In June 2016 I was working for a venture capital backed media startup called The Tab. As the CTO one of my core focus areas was enabling a team of 7 engineers to reinvent student journalism across the UK and US. Having come to the end of a venture funding round I had a decision to make. To stay and help with the next phase of growth, or go elsewhere to focus on my own.
It was one the most difficult professional decisions that I have made, due to the depth which I had sunk into the problem space and the amazing people that I was working with. However my desire was to learn how to run multiple high performing teams concurrently at scale and I had confidence that the team at The Tab was strong enough to do it without me.
I started Photobox on 1st August 2016, since then I have been iterating on people, process and principles. With a goal to enable over 70 people embedded in more than 10 teams to have maximum impact within a private equity investment cycle. By no means has this journey been straight forward or is it finished, however I feel like it is a good time reflect on my thoughts so far.
Start with principles
Starting with a set of principles which explain the how and why is a good way to begin a process of alignment around change.
High trust environments enable more effective change
Conversations around change are best done in a safe space with high trust. My experience is that this most often exists already within existing team structures. You get much better feedback and can tailor responses to the teams context which keeps the conversation relevant and engaged.
Start small and iterate
Start small and iterate applies to teams, org structures and operating models as much as it does to releasing software. Big bang changes tend to need the most support and have potential to cause the most negative impact. We have now moved to a model where we change one team at a time and iterate with learning into the next one. This has allowed us to refine the change process as we go and make sure to embed feedback and build out good content for wider sharing.
Capacity for change is not uniform
Change impacts different people and cultures in different ways. When change is constant people can become stuck in the trough of uncertainty and this has a massive impact on their ability to have impact. Understanding that change impacts me in a different way to others helped me take a much more empathetic approach.
Write things down
Writing how you want to work down and then debating it with wider and wider circles is a great way to iron out the kinks in an operating model. Google docs collaboration features helped us work through and collate feedback along the way.
Compromise is necessary for aspirational principles
With significant size, scale and legacy it will be hard to always respect all of your principles all of the time. What to compromise where and how is key to making sure that trust stays high throughout the change process.
Matrix management reduces alignment
Matrix management structures are really hard to scale effectively. Especially when managers have different goals to the individuals that they are accountable for and those don’t match team goals.
Alignment increases impact
To have the most impact build teams of aligned individuals with a shared goal they helped create and believe they can achieve. Then help them to reduce dependencies and remove impediments.
Build collaborative processes
The best external structures to the teams are informal ones that are representative, meet regularly to collaborate on issues and maintain standards. However you need a leader to drive this in order for it to continue over a longer term. If you can create collaborative process where people learn together, regularly talk about issues and are then given time to address them change can be a groundswell rather than trying to push water uphill.
Aligned autonomy takes time
Scaling teams to become high performing through aligned autonomy takes time. You need to let teams test their boundaries to enable them to get comfortable with where their constraints lie within their autonomy. This process is best facilitated through regular structured communication with stakeholders.
Consistency can have a high cost
The larger the number of teams the greater the overhead to enable consistency. One of the biggest challenges with my engineering background was to understand this. People scale in very different ways than code. The right balance between standardisation and customisation is key. This is changes over time and should be inspected and adapted as you move go.
Structured external communication is key
Teams should be able to define and improve their own processes as long as they communicate in a consistent way with stakeholders. The way I think about this is much like a contract for an API define the interactions with the outside world first and as long as they are respected it doesn’t matter if the internal workings are different per team.
Metrics are hard
Finding the right metric for a team to focus on also takes time and iteration. Teams need to be given the appropriate time to go deep into the problem space to figure this out. This often requires engineering effort and a good reliable data platform.
Balancing metrics are key
Commercial goals need to be balanced with quality, performance and security measures that the whole team believe in. This takes time and a level of maturity to get right.
If multiple people are accountable then no one is accountable.
Hire smart people
Make sure that you hire smarter leaders than yourself, co-create a vision, collaborate on a goal, give regular feedback to enable them to have the maximum impact.
Centre of excellence
A centre of excellence is a great way to ensure that areas of quality but limited resources are utilised and share knowledge effectively. We have moved to a model where they draw up a contract with teams based on a menu of their services. This ensures that expectations are clear and met. This has really helped as we have moved away from having dedicated resources in teams such as agile coaching and testing.
Full stack is a mindset that really can enable teams to have more impact but is good to both train as well as hire. Generalists can also have negative impact on quality so it is a hard balance to get right.
Effective communication underpins everything
Communicate, communicate, communicate. Communication scales exponentially I do not.
Autonomy, Master & Purpose
Autonomy, mastery and purpose are key to setting teams and individuals up for success. However getting the balance right with autonomy takes time, teams and individuals take longer to find their purpose and you need to think about the balance of experience levels in teams with regards to mastery.
The key learning from the last two and a half years is how hard significant change can be at an organisation level. Timing is key which means approaches need to evolve over time as there is no right answer to a lot of questions. Persistence, belief and drive are key to reach the tipping point where change itself becomes a natural part of the process.