Around 18 months ago we implemented some fairly significant changes at Great State, or e3 as it was known then. The change which I led was a transition away from a discipline based teams groups to multi-disciplined teams.
Largely our user experience guys sat together, the QA team sat together and so on. Projects flowed from one team to another and for many years this had been OK, but it was starting to creak as the company grew and projects became more complex. The main challenges we were starting to encounter were:
- Decision making, organising and implementing change was getting increasingly difficult as we grew in numbers. There is a reason schools don’t tend to have classes of 70 people.
- The range of sophistication of clients and projects we were encountering was widening. A one-size fits all delivery approach was starting to start constraining us. We needed flexibility. I described it at the time as rather than being in one big boat where everyone has to row together in the same direction, we’d all get into smaller boats which could go in different directions at different speeds and stop at different destinations.
- Staff could find themselves working on almost any client or project, as a result this meant they were feeling less and less invested in the outcome. Projects were at risk of becoming batons, passed from person to person and client and sector knowledge was getting spread increasingly thinly.
- There were sometimes tensions between the disciplines. “I’m struggling to deliver my work on time because the X team made it overly-complicated” was an opinion that was becoming more frequent. With the project work becoming more complex, collaboration between the disciplines was getting vital. Having people who thought of themselves first by their disciplines was working against this.
So in November 17 which collated various ideas including the Spotify model and I wrote a short paper with proposed new structures and working practices. With a few tweaks round the edges, we moved forward and in early 2018 we implemented the changes, with the most significant being the move away from discipline structures to ‘Home Teams’ and ‘Chapters’. We made the physical move over the Christmas holiday and when everyone returned in January, they were in their Home teams. It was a simple as that. We held our breadth. Nothing broke or fell off.
The Home teams were initially known as Colour Teams and are made of different disciplines sitting and working together to deliver great work for a group of about 4 clients. I chose colours (Richard Of York Gave Battle In Vane) to avoid any implied hierarchy – although with hindsight Red, Orange and Green has a certain traffic light feel to it. I’m not sure what happened to Yellow.
We now have 4 Home Teams of varying size, but a ‘typical team’ comprises maybe 15 people with one or more person from each Chapter. Chapters are disciplined based with chapters for Strategy, UX, Creative and Design, Development specialisms, Quality Assurance, Client Service and the Delivery Chapter which I lead. We also have Project teams which form for large scale or longer projects and can be made up of staff seconded from the Home Teams. I tweaked the naming to Home Teams to help communicate that a person could be in a Project Team, but still retain their longer term relationship with their Home Team.
So how has it worked out so far against the original challenges we were encountering?
Challenges around decision making and implementing change have improved significantly. Evaluating and adopting ideas can be done by each team rather than the whole company at once. Each Home Team has a weekly team development session to consider ways of working and sharing knowledge. Giving teams increased control over their direction has been instrumental in helping empower people and in moving towards collective responsibility. We’ve found this doesn’t happen entirely on it’s own and still requires catalysts.
The challenge of a one size project approach has also improved. The teams are starting to diverge with one team which has more technical work and the people and the approach to the work reflecting that. In terms of methodology the greatest differences tend to be between the Home teams and Project teams, with larger projects seeing greater benefits from agile.
The relationships between disciplines have definitely improved. The Chapter divisions are much less dominant now and the different disciplines are much more sympathetic to one another. I haven’t heard anyone saying that “the X guys have made this far more complicated” for a long time now.
The greater consistency around projects and clients for people has meant people feel more invested in the work and the outcomes. It’s not perfect, the commercial realities mean we can’t align everybody’s work perfectly – it’s not sensible to have a developer in Orange team sitting idle while we need additional developers in Blue team. But we’re getting better at managing that and making handovers and ongoing oversight a priority. Also movement between teams is not always a negative, we want greater consistency but not to the point of staleness. Importantly we’ve also become more comfortable with accepting the limitations.
There are however some challenges we’ve encountered, the most significant being that Chapter knowledge and expertise is now more dispersed. The developers used to sit together and share knowledge, trouble shoot and help one another. That is more difficult when those people are spread around the building. There are various tactics and steps we’ve taken to help counter this.
Different Chapters have differing levels of variety and change. Strategy, creative and design in particular seem to have the most need for exposure to different clients. We’re now purposefully moving people around to prevent staleness or to give them wider exposure to work and technologies. We have some skillsets where we have only a single subject matter expert and they are spread thinly across the Home Teams. They tend to be classed unfortunately as ‘floaters’.
There have also been some other side benefits which I think come largely from the volume of information and connections being more human sized. Pretty much everything in Home Teams is a more manageable size from number of people, number of projects, number of Delivery Managers, etc.
The strength of relationships between people have changed. Rather than having similarly strong relationships with 80 people, I think people now have very strong relationships with around 20 people and weaker relationships with the remainder. Overall I think that is more sustainable as we grow and again there are tactics to help compensate for this.
Communication has become even more important and significantly different. Before the change there was a clear hierarchy through the Disciplines. Now it less clear and we’re still experimenting with when to communicate information through Home Teams versus Chapters versus the whole company at once. Interestingly, routine operational meetings have increased in number and I think this is largely because they’ve increased in effectiveness and are achieving much more.
The biggest learning I think for all of us has been that Home Teams are not a panacea. Resources still need to be prioritised, there are still bottle necks, last minute things happen and people still forget to do things.
Home teams do not remove these challenges, they have improved most but given us new things to deal with. But overall I’m convinced they have been a positive step. Perhaps the proof came when we decided to scale our London office. Within the space of one short meeting the senior team decided to create another Home team. They are our newest team, they are the Blue Team and it will be fascinating to see how they develop.