The internal tourism program

Using the potentials of a big company to solve some of its collaboration challenges

Large companies are usually comprised of many teams — each focusing on a subset of the problem domain.

To increase agility the company may give autonomy to the teams to decide their work process, tooling, or even defining their own scope. The side effect is that if there is too much autonomy, the teams may grow apart from each other and develop “silos”.

At its extreme, domain knowledge hardly leaves the borders of the team silos and external ideas are dismissed with the “Not Invented Here” syndrome (NIH).

If the company is doing well for many years, it’s possible for some employees to get stuck:

  • They accumulate a large amount of domain knowledge over the years. Without an effective mechanism to share this knowledge they may increase the bus factor risks to the company: if they leave or for some reason can’t work, the product and eventually the company may get negatively affected.
  • Their compensation bump over the years may accumulate to the level where it is not feasible for them to challenge themselves outside their area of expertise (golden handcuff).
  • Having the same position for too long, they may grow too comfortable to the status quo and resist change or block new initiatives often originating from new recruits.

Internal tourism

The internal tourism program is a relatively cheap solution to tackle those problems.

The core idea is to allow an employee to try something new in another team for a short period to network and gain experience.

It may be implemented in various ways but the following elements are usually present:

  1. The host team opens up a “vacancy”: a temporary position to collaborate with someone outside the team with some lean basic requirements. It’s pretty much like an informal fixed-term job vacancy. The vacancy is bound to one or more concrete tasks that needs to be done together which leads to hands-on experience.
  2. At least one tour leader is designated at the host team. Their job primarily is to make the tourist feel welcome and be their go-to person if there are any question.
  3. The “vacancy” is announced internally where other employees and potential candidates can browse and discover it. If someone is interested, it’s up to their reporting lines to help with the practical matters: deciding the exact dates, setting expectations, travel arrangements, etc.

The key here is to be lean and informal because the main reason we’re doing this is to facilitate networking across teams and share experience.

  • Networking effect: by investing the time to accommodate someone from another team, both the host team and the tourist develop a professional relationship that may be useful down the line when collaborating on other problems. It’s one of the best methods to break the silos.
  • Individual growth: the tourist gets an opportunity to gain hands-on experience with a different problem domain and broaden their knowledge.
  • Grow the host: the tour leader and others at the host team, may find themselves explaining what’s obvious to them, but new to the tourist. This is a powerful experience which allows the host team to have a deeper understanding of their own domain. As the saying goes: “if you can’t explain it simply you don’t understand it well enough”. Besides, the presence of the tourist may help junior members of the host team to be more forthcoming if they have questions that otherwise would be hard to ask.
  • Cross pollinate: the tourist comes from the same company which means they are somewhat familiar with the problem domain. However, they may see the host team’s problems from a different point of view and potentially inspire them to come up with different solutions. Moreover the tourist will also gain experience in ways of working that can be re-used within own team.
  • Organizational learning: Just like how the brain learns by developing new wiring between neurons, the organization will come out stronger with these networks and links in place.
  • Novelty: just like traveling to another country, this experience allows the tourist to get away from their regular day-to-day duties and try something new. And just like traveling, it may help them gain more energy and a set of fresh eyes when they’re back in their home team.
  • The vacuum at home: when the tourist leaves their home team, there will be a temporary vacuum to be filled. Although it may sound like a challenge, it is also a growth opportunity for the home team to fill that gap with the remaining people. It is particularly true if the tourist is a senior and key member of the home team, which makes the challenge even more appealing (see the bus factor at the start of the article).
  • Purposefulness: Seeing the challenges of another team, improves the sense of purpose in a larger context and helps employees identify with the company more than just a team. This helps employee branding.
  • Reduce churn: it helps retain employees who are otherwise tired of their tasks, project, team or manager and would eventually leave the company or even worse: join a rival. Nevertheless, they may take a crucial part of the domain knowledge with them out of the door. If they happen to like the host team enough to join them, at least they’ll remain within an arms reach. Giving new challenges to old employees is one of the best ways to retain them and keeping them engaged.

