Staying ahead of the curve in our quickly evolving industry requires nonstop learning. We learn the fastest by making quick decisions on all levels of the company. Smartly.io is run by self-organizing teams, because we believe that there's no sense in building bottlenecks to decision making.
I don’t think anyone has yet found the perfect formula for self-organizing teams, but I think we’ve got some important building blocks in place at Smartly.io. We believe that when you 1) hire the right people, 2) give them context by explaining the overarching vision and long-term goals, and 3) give them access to all the business-critical data, they want to and can make smart decisions that drive the entire company forward. If we get this right, we don’t need bureaucracy or heavy processes to guide or control our work. This makes Smartly.io a nicer place to work for us all.
>> I joined a panel discussion on this topic at Slush this year with Niklas Jansen (Co-Founder of Blinkist), Vishal Vasishth (Co-Founder of Obvious Ventures), and Marianne Vikkula (CEO of Slush). Check it out: Can Self-Organization Work or Is It Just a Myth?
Effective and aligned self-organizing teams start with the right people
We value a self-starting and action-oriented attitude in the people we hire. People who thrive at Smartly.io don’t just come up with solutions to problems, they’re able to determine which are the right problems to solve, then come up with a solution and get cross-functional resources to implement the solution to drive maximum impact.
A key requirement for our self-organizing teams to work is that Everyone Takes Ownership. This aspect of our culture integrates the idea of having freedom to organize your work how you see best with the idea of being responsible for the success of the entire company and decisions you make. Being able to optimize for the long-term success of the whole company calls for a deep understanding of the wider context of your work: the vision, goals, and strategy of the entire company.
All Smartlies are, in fact, owners through stock options. We value long-term impact over quick wins, and if we succeed, everyone gets to enjoy the upside. But being an owner is much more than having a stake in the company. It’s about taking ownership beyond your own role, and making decisions that optimize for the long-term success of the whole company, not just your own.
It’s not a coincidence that a many Smartlies have been entrepreneurs or are planning to start their own firm at some point in their careers. Entrepreneurial attitude is a key component in being able to understand the big picture, and take ownership for the success of the entire company.
Transparency empowers self-driven improvement
The best tool for self-organizing behavior is transparency in what is being done well and where the bottlenecks lie. Since the start, we’ve been very open with our data, and now we’re working hard to find even better ways to measure team performance and bottlenecks.
Our self-organizing teams are responsible for choosing their own metrics to make sure they’re relevant and guide their work to the correct direction. While we aim to keep our engineering and customer teams on the same page, metrics are often function-specific and difficult to standardize across team. For example, our engineering teams measure the adoption rates of their features, and our customer success teams track the number of closed deals and customer churn, to name a few examples.
Each team’s performance data is open to all Smartlies throughout the organization. That’s because we believe transparency allows teams to benchmark others, adjust their actions, and improve their performance in a self-driven way. This way, we hope to leave little need for top-down micromanagement.
We don’t believe in 100% holacracy
Even with self-organizing teams, there is need for leadership. I believe all teams need a team lead, a servant leader who helps them stay focused on the essential. The team lead isn’t a micromanager, but a sparring partner who challenges their teammates to come up with solutions to problems in a self-driven way. A huge responsibility of any team lead is to help their teammates maximize their learning through honest and constant feedback.
What is, then, the role of leadership in a company built on self-organizing teams? I believe a big part of it is planning and building the organizational architecture and facilitating flows of communication and knowledge transfer in a way that supports the work of the self-organizing teams. The organizational structure can’t be set in stone, it has to be adjusted and molded to always support the requirements of quickly evolving industry — which means the work is never done.
Another important role for the leadership is to grow new leaders. Teaching good leadership habits to team leads is essential for helping them succeed in their servant leader role and making sure that the positive effects of self-organizing teams are amplified by the team lead system, not hindered by it.
Interested in hearing more about how we approach leadership and self-organizing teams at Smartly.io? Check out our culture handbook.