Using Self-Selection to Create Journey Teams at Avvo

Many companies are interested in experimenting with self-selection as a way of organizing their teams. I see questions about the process often in online forums. While there are some excellent books and blog posts on the topic, I thought that I would share a self-selection exercise that we did at my last company, Avvo. It worked reasonably well and with relatively little drama. If you are considering a similar exercise, you might consider this approach.

I joined Avvo as it’s CTO in the summer of 2016. At the beginning of 2017, we moved to a new team structure. The basis of the new team structure was the customer journeys through our product. The new teams were naturally called “Journey Teams.” I describe Journey Teams briefly in my talk Building a Culture of Continuous Improvement in Your Company.

Traditionally at Avvo, the development teams had been organized in a top-down manner. I had heard from the individual developers some frustration at how they were placed into teams and moved without consultation. I decided that this re-organization was an excellent way to demonstrate the more inclusive and autonomous culture that I was building. Allowing people to self-select their new team seemed like an excellent way to break from the past and set expectations for the future.

Preparation

We decided on six Journey Teams. Four were product-focused supporting customer journeys. The other two were internally focused. One Journey Team supported our developers with tooling to help them manage their services. The other internal journey team focused on supplying business analytics to the marketing, finance and sales teams.

If someone is going to choose a team, they need to understand what the team is and why they would want to join it. The Chief Product Officer and I, with our direct reports, set the number and charters of the Journey Teams.

Once we set the number and missions of the Journey Teams, we picked an initial leadership group for each team. That leadership group consisted of one senior member of each functional specialty that would be part of the team. The product teams each had a Product Manager, a Development Lead, a Test Lead, a UX Lead, a Data Engineering Lead, and a Data Analytics Lead.

The new Journey Team leadership groups were each responsible for setting up the initial scaffolding of each of their teams. The scaffolding included: fleshing out their missions, establishing their spheres of responsibilities, putting together some initial strategies they would use, and choosing their core metrics. As they made progress on these, they would review with each other and with the senior product and technology leadership. We needed to make sure that every part of the product and platform had an owner and that the plans and metrics made sense.

As the Journey Team leadership groups made progress building their plans, they were asked to put together staffing estimates on what they would need to execute their strategies. The staffing estimates were valuable as it helped me decide on what staffing I would need in the next years budget. The budget process was happening in parallel with this effort.

As we moved into December of 2016, the leadership of each of the Journey Teams had made enough progress that I felt comfortable setting the self-section exercise to happen right after the New Years break in January. At this point, the board had approved the budget. The CPO and I could figure out what staffing we would allocate to each team based on their mission and their strategy. Each Journey Team then needed to think about how they would structure their efforts based on their allocated staffing.

The Exercise

The self-selection exercise structure was a job fair with a festive atmosphere. The entire product, design, development, test, data engineering, and data analytics teams assembled. We had cupcakes and drinks. One by one, each Journey Team leadership group came up to pitch their team to the rest of the organization. They described their mission, their goals, their initial plans, and the planned size of the team. Some had already designed logos and had slogans. Each team was selling their mission to their peers. Some teams put a lot of effort and salesmanship into their pitches. Other teams had a difficult time articulating why people should join them.

After the last Journey Team had presented, every person in the room got a card. The card contained a space for their name and a list of the Journey Teams with spaces to put their order of preference. We asked everyone to fully rank their preferences just in case that would be needed.

When all the cards were filled out and collected, the meeting adjourned.

Finalizing the selection

After the self-selection meeting, the people managers from the organization met. The responses from the each of the cards were now in a spreadsheet showing each person’s preferences, the number of people currently assigned to each Journey Team and the number of people that were budgeted to be on the team.

The people managers were part of the process because they knew each of their reports interests, challenges, growth plans, and interpersonal issues. They were there to advocate for their reports wishes. They were also there to understand the process. With an understanding of the process, they could explain to someone why they didn’t get their first choice. The people managers were also there to make sure that each team had the best diversity of skills, backgrounds, and experience so that they would have the highest chance of succeeding.

The matching people and teams process was iterative. As the teams started to fill in, we had to go back and re-adjust a few times. The whole process of matching people and teams only took about 90 minutes for a 120 person organization. It went relatively quickly. Along the way, we chose to shift one headcount between teams to accommodate a developer’s professional development interests.

We were able to match 99% of the people to their first or second choice of Journey Team. In the case where someone got their third choice, we had a good explanation for them about the decision.

Once the initial rosters for each Journey Team were set, they had a chance to review and give feedback. For the cases where people didn’t get their first choice, their manager was able to discuss with them in their 1:1s.

