to happen in a black box and we do want to encourage collaboration for two reasons:

We believe that by collaborating we reduce waste and increase learning from other teams. 

What does this mean in practice? 

Example - Tribalization of DevOps:

Each tribe should have DevOps skills on its team to ensure that it can be successful independently from the DevOps platform team. Since effective DevOps is a culture and not a role, hiring can only be the start of and not the solution to a successful DevOps transformation. In a DevOps culture, the entire team lives DevOps. DevOps cannot be outsourced or “done” by an individual or team. Work flows through the entire technology value stream  from Design & Product Management, over QA and Software Development to IT Operations in fast iterations leading to fast feedback and fast learnings.

We expect that each tribe tries hard to:

  1. Leverage what the SumUp DevOps platform team has created and tries to consume this in their tribe;

  2. Be a good DevOps chapter citizen and constantly contribute back to the SumUp DevOps platform;

  3. Consider the advice of the DevOps platform team when hiring a DevOps team member into their tribe;

  4. Introduce and onboard new DevOps team members to the DevOps chapter by giving them an introductory learning phase upon starting, e.g. by joining the central DevOps team temporarily in order to learn as much as possible about what is already there.

  5. Leverage the DevOps platform team’s regular training e.g. on Terraform, Jenkins, logging, grafana, etc.

We expect that the DevOps platform team tries hard to provide:

  1. Documentation & guidance how to operate infrastructure;

  2. Suggestions / Recommendations for Tools;

  3. Logging/monitoring/alerting technologies;

  4. Best Practices;

  5. Defined tribe DevOps onboarding process;

  6. A healthy meeting rhythm for the global DevOps chapter;

  7. Training to improve DevOps skills throughout the organization;

  8. Build out common components and share the roadmap;

We generally expect that teams follow this “Advice Process” when hiring new people that are not only going to be a member of their own team but also of a chapter (in this example DevOps). Following the Advice Process you seek advice from the DevOps platform team since (i) they have experience with hiring DevOps talent and (ii) they will be impacted by your choice. 

This requires the following:

  1. An actual conversation needs to take place where the hiring manager (the advised) walks a DevOps Platform lead (the adviser) through the context and implications of the position, ideally as a first step in the hiring process.

  2. The hiring manager needs to be humble enough to listen and respectfully consider the advice.

  3. The DevOps platform team needs to be comfortable with the possibility that their advice or recommendation may not be followed. The ultimate decision lies with the advised hiring manager. 

  4. Once a decision was made, the advised hiring manager needs to share the decision transparently together with the advice received and the decision rationale.

  5. Do not mistake the Advice Process for stakeholder management. Stakeholder management typically results in stakeholders tweaking a proposal until it is truly average. The Advice Process on the other hand is simply receiving and considering advice.

It’s important to say that we are learning every day how we improve this way of working and it is not perfect. Every day with feedback and radical candour we get better and we improve and as such the way we work together as Tribes improves. This is a human process that requires each one of us (and each person who will join us in the future) to be collaborative, open and dedicated to making a great environment, where we can accomplish great things together.