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Organization by design

Written by: Matthew Basford

Published on: September 1, 2015

We put design values at the heart of our business.

In an industry as fast-moving, and constantly evolving, as product & experience design there simply is no greater priority than people.

The problems we are solving – and as a byproduct, the solutions – change every single day. Having people who are highly-skilled, adaptive and curious critical thinkers is what sets businesses apart. This is particularly true in hypergrowth companies. One could argue it is the single measure of what will define the companies that succeed and innovate and those who stagnate and fall apart. So, the question becomes one not of what (ie. what is the problem we are solving?), but how. Like everything in business, the devil is in the details.  

To ensure we are building our business around a team of talented individuals, we’re taking our design principles and locating them at the heart of our business. We are applying the precepts of how we work to our culture.

So what have we done? Employed design thinking to drive a strong, adaptive culture that allows for – and catalyzes – exceptional work. How have we done it? Let’s explain:

To start, design thinking, at its very core, is about empathy. By undertaking an organizational design program that is based in design thinking, it has been imperative we get constant feedback from employees. After all, involvement is the key to commitment. Naturally, that’s where we started. Running feedback sessions with nearly every employee across the company allows us to build a foundation everyone has a stake in.

This feedback is in pursuit of a few key tenets we believe create a framework for a thriving culture:

  • Values that are simple, clear, and reinforced daily. Reed Hastings of Netflix said it best when he stated “our values are what we value.” Don’t get clever with your values – be honest with them. Ask yourself: what do you actually value as a company? And, do you honestly reward the people who exhibit these traits on a daily basis? If the answer is no, you’ve got a problem.
  • Clear career pathways that enable an employee to see how THEY can progress through the company, which is based as heavily in the values and behaviors of a role as it is in the specific skills needed.
  • Objectives and Key Results (OKRs) that not only give people a clear sense of purpose and focus, but also instill a culture of ambition. If OKRs are good enough for companies like Intel (who invented them), Google, LinkedIn and Twitter, we’d like to think they are good enough for us. Make no mistake, OKRs aren’t your father’s objectives (ie. “I’m going to work harder this quarter”). They are aggressive (they should put you out of your comfort zone), always ladder up to team and company OKRs, and are transparent (everyone can see everyone else’s OKRs). The worst thing you can do is sandbag your OKRs and play it safe.
  • Performance evaluations are something we are continuing to refine our strategy around, but our broad perspective here is that performance feedback needs to be constant and fluid. Companies like Accenture, among others, have been ditching traditional performance reviews, demonstrating that this is an archaic system of thought that needs to be innovated upon.

As mentioned above, Netflix became famous for their manifesto around “freedom and responsibility” in their culture, and we believe it is a powerful message that can have an incredible impact at the core of a business. We believe in small, autonomous teams that are empowered to do great things. A command-and-control culture is something of the past that simply cannot keep up with a truly responsive organization of the present and future.

Implementing an organizational design strategy allows us to grow at scale and embrace the change that comes with growth. It opens up the channels for honest communication and helps to maximize the velocity and capacity of the flow of information across the company. We have found that applying the principles of design to the way we work (empathy with users, prototyping discipline, acceptance of failure as inevitable and not necessarily negative) is an incredibly useful approach.

This is our strategy for now, but in a matter of weeks and months it is sure to change and evolve. But, that’s kind of the point.