Creating a culture that stands for something and stands out – Interview with Tim Deeson

Principles

Today’s interview is with Tim Deeson, the founder of the digital agency Deeson, a leading European multidisciplinary digital transformation agency. Tim joins me today to talk about self-organising teams, what they’ve done, what they learnt along the way, what impact it has had on them and their clients and what advice he would give to other leaders thinking about their organisational structure and how it needs to change to bring out the best in their people and deliver better outcomes for customers.

This interview follows on from my recent interview – The best marketing doesn’t feel like marketing – Interview with Tom Fishburne – and is number 238 in the series of interviews with authors and business leaders that are doing great things, providing valuable insights, helping businesses innovate and delivering great service and experience to both their customers and their employees.

Highlights from my conversation with Tim:

  • Tim is the founder of the digital agency Deeson, which he started in 2001. However, Deeson as a business has been around for a number of years and started life as a publishing company in the 1950s, when it was started by Tim’s grand-father. Tim’s father took over in the 1980s and developed the business into contract publishing.
  • Deeson recently has gone through a few evolutions in terms of how they are structured.
  • As they have grown in size, they have built their understanding of what is the best organisational form for them.
  • They have been heavily influenced by the Spotify pod model (featuring squads, tribes, chapters and guilds). See here, here, here and here for a description of how Spotify’s approach of Squads, Tribes and Chapters works.
  • However, they have augmented the approach as they found Spotify’s model too oriented towards products and they are a service business delivering projects for clients.
  • As a result, they have some hierarchy in their structure but they have tried to minimise that as much as possible by being as radically transparent as possible.
  • The impetus for the move to their current structure was driven by the fact that as the business grew Tim realised that he was the focal point for many decisions, that wasn’t scalable and it didn’t feel intuitively right to just add a layer of hierarchy to help manage and grow the business.
  • Whilst they did look at the holocracy model and have been heavily influenced by Spotify’s approach, they have learned that there are all sorts of nuance, contextual and change management issues that come with all of the different organisational models. This has meant that they haven’t been able to land on a ‘label’ that describes how they are organised.
  • Simply put, they have adopted a system of self-organising teams, with a bit of hierarchy thrown in, which are guided overall by a clear purpose and set of principles. These are informed by how and why people want to work.
  • The principles include elements like autonomy, intrinsic motivation, empowerment and transparency.
  • They have adopted a principle of radical transparency as much as is possible. However, what they have learned is that whilst you can give everyone access to every bit of information, people are often too busy to look at the information. Moreover, whilst giving people access to information is being transparent it is not necessarily helping people understand or engage with the information. They have found that it is better to package the information in a way that facilitates that.
  • Many people are scared of this type of approach as they quickly start thinking about the impact of everyone knowing everything, wondering what people will think and how they will act as a result.
  • In reality, however, most people are happy, in the knowledge, that things are transparent and, in reality, don’t spend a huge amount of time or effort going through the data.
  • The migration to a system of self-organising teams has been a painful process featuring lots of different experiments. Some have succeeded and some have failed. It is an evolutionary process that they have been refining over the last 3 1/2 years.
  • Their change was facilitated by their recognition of the challenges facing them as a company and as a management team as well as the fact that they need to compete in a highly competitive hiring market.
  • To get started, one of the first things they did was around distributed and flexible working. They started by establishing core hours  of 11am-3pm. Outside of those hours, people can work whenever they want and and wherever they want. Initially, they started with saying that people could work up to X days per week from home. This put them firmly on the path towards self-management.
  • This was a big shift for them as it meant a shift away from managing time to focusing on managing outputs and outcomes.
  • Over the course of the last few years they have grown from 10-15 people to around 40 people and have grown their revenue at a rate of 15-30% p.a. across those years.
  • Commercially the shift has worked for them but it has allowed them to create a culture that both stands for something and stands out in a very competitive hiring market.
  • Deeson’s mission is to become Europe’s leading open source agency. As part of that they have made available their team handbook, processes and information online, all of which are published under a Creative Commons license.
