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'Small' is desirable in workplaces - How to scale Small to Big without losing the advantages of small? (real case incl.)
This hack is pinpointing some ideas for how companies - which stand in front of challenge of rapid growth - should go about scaling themselves without losing their engaging, entreprenerial and experimental culture, the ones they had when they were small entities. A real company case is used as a basis for coming up with ideas.
So the questions in mind are: 1) Is it possible to grow smaller experimental organizations into larger entities without destroying the inspiring and engaging culture that it had when it was small? Can the organization remain its engaging and non-bureaucratic approach, agility and experimental culture as increase in size typically produces more bureaucracy in enterprises?
In the last couple of years, I have been working with large enterprises in the field of internal and external collaboration using web 2.0 tools and technologies as enablers. Most companies that I work with are the ones that are large and trying to overturn and change their culture from a typically command and control to a more networked and collaborative.
However during a seminar, I happened to come across a small company which has experimented with new ways of doing things to avoid bureaucracy and has created a non-command/hierarchical culture/structure which it is proud of.
This 150 people company is growing rapidly, and this company’s management is currently standing in front of a major challenge – Its business is growing, and it questions if it scales its business to 300-500 people, can the organization remain its engaging and non-bureaucratic approach, agility and experimental culture as increase in size typically produces more bureaucracy in enterprises? Employees are involved in these discussions – they want to keep their agile and innovative culture.
To exercise mine and the readers’ way of thinking and test if there are limitations in a possible approach/solution, I am using this small company as an example which I have initiated a discussion with.
Some of the key elements that creates the foundation of this company culture:
- The leadership philosophy is: Our People comes first.
- Employees are encouraged to challenge the way the company works, its leadership etc.
- To ensure to avoid underutilization of people’s capabilities, every employee is responsible for his or hers personal development and formal learning – this means that every employee is responsible for signing him or her for courses (within reasonable costs, naturally), being up to date within the core field of the company’s IT services.
- To ensure that the employee naturally embraces the culture, the employee will not be sent out alone on a project at client site in the beginning. A sparring partner and mentor are officially assigned to the person but in a non-hierarchical way. The mentoring and sparring goes both ways. There is no direct boss, but employees work in teams which occur and dissolve depending on the project. Workspace is flexible.
- Much time is spent on recruitment as the leadership team is aware of the fact that not all people can work in such a company culture. There is little personnel turnover
- Even though the company claims it does not have any structured processes, it has. It has e.g. a time registration for the purpose of billing clients – it also has set up some routine practices for example: 1) large white board with post-it for project issues, when an issue is resolved, the post it is taken away, 2) it is pre-requisite for teams to meet once a week in the office to ensure the attachment to the company and the importance of human interactions which is part of its culture. A blog is used to share knowledge and best practices – one-to-many communications.
- I have observed that the company has started to be seduced by its own successes – as I refer to as the arrogance of success - something that leadership should be alert about.
 Profile: very successful IT Company, which has been awarded several times for its non confirmative way of leadership. The company is not using any collaborative platform to support its org. model, but uses simple tools that it has developed by itself to meet the special cultural requirements for simple processes and tools.
Here is how I would go about it – there are probably many more areas, as it is a process that will evolve over time:
1. Create only the most necessary formal processes or practices – like the time sheet registration for customer billing is necessity to conduct business and ensure customers get billed for the right amount of hours, identity processes that are a pa pure necessity. As the number of employee grows, allow for formalized non linear HR processes, such as real time feedback (should be embedded into normal day to day work not a tool or process that one specifically have to go to) instead of annual performance reviews, relationship workforce planning based on learning and customer input (see point 2) .
2. Let customer be part of the company’s processes –customers are the best critics and can provide the company with great feedback. Holding regular workshops’ with them will give the company a signal if the culture (behavior, practices, goals of employees) has changed to a more positive way, and if the ‘formalized’ processes are positive or negative from a customer POV. Doing this also helps ensure that the IT services are driven by actual market needs, fuel to solving real customer problems, and are within the core expertise that company wants to maintain.
3. Sharing and collaborating internally on ideas on growing together – the post-it notes can be applied when all people are in the share same office space. However, moving the post-it notes to a collaborative platform will allow the company employees not only to maintain the ‘connection’ as company grows, but also surface knowledge & expertise and new ideas and comments on unnecessary processes, structures etc. The network effect and the feeling of belonging will be kept, and learnings surface.
4. Visibility of the leadership - Even though the company has a democratic leadership style, with leadership happening as part of people taking responsibility (no formal boss), the founders and the leadership of the company will play an important role in that change process. They will have to embrace the changes required to enable the business to grow. It is at this stage of growth that the vision, and comfort with change become particularly important. The leadership/founders can in additional to its personal and face to face approach, use e.g. its blog to take the temperature of how employees feel about the changes.
5. Peer-to-Peer recruitment, peer to peer on-boarding, sparring partner/mentoring – sourcing through peers could be working in large organizations. The company’s employees meet many people while doing work at customers, so there is plenty of possibility to meet the next candidates for hire. Focusing on peer-to-peer involvement in many of the processes when a new employee is entering the organization will be important. The influence from peers will ensure that the cultural aspects are adapted easier by newcomers.
6. Use moderns off the shelf/web 2.0 tools as enablers – the company has fallen into the pitfall that it is so special it needs to create its own technology as nothing standard is good enough – I have seen those pitfalls in large organizations customizing their ERP systems down to the tiniest detail. My advice would be: focus on the culture transformation and on growth rather than on developing technology unless it is because you want to commercialize it.
7. Set up a formal structure for entrepreneurship. Give people enough time away from their “day jobs” to work on own projects (either work related or personnel development) – if work related, set up formal processes to make sure those ideas develop and take root. This will underline the culture of agility and experimentation.
8. Assemble a diverse workforce - as the company grows, it will require more specific capabilities to carry out the work. When I met with one of the employees, I asked why they are not turning ‘their business model’ into a new service, thinking that I as an independent consultant could help them monetize the model. The answer was: we are an IT company. The company can naturally grow within its current business area, but eventually it will hit the ceiling as there is a maximum demand for its services in the market. By recruiting people with diverse backgrounds and points of view result in new and better services and better ideas.
And as the company continues to grow, focusing on internal synergies and how they can be combined to the benefit of the employees and the company and how they will make employees to work together to reach the common, and maybe revised vision.
- grow but without losing the culture that inspired ad engaged employees to do their work because they loved to and not because they were told to
- maintain agility of a small organization even though one becomes a larger entity
- maintain focus on connecting employees and as entity grows, focus on creating a collaborative workstyle and sharing culture
- zeroing linear processes and command structures
- maintain a learning attitude