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Optimizing for Speed with Continuous Organizational Transformation

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A rapidly scaling company needs different structures at different sizes. You’re continuously reinventing yourself as your company grows by iterating on structures, processes, and roles. Continuous learning is critical for organizational transformations to succeed and it requires a high level of organizational agility.

Hendrik Haandrikman spoke about how to structure and continuously reorganize teams or a complete company for maximum speed at Stretch 2020.

Bitrise went from one big multi-disciplinary team with a single decision-making unit to multiple teams. They structured their teams for minimal outside dependencies and the ability to make unilateral decisions.

Structuring and continuously reorganizing teams for maximum speed starts by understanding the system, Haandrikman stated:

How and where should a team impact business outcomes? Distilling this down to a basic "mission statement" and instilling a sense of ownership in the team as a whole will ensure that people start focusing on outcomes instead of the process.

Sufficiently informed teams which are empowered with the right tools and structures will actually cause a lot of this "reorganization" to surface naturally, Haandrikman mentioned. It leaves leaders to focus on team missions and how teams work together, he said.

InfoQ interviewed Hendrik Haandrikman, VP of growth at Bitrise, about how to do a continuous organizational transformation, how fast-growing companies can reinvent themselves, and what can be done to prevent people from becoming overloaded with change.

InfoQ: How would you define continuous organizational transformation?

Hendrik Haandrikman: When we talk about continuous organizational transformation, what we’re really talking about is continuous reevaluation and iteration on structures, processes, and roles. It’s the type of environment you’ll encounter in rapidly scaling companies, where the way of working is often dictated by a continuous barrage of new challenges appearing during the journey to scale.

Ideally, there’s an order to the chaos though, with every new version or permutation of the company being informed by data and insights. That’s why continuous learning is critical in these kinds of companies.

InfoQ: You mentioned that fast-growing companies continuously need to reinvent themselves. Can you elaborate on that?

Haandrikman: The most basic principle underpinning this need for continuous reinvention is the fact that the size of your workforce will necessitate different structures at different sizes. Everyone understands that the processes you have in place for a five-person company won’t suffice for a 50-person organization and those same processes you implemented for 50 will break down dramatically at 500 people.

For a company that’s scaling, these different "people challenges" are accompanied by countless other internal and external influences that will exert pressure on the organization over time. As you scale, you’ll add new customer segments, add product lines, introduce new channels, etcetera. This requires a level of agility, way outside of the realm of experience for most more established companies.

InfoQ: How can teams adapt themselves and self-organize?

Haandrikman: An example is a team that is missing a resource internally, so it will repeatedly pull it in from the outside, evolving into an embedded role, evolving into a function inside the team. This works better with smaller teams than it does with bigger ones, just because it’s easier to have some consensus on when you make these changes. In the longer term, we’re exploring some ways to become even more modular, where teams come together and break apart again as projects or other circumstances necessitate.

InfoQ: What can be done to reorganize the entire company?

Haandrikman: The bulk of this reorganization is - in my experience - a more gradual process, where teams evolve over time. Because most of those changes are rather ad hoc and can lack proper support from the broader organization, you’ll often find yourself "do things that don’t scale" (a famous Paul Graham essay). As time progresses and as this organizational debt accrues, you’ll go through some bursts or periods of rapid, greater change as well, in an effort to pay off some of this debt and reconfigure into a more efficient system "officially".

Those bigger changes lead to the pattern where you’ll see one large cross-functional team (the initial startup organization) split along functional lines, only to split off again into full cross-functional teams along certain areas of influence important for the business. It becomes almost fractal as functional departments become cross-functional departments, made up of functional teams that turn into cross-functional teams.

If your company isn’t stagnant, those changes are natural. Your role as a leader is to ensure as many people as possible make it through a change, while also ensuring that change happens on time. That last one might be most difficult, as there’s momentum to the way we work together at teams. Changing course will always seem like more effort then simply carrying on as before.

InfoQ: How can you prevent people from feeling overwhelmed with change?

Haandrikman: The ability to work in this kind of highly dynamic environment is something we select for pretty rigorously during the hiring process, but after that, there’s a need to build the right type of culture and processes to actually have people succeed. If people aren’t afraid of failing, feel like they can safely admit when they are overwhelmed and - very important - know what they don’t know and can ask for help, that’s 99% of the battle won.

Blameless feedback, continuous self-reflection and a (very) generous support system form the core. It will also require those in people management positions to be provided with the same support structure, as a good deal of their time is spent coaching people through transitions and growth.

One interesting "hack" I heard of, but haven’t had the chance to apply yet, was providing people with very generic job titles that exclusively highlight their functional expertise, but don’t reference their team or the specific context of their role. For many, a job title becomes a part of their identity, and by excluding it from (much) of this continuous change, transitions should become slightly easier. Someone isn’t a "lifecycle marketer", but rather just a "marketer". It means that other systems need to be in place to ensure people know what their purpose in the organization is, though.

InfoQ: What are your suggestions for enabling continuous reorganization?

Haandrikman: This might be more of a recap than any new insights. First of all, don’t reorganize for the sake of being agile. Be agile to be more effective. If it’s likely that the way a team or department is structured might change regularly, ensure there are other systems in place to provide consistency. Be transparent, share as much context as possible, and empower people to make decisions, fail and learn from their mistakes.

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