What Simon Wardley taught us about the types of people you need to make a digital project team

I’ve been wrestling with Simon Wardleys’ ‘Value chain mapping since 2016, but this though isn’t about mapping, today I’m going to focus on the wonderful insight of how we can categorise project team members into a few groups by a combination of skills, motivations and capabilities.


Simon writes about giving teams autonomy (oh how we dream!), working on small slices, and conforming to the 2 pizza model. With a reasonable governance structure, which Simon describes as a cell based relationship within a larger project.

To facilitate this you need a carefully planned mix of 3 types of people — pioneers, settlers and town planners. Each group has differing skills, and as I see equally important, the ability to be comfortable at with the stresses and strains that are present at each stage of a project.

Pioneers, these people are the ones who are happiest catching scurvy whilst being eaten alive by bears. On a digital project, they’re spearheading projects in the unknown. Without them we wouldn’t be able to innovate, however failure (being eaten alive) is a natural outcome from striding into the unknown.

Settlers, these people love their home comforts, a predictable delivery pipeline and warm shelter gives them a warm fuzzy feeling. Settlers are great at taking the discoveries produced by the pioneers and turning them into products that can deliver value.

Town planners, once a settler has settled, we now need a different skill set to stop them all dying of typhoid from a poor water supply. Here town planners are adept at commoditising products, and scaling them to industrial levels. On a digital project think about the people who love enabling the continuous relase of a product using dev-ops.

So what’s the point I’m making? — Asking a pioneer to arrange the sewerage system for a town will not result in a reliable, maintainable and fault tolerant system. You may get an innovative one, but it could fail, and that’s not appropriate for this particular project stage.

Alternatively asking a settler to innovate the healthcare sector will most likely result in an underwhelming re-badging exercise that will fail to ignite the passion of any sponsors.

Head of product management at Made Tech, Manchester, UK