Hierarchy, or the lack of it. How do we approach that in our company? First of all let’s be honest, we don’t have a complete flat structure, there is 1 managing partner who is a shareholder and for example signs contracts, and he ultimately has to respond to the board. He has the end decision on what we do. But from the beginning it was clear that there is no formal hierarchy, nobody really tells you what to do. We started from a blank page and started writing this story. That’s the main reason we chose to join this company, to be able to write that story together.
We focus on coaching and creating a culture of trust, safety and transparency, where every Sweetie (that’s how we call each other here) can engage and contribute in building a future proof organization together.
How did we start?
By getting inspired by books and ted talks around agility, reinventing organisations, kaizen, the connected company and many others. And no, we did not invent anything, but we selected what was interesting and what might work for us.
First we started by defining our touch points, placing our organization in the centre. Secondly, we defined the domains that we need to support the touch points with. Having defined the domains, the following step was to define the tasks of the domains. We did not want to fall into task and role descriptions because we feared that we would end up with functions, titles and hierarchy in the end. So we started with a well known technique to us that we use in our agile teams; impact mapping.
We asked 6 people (later the PO’s to be) with the most affinity to each domain to define an impact map per domain. The important part of an impact mapping exercise is to define the change in behaviour you want to see for each actor. This allowed us to relate strongly to our pillars and the mission of Sweet Mustard. The focus was right where we wanted it, and not on operational tasks and descriptions.
Defining deliverables for each behaviour change was the next step. After 2 days of workshops, we agreed on domain definition, purpose, aimed behaviour change for the actors, a list of deliverables (backlog) and most importantly, the priority of the deliverables per domain. We also assigned one person as a Product Owner to each domain. This person will follow up the deliverables and define the priority of the backlog. As we wanted everyone in the company to contribute to the domain he or she chooses, we also defined a priority amongst the domains to avoid conflicts when choosing the next deliverable to work on.
We use a Kanban board (with a Work In Progress limit) to follow up the backlogs per domain, and we use Trello boards to manage our backlogs. Working with backlogs and Kanban boards allow us to focus on the right thing at the right time.
Self organizing teams
The Kanban board is completely voluntary. Each Sweetie can choose on which domain or domains he or she want to participate. If a story is ready to be started, they can reach out to the PO and ask some explanations about the card with the Kanban pull principle. Whatever is on top of the backlog and ready to be started, can start, as long as the WIP limit is respected.
Everyday at 11.30 we have a company wide stand up for people who are working on internal projects and people who are just interested in which projects are ongoing. Every Monday we open a google hangout for those who want to join remote, from a customer site or from home, and want to join the standup, so they can participate as well, or at least are updated on the priorities of the week.
Biweekly we have an All Hands meeting. Every Sweetie comes to the head office on Friday at 4PM for a very informal all employee meeting. During this meeting we welcome new people, do some announcements, we celebrate birthdays, talk about upcoming events or look back on conferences, go over ongoing projects and leads and deep dive into some projects. Every Sweetie can put topics on the agenda and present it. Once every quarter a financial update is done as well so everybody knows what our goal is and where we are standing. This creates transparency and clear understanding about our common goal. Sometimes we discuss our OKRs as well and share how good or bad we are doing.
Every 2 months we organise an Innovation Day. The 24 hours start on Thursday evening and end on Friday evening with the Innovation Day Awards. It is a quest for new technological experiments or coming up with new ideas or some new business insights. And everything is organized and owned by the team. We don’t focus on the outcome, although it’s nice if something tangible comes out of it, but it’s a fun way to experiment with new technologies, ideas, …. Some examples: we’ve created a software platform for our team members to connect when working at customer sites to improve collaboration, we’ve created a ML platform to create music by feeding it existing music, or a team crowded pacman game…
During the last year we organized and attended a lot of trainings and conferences, externally as well as internally. Internally we have had a 2 day agile fundamentals training where we explain the fundamentals of agile and scrum, we did an Insights Discovery session for every Sweetie where we make a detailed profile of everybody so we can learn from it, we organized “coach the coach” sessions for everyone in a coaching role to become better coaches etc… We also set up a biweekly lunch and learn where everybody can do a session on whatever topic during lunch. Sweeties can vote on the topics via a trello board. External trainings and conferences are also organized by a trello board. If you see an interesting training or conference, you put it on trello and everybody can assign themselves to it. If it’s an abroad conference you have to make a cost calculation and submit it, then it’s discussed within the financial domain.
