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Cultivating High-Performing Teams in Hypergrowth

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To support their hypergrowth, N26 created a shared picture about what to work on, how to do the work, and the organisational structure. Called the Target Operating Model, it has helped them to grow while maximising team autonomy and alignment. At QCon New York 2019, Patrick Kua, chief scientist at N26, spoke about cultivating high-performing teams in an organisation that’s going through hypergrowth.

N26 has been running through rapid customer growth. To support such enormous growth, they had to grow the whole team as well. With so many functions dependant on technology, N26 had to pursue rapid employee growth, often referred to as hypergrowth to achieve this, said Kua.

Through hypergrowth, a company will change very rapidly. Many other companies (Google, Twitter, and Uber) have written very much about the challenges of growing so rapidly. Kua presented the Target Operating Model, which is a shared vision of where N26 wants to be in the next 6-8 months. "It’s a model because we know it won’t be perfect," said Kua. "However it gives the whole organisation a shared picture about not only WHAT we are going to work on, but HOW we should work and structure ourselves to get this done," he said.

An organisation at different scales needs to work differently, said Kua. At larger and larger scales, you need to create a stronger focus or bring in new skills and experiences, he argued. This often means there are new roles. In one of their early models, they brought in engineering managers as a way to scale out support for teams. They also brought in the role of a principal engineer to help grow technical leadership and to create a focus on technical alignment across the organisation where it made sense.

N26 is now on their third iteration (v1.2) of our Target Operating Model as they try to optimise their organisational structures for the situation they currently have.

InfoQ spoke with Patrick Kua about hypergrowth and team autonomy.

InfoQ: How fast has N26 been growing?

Patrick Kua: We’re a challenger bank, headquartered in Berlin with a mission of building the bank the world will love. We recently launched in the UK last year. In late 2017, we had about 450K customers and we recently announced 3.5M customers across all of our markets in Europe.

As a person who has been working in technology for almost 20 years, I wanted to cultivate the best possible environment for teams in such a rapidly changing environment. I often find myself saying that management focuses on managing and optimising the system. In technology, this is thinking about the best possible structures that balance autonomy and alignment while minimising co-ordination. Not an easy task with a rapidly changing product and demands on the team.

InfoQ: How much autonomy do teams of individuals have at N26?

Kua: Autonomy is an interesting one, right. What we’ve tried to do with our operating model is really maximise autonomy and alignment. Those two things are always hard and I think one of the interesting things is trying to help people understand the boundaries of autonomy. Where they can focus on their autonomy, being aware that everyone’s autonomy is limited at some point.

For us, we’re regulated by laws. Our autonomy as a company will always be bounded to a certain degree, compared to other tech companies.

From a team perspective, we tried to create domain-based focused product areas and teams. The goal was to have teams who have a lot of autonomy in terms of how they shape the services and functions or features in that product area. They might work with another team who has a dependency, and autonomy becomes a little bit harder. Teams also have a lot of autonomy choosing how they’d like to work.

For example, we’re not religious about which agile practices teams use. Some teams like to use Kanban because they focus on flow. Other teams are a bit more iterative-based, using XP or Scrum where they do planning and then they do review and retrospecting. There’s a lot of autonomy in how teams work.

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