  • When you look at organisational design and structure, you need to consider many factors including organisational maturity, the context within which you operate and whether you value innovation over stability/certainty.
  • More often than not, more experienced professionals tend to benefit from and appreciate the benefits of self managed environments more than less experienced colleagues.
  • But, business still needs to recruit and develop younger talent.
  • The challenge, therefore, is squaring that with their size and distributed and flexible way of working.
  • Self organising teams can lack emotional/social intelligence and, like Zopa’s experience, Deeson have had to invest in people management skills and training to make their approach work.
  • No amount of adoption of new models or ways of working is going to do away with the need for emotional/social intelligence, leadership and good people management skills.
  • Self-organising teams can also suffer from being too internally focused and can become disconnected from what is going on outside their team or in the external environment.
  • This reminded me of Stafford Beer’s VSM model and how self-organising teams could lack System 4, which is ‘made up of bodies that are responsible for looking outwards to the environment to monitor how the organization needs to adapt to remain viable.’
  • Tim hasn’t seen a democratic organisational model that is effective at monitoring and responding to the external environment such that it remains viable.
  • This also reminded me of my own time at Shell and how they used Scenario Planning as a way of exploring the future and deepening their strategic thinking.
  • Interesting how when a company comes under pressure that type of department can be the least valued and, therefore, the first to go in an organisation that is driven by an annual/quarterly reporting cycle.
  • But, that department or function can also be the one that keeps you connected to the external environment and pushes you to evolve over time.
  • When thinking about organisational challenges and different operating models it is useful to first examine what are you own motivations for proposing those changes, is their something about your own role and the organisation that you don’t like and is this the best way to achieve that.
  • We must be careful that we don’t go looking for ‘the answer’ when there is no such thing or no ‘one size fits all’.
  • All of these models have pros and cons so selecting which pros and cons you are most willing to live with or are the most appropriate to your goals is probably the right way to go
  • For many people Ricardo Semler’s book: Maverick!: The Success Story Behind the World’s Most Unusual Workplace is the original place of inspiration.
  • Because the technology industry is so competitive, particularly when it comes to the demand for talent, they tend to work harder in terms of the experience that they deliver to their employees. That is driving a lot of thinking and change in terms of how these companies are organised and operate. This is not as true in industries that do not face as much competition for talent.
  • If you are considering changing your organisational structure then Tim recommends doing as much reading as possible, particularly case studies and war stories from firms that have gone through similar changes.
  • Try reading Reinventing Organizations: An Illustrated Invitation to Join the Conversation on Next-Stage Organizations by Frederic Laloux.
  • Conduct a Situational Awareness exercise to start to address: where do we want to get to, why do we want to get there, where are we now and what does that journey look like?
  • This does not always require whole organisation transformation but can be conducted in small autonomous teams as a starting point.
  • The Agile Manifesto and the principles that lie behind it are a good place to start as a set of principles.
  • Taking a manifesto approach is a great antidote to a textbook approach to get started with this type of stuff.
  • Writing your own organisational manifesto or set of principles should be uneasily done in workshop in an hour with your leadership team.
  • This really is all about principles.
  • Wow service/experience for Tim is when an organisation understands his needs in ways that even he didn’t understand. Wow service is all about giving more than has been asked for.
  • Check out Tim’s new venture: Greenshoot Labs, where in the light of these future of work trends and building on the big work messaging platforms (Slack, Facebook at Work) they will be developing some clever products that aim to help teams be happier and more productive.

About Tim

Tim DeesonTim Deeson is the founder of Deeson, a leading European multidisciplinary digital transformation agency.

Tim’s focus at the agency is culture and growth, including new services and technologies. Recent work has centred on self-organising teams and how the digital sector can become more inclusive.

He is one of three founders of DrupalCamp London which runs the largest (600+ attendees) community organised Drupal event in Europe.He has a degree in software engineering.

His digital strategy work includes Future Publishing, BRIT Awards, Medtronic, Jimmy Page and Open University.

You can find out more about Deeson at www.deeson.co.uk, check out Tim’s new venture: Greenshoot Labs, say Hi to Tim and the folks at Deeson on Twitter @timdeeson and @DeesonAgency and do connect with Tim on LinkedIn here.

 

 

 

Photo Credit: Ken Whytock Flickr via Compfight cc

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