HR is dead, long live team member experience
We don’t have an HR department, so how did we facilitate that fast growth? At first we created an impact map on recruitment. An impact map is a technique to discuss goals of what you want to do, to define the stakeholders or actors (people impacted by it), the behavioural change you want them to have by your goal and very concrete actions on how you can support those behavioural changes.
Following on that we also created an employee experience map, thinking about the customer journey of an employee from a recruitment point of view. From finding a new job to quitting a job and all the phases in between we thought about a person’s goals, feelings, thoughts and behaviours and the different touchpoints.
We also defined OKRs as a company to have company goals and alignment. An objective is measured by Key Results which is SMART. Objectives should be inspiring, e.g one of the OKRs for 2018 was to “make our team members sparkle”, measured by the number of people (not) leaving us.
Also we measure the team member satisfaction with an NPS score (Net Promoter Score). We just ask one simple question: Would you promote Sweet Mustard as an employer? They can score from 0 to 10. The score is calculated on the 9s and 10s minus the 6s and lower. 7s and 8s are considered passive and are not in the calculation. A score of > 0 is good. We score on average 68 in Q3, which is pretty good.
The Social Media Team consists of 3 Sweeties who were interested in this topic and volunteered. Together they have a defined a clear strategy and plan. Everything you see on our channels (website, blog, linkedin, facebook, instagram, …) is 100% authentic and done by them.
We had to think about evaluations as well. How would we do that? Should we do them? The answer is no. We want to focus on intrinsic motivators, things that really matter for the Sweetie and not on extrinsic motivators, like salary or status. Although extrinsic motivators have to be good (I mean you need a good salary), we can focus on those intrinsic motivators, like coaching, freedom, a goal, technical mastery, etc …
So we don’t have a yearly evaluation, but our monthly check ins give us the opportunity to constantly give and receive feedback. Not in a hierarchical relationship but from peer to peer. So we decided to change the remuneration policy. Sweeties don’t have to ask any one for a salary increase but they have to ask each other. They fill out a form with some simple questions which is discussed with peers. Those peers decide if the raise is granted or not. There are some constraints, e.g. if the company is in a financial good or bad situation or if the demand is outrageous, the Sweetie is asked to come up with a plan to make that extra amount of money and make it happen.
One of the things about having no hierarchy is that you want people to take initiative and so they did by organising a Design Sprint on team member experience. Two Sweeties, Sarah and Annelies, took the initiative because they actually wanted to practise on facilitating a design sprint and they choose a topic that was on our kanban board. A design sprint is a technique where you actually brainstorm in five fases about a problem. Ideas are prototyped and tested without actually building something. Sweeties that had just started or were on the bench participated. The outcome was that to improve the team member experience of starters, we introduced an onboarding week, assigned a buddy for every new starter, have a coaching plan or better let them make a coaching plan, etc.
“Coaches are the new bosses”. People working in self-organized structures are not looking for bosses, but rather sparring partners, mirrors if you like, to help them grow. Coaching someone is the ability to challenge him or her to the right solution for him or her. Instead of assigning 1 coach to each employee, we decided everyone could choose his or her coaches.
At Sweet Mustard, there are technical coaches, agile coaches and personal development coaches. Each employee can choose his or her coach depending on the focus and the growth path they choose. Topics may vary and depending on the needs, coaches may vary as well. A coaching session is not a feedback session nor an evaluation. In the end, we want everyone to be a coach for their peers. We strongly believe that everyone has something to offer and to achieve this, equality (thus no hierarchy) is key.
Bumps in the road
Which lessons did we learn from the past year?
We don’t respect the WIP limits we have on our strategic kanban board. This means too many things are in progress and not finished, we lose focus and we don’t work as closely together as we would like to.
Some initiatives are not visible on the board. We discovered during standups that some PO’s came up with new initiatives, which is fine, but the other PO’s did not know what it was about. So better and more communication is needed.
There is a huge culture clash with customers. People choose to work for our open culture but we are in the consulting business, which means that you have to work for customers who likely have a different culture than us. How do we deal with that? That is one of our OKR’s for 2019.
So, what’s the focus for 2019?
Growth is not so much our focus any more. We want to grow, yes, but the main focus will be the sustainability of our business. We want to ensure that our values and way of working are guaranteed, focusing even more on personal development and coaching and bringing in a closer communication.
Bridging the culture gap with our customers will be a challenge this year, and making sure that our Sweeties work in a happy environment anywhere they are. Happy teams is a mindset. We achieved this quite well here at Sweet Mustard, so let’s spread it to the world.