I wrote about joining a triad for the final stage of the Tribal Leadership approval program. Putting three people together to carry out a project may sound nice but what does it mean exactly? What does a triad do? As I am preparing a talk for next month titled “€œTribal Leadership for Agile Teams”€, I decided to write an introductory piece to help feed the content of my presentation. If you want to learn more about triads, I invite you to read on.

Many relationships are dyadic in nature meaning it is a relationship between two people. The biggest challenge with these two people relationships is there is nothing to help stabilize them when a breakdown occurs. Relationships of Stage three people are dyadic in nature because it allows the stage three person to control the flow of information between two people.

Take a moment to think about the discussions you have with people at work. Do you have one-on-one discussions with several people about the same issue? Are you relaying information from one discussion to the next? Are you the central hub of a discussion between multiple people? All these are easy signs you are building dyadic relationships.

A triad is always three individuals, not a group, trio or collection of individuals. Triads are intentional, not coincidental because each member is actively responsible for the quality of the relationship between the other two members. This intentionality forces the focus of triad members outward (toward others) rather than inward (towards themselves).

The theory behind a triad is that relationships need a third element to help them remain stable and the theory says the stabilizing element does not always need to be a person. As an example, when writing the book “€œA practical guide to distributed Scrum“, one of my co-authors, Elizabeth Woodward, and I used to regularly debate the content.  In those instances, we would pause and ask ourselves aloud: “Putting our personal feelings aside, what is the best thing for the book?” When I think back, I realize the book was our stabilizing element in our triad.

Practically speaking, there are three different types of triads:

  • Relational triads
  • Structural triads
  • Power triads

Relational triads

In a relational triad, shared values bind the members of the triad as they are not necessarily working on a project together. The difference between a relational triad and three people working together is how the relationship evolves. In a stable, mature triad every member is responsible for preserving healthy relationships between all members of the triad. Essentially, put Larry, Moe and Curly in a triad, and this means:

  • Larry is responsible for the healthy relationship between Moe and Curly
  • Moe is responsible for the healthy relationship between Larry and Curly
  • Curly is responsible for the healthy relationship between Larry and Moe.

Figure 1 below illustrates the steps to build a relational triad.  It starts with one person introducing two other people based on common values or interests or a common need.  For example, keeping with our Three Stooges theme, Moe may introduce Larry and Curly.

In the early stages of this triad, Moe is responsible for building and feeding the relationship between Larry and Curly. He is also responsible for making sure they stay connected. Moe can do this through occasional phone calls to Larry and Curly to make sure they are getting the benefits that Moe connected them for.

As the Stooge triad stabilizes, they all become responsible for the relationship. This means that if Moe and Curly have a conflict, Larry is responsible for helping them patch things up. If Curly and Larry have a conflict, then Moe becomes responsible for helping them patch things up.

Figure 1 - Building a relational triad

Figure 1 – Building a relational triad

How should you start creating relational triads? Find ways to connect people that will provide a benefit for everyone. For a real-life example, imagine creating a triad with a customer between an organizational coach, a team coach and the project sponsor to support an organizational transformation. This can be a useful way to discuss strategy and issues faced during the transformation project. You do not need to call it a triad but these regular meetings will keep everyone synchronized. The conversations in the meetings should promote basic common values such as communication, transparency and respect. Naming these values as the purpose of your meetings allows you to set expectations but the key is making sure you always meet together instead of having one-on-one meetings.

As a coach of software development teams, I find it difficult to build relational triads with the teams I work with. Randomly sitting down with a team to discuss values just feels awkward for people, even if they worked together for many years. In my coaching role, I found the challenge is that I cannot create a bubble around the team to protect those values. The values conversation needs to start at the management or organizational level, and the values of the team need to align (or at least resonate) with the organizational values.

Structural triads

In a structural triad, a shared project or shared pain points bind the members of the triad. People create these triads out of necessity to serve a specific purpose. Structural triads need a common objective which will bind help the members together.

Here are some examples of possible structural triads on a software development project:

  • Three people (two developers and a tester) working on delivering a single feature.
  • Three people from different teams (development, testers, writers) that need to coordinate efforts on a project
  • Three people in different locations that need to synchronize on a project

All these triads should meet at a regular interval (daily or weekly) to discuss their common interest in the project. These functional triads serve the purpose of breaking communication silos, helping one another and fostering collaboration. These triads can also strategically elevate group culture by creating a project that people cannot accomplish without true collaboration.

Power triads

In a power triad, shared values and helping each other on projects of mutual concern bind the members of the triad. They combine the qualities of Relational and Structural triads. When introducing people to form a power triad, you need a shared or resonant value as well as a common need. Without the values, you are just a good connector and without a shared need, you are just a good matchmaker.

As with any other group of people, I believe power triads typically go through Tuckman’€™s Stages of Group Development. In the Forming stage, triad mates will remain cordial with one another, not necessarily sharing their feelings or disagreements. A triad in this mode may either feel like a very clinical experience or like going through the motions without an end goal. Triads where members are unwilling to share their values or vulnerabilities remain stuck in the forming stage.

In the Storming stage, reality starts setting in, real personalities start coming out and the triad members begin to share their values to discover their common values and objectives. Triad members may also clash their objective of their common project and how they work together. Triads that cannot agree on a common project (or noble cause) and shared values will remain in the storming phase.

In the Norming stage, the triad members know their shared values and their noble cause. They also identified a project to help them achieve their noble cause. Triad members compromised on their ideas and adopted ideas from others to achieve something greater than what they could build alone. The triad has a microstrategy in place to begin achieving their project and members of the triad begin pitching their project to get other people involved.

In the Performing stage, the triad stabilizes at stage four and its members are working together and moving toward achieving their common noble cause or project.

Conclusion

Triads facilitate collaboration and help stabilize relationships. They are also the building block of a stage four environment so people can also actively participate in multiple triads at once. Building a stable triad calls for all triad members to invest in the common good and give up part of themselves to achieve something greater than they could build alone.

When you cannot build a relational triad, consider whether a structural triad would be helpful to address the problem you are facing. Structural triads can help deliver short term results and may eventually become a relational or power triad. Remember that you can also build informal relational triads by stating values as the intention of a meeting and by regularly meeting as a triad instead of using one-on-one meetings.

Before I close, I would like to thank my triad mate David Brown for reviewing this post and giving me lots of great suggestions to improve it!