On day 1 of Slush 2017, our co-founder and CEO Kristo joined a panel discussion on self-organizing teams with Niklas Jansen co-founder of Blinkist, Vishal Vasishth co-founder of Obvious Ventures, and Marianne Vikkula CEO of Slush. They talked about the building blocks of efficient self-organization — and debated whether self-organizing teams need leadership or not.
The building blocks of self-organizing teams are recruiting the right people, building a strong company culture, aligning everyone with the vision and the culture — and maintaining a certain degree of leadership.
The panel agreed that culture develops whether you want it or not. Growing it systematically early on is a smart move, because it will help you scale. Vishal Vasishth urged all entrepreneurs to think about culture right from the start, like you would think about product-market fit.
Kristo listed two key requirements for well-functioning self-organizing teams: “You should only hire people who understand and believe in your culture, and make sure they’re aligned with it. Get these right, or you’ll fail.” Yet, hiring the right people is difficult. Mistakes in recruiting are unavoidable, because the number of variables in hiring is huge.
You can improve your hiring hit rate by documenting your culture, and allowing recruitment candidates to decide if they’d thrive in your company or not. At Smartly.io, we recently wrote our Culture Handbook to help everyone understand not just our culture, but also the reasons behind it, and make it easier for potential new employees to figure out if we’re the right match for them.
Niklas Jansen admitted that if he could go back in time and do something differently with Blinkist, he would codify the culture a lot earlier, and pay a lot more attention to onboarding new employees to it.
So, can self-organization really work?
Jansen pointed out that out-of-the-box solutions like 100% holacracy rarely work. Instead, companies should think through which principles and values are important for them, and adjust general leadership philosophies to fit their specific use cases. Every culture is unique, and you should develop yours in a way that supports the needs of your company.
In a way, Smartly.io is actually quite far from self-organizing, because we’ve put a lot of infrastructure in place to support our autonomous teams. We believe in a mix of self-organization and servant leadership, where it’s the leadership’s role to equip teams with all the data and infrastructure they need, remove bottlenecks, and help them succeed.
When structures and processes are in place, the teams can focus on what they do best, making smart decisions, and organizing their work as they see best. Our customers’ needs evolve quickly, which means maximizing product development speed is a question of life and death for us. We believe one key requirement for staying ahead of the curve is to empower fast decision making on all levels of the company and not hindering it with bureaucracy.
Dive deeper into the topic
- Our Culture Handbook
- Smartly.io’s take on self-organizing teams
- Blinkist Operating System
- How we aim to maximize product development speed through culture
- Slush 2017: Nicolas Dessaigne, Co-founder & CEO of Algolia, and Adam Fridman, Founder of Mabbly & ProHabits, discuss putting culture and values into action
We’re hiring! Check out our open positions at smartly.io/careers.