At my company there are a few implementations of the idea:

  • A team had a temporary vacancy because of someone going to parental leave. The EM of another team saw the opportunity and sent one of his developers over. It was received very well and the developer ended up working on a lot of things that help their home team in their day-to-day challenges.
  • The polish branch of our company regularly sent employees to sit with the Norwegian developers who were closer to the product. Not only this was a great chance to visit Norway, it helped the polish developers gain a better understanding of the product which was not available in their home country.
  • At my Swedish team one developer traveled to Poland for a month to work closer with the members of our distributed team in Krakow. Upon return he knew the stack much better and contributed to the tricky parts of the code which previously were usually touched only by the Polish team members.
  • Two C-suite managers switched jobs for a week, and shared their experience on our podcast.

Q. What’s the criteria for choosing a tourist?

  • You’re a good fit for the tasks you’d be working on (seniority, profile)
  • It’s your first time (people could go several times, but first timers always got the priority)

Q. Aren’t we going to end in an unstable situation where people are constantly on the move?

A. The host team is in control of who they take in and how often. It may turn out that they don’t have a position for a year or they have have multiple positions. Besides, it is up to the managers of the host and home team to decide the dates and set the expectations. As a rule of thumb, start this experiment gradually at your organization and evaluate to optimize it for your organization.

Q. Should the tourist work in the new team 100%?

A. Ideally, tourist’s full focus should be in their new teams. This also means they should do a proper handover of their duties at their home team which has the added benefit of doing knowledge-sharing at home and reducing the bus factor.

Q. Many teams have their hands full and probably would see this as something negative to lose a couple of hands. Does it worth it?

A. Hopefully the other benefits makes it obvious that it’s an investment with a high long term ROI. Each individual case needs to be assessed accordingly.

Q. Should the tourist be treated as a pair of extra hands to the host team?

A. It’s not the primary goal of the internal tourism program. Brook’s law: “adding manpower to a late software project makes it later”

Q. Can you send someone to a tour involuntarily?

A. It won’t work if the tourist is a hostage or kidnapped! But you can motivate someone to go on a tour to another team and let them decide.

Q. How involved should the tourist be in the host team?

A. For it to yield the full benefits it’s best to treat the tourist as a new employee, meaning they should be involved in everything that the new employees are involved with: stand-up, retro, planning and maybe even architecture discussion (if there’s interest).

Q. What to do if the tourist wants to stay?

A. “The tourist becomes a refugee!” Of course the tourist was interested in the host in the first place so it is not strange if they develop a love for their new temporary home and want to stay permanently.

But if they want to move, the company should embrace the idea. “if you love someone let them free; if they come back to you it was meant to be”. Retaining employees at the company is one of the goals of the tourist program.

Q. How about distributed companies where teams are located at different countries?

A. At our company, there are several examples. The company fixes the temporary accommodation and the trip for the collaboration. But since there’s a higher cost-dimension, it may be evaluated against the potential benefits.

Q. How can this idea be expanded to one mother company comprised of multiple smaller companies doing vastly different things?

A. This is a tool for building meaningful networking. If those companies need (or want) to work closely together and build partnership, this tool can help link them together.

Q. How about the time line?

A. Most tourist programs take between 2–6 weeks. The idea is to have enough time to get past the initial “where’s my table? who is who?” level but not enough to become a critical dependency. Keeping it too short may reduce the benefits of the program, while keeping it too long may starve the home team. There’s a sweet spot there that is very much affected by the type of the problem and capacity of both the host and home teams.

Q. Should the host team also send a tourist?

A. This is not an exchange program. The tourist’s acceptance should not be bound to a member of the host team willing to join their home team. Keep it lean and informal so it happens more often and yields the benefits more often.

Q. How about a situation where multiple people are interested in the same vacancy?

A. The tourist program helps the older employees best: pick the one who have been stuck at the same team the longest. If they are roughly similar, go for organizational distance: pick the one who is furthest away from your team because they have the potential to bring a more diverse view of the domain into your team.

Conclusion

As my colleague Hilde puts it:

This tourist program is one of many good examples of a “cultural dilemma”: It works much easier when the internal culture is great and friction is low, but it’s also a possible tool to create that very culture.

Credit

Credit goes to the following awesome people who read the earlier drafts of this post and gave lots of good feedback (in alphabetic order): Hilde, Joakim, Lena, Robert and Wojciech.

References

Knowledge Worker, MSc Systems Engineering, Tech Lead, Web Developer

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