While we were open to further iteration to accommodate any concerns that came up, it turned out that it wasn’t necessary. The Journey Teams and individuals were all content with the matching.

A week after the self-selection exercise we sent out the official announcement of the new team rosters. The teams started meeting to flesh out the initial plans and individuals moved to sit with their new teammates. We did make it clear to every person that if they were unhappy with their decision that we would help them switch.

A Retrospective on the exercise a few weeks later found very high satisfaction from the organization on the process and on the teams that it produced.

The Result

The exercise itself was a success. It had tremendous engagement from the organization. People felt empowered in the exercise and committed to their new team because it was their choice. Only one person switched teams in the three months after the exercise and only a handful in the rest of the year.

What I would do differently Next Time

The process of preparing for the exercise from each of the Journey Teams created some tension in the organization. The Journey Team leadership groups spent much time meeting together in the weeks before the exercise. The teams weren’t transparent enough about what they were doing. We as leaders hadn’t set reasonable expectations about communication. We did start to encourage them to send out updates to the organization on their progress, but it came later than it should have. Next time, I would give more guidance to the leadership teams about how they could go about their initial organizing. I would put a tighter time expectation on them, and I would make sure that they were transparent to the rest of the organization.

The presentations themselves were a bit of a challenge for some teams. We did encourage teams to make their presentations fun and to sell their missions. We didn’t help the teams with their presentations though, and we didn’t do a run through with them. The disparity in presentations did mean that some teams attracted an inordinate amount of interest. Next time, I would have a run through where each team could see each other’s presentations, and we could give some advice to help make their presentations better.

Regular Self-Selection Exercises

There were some in the organization who were so happy with the self-selection exercise that they suggested we repeat it every year. I know that there are organizations who do this. From my experience, I can see it working within a small company where most everyone already has a good connection with each other. In a small organization, it would take much less time to go through the forming, storming and norming phases. In a larger organization, regular re-organization would mean a lot of wasted time trying to get teams going.

For Avvo, the self-selection made sense at a juncture where we were doing a complete organizational restructuring. The old teams were utterly gone. It took a while for the new teams to get going, but once they established themselves, they worked well, and it made little sense to change them again. Individuals always had the option to move between teams if they felt like they were ready for new challenges. The organization was growing, and so the teams were always hiring. If we had been in a more constrained environment, we would still have done our best to facilitate smooth movement within the organization.

The core thing with an exercise like self-selecting teams or any other exercise is to be deliberate in your intent. Why are you doing the exercise? What benefits do you expect? What are the downsides? If it is successful, what will you do next? If it is unsuccessful, how will you roll it back or what will you do instead?

Conclusion

Letting the people in your organization self-select into teams can be an active driver of engagement and autonomy. The exercise we did at Avvo was successful for us and is worth looking at as inspiration for your process. If you are considering self-selection, be deliberate about what your goals are, what aspects of self-selection help you achieve them and what you might do if the goals are not met.

Building a Culture of Continuous Improvement

A culture of continuous improvement is a culture where you are always open to improving how you build and deliver. You don’t accept the status quo; you choose how to work and feel empowered to change it if it no longer makes sense. It is a people-first culture.

Having had the benefit of a culture like this at the last place I worked, when I started at my current company, I wanted to see if I could create a continuous improvement culture there, too. It took some effort, and we learned some painful lessons along the way, but we did make significant improvements to how our teams operated and how the engineering organization functioned.

As a result of these changes, our teams are able to execute at a much higher level, and the morale of the organization improved significantly. In short, we get a lot more stuff done, and we are happier doing it.

To get there, we had to change some of our frameworks, structures, and processes, or adopt new ones.

Here are some of the frameworks we created that could be helpful for any company:

  • WIGs and sWIGs: A way to align the company around a common mid-term strategy and shorter-term tactical deliveries in a way that preserves team autonomy and agile delivery. WIG stands for “wildly important goal,” and sWIG means “sub-wildly important goal.” Our WIGs clarify the midterm strategy for the company, and the sWIGs clarify the shorter-term tactics we are using to achieve that strategy
  • DUHBs: A data-driven decision-making framework that allows individuals in the company to craft a clear, data-based argument for a making a change. DUHB stands for data, understanding, hypotheses, and bets, which describes the linear process of solving a problem
  • Journey teams: An autonomous team model that gives teams more direct control over how they work, aligned with customer journeys
  • RFCs: A mechanism that allows anyone in the organization to drive large-scale change inclusively. It is a document and a process that uses the “request for comment” structure from standards groups as a basis
  • Retrospectives everywhere: A cultural shift in how we think about examining our organizational strengths and weaknesses when it comes to executing projects

Each framework builds upon the others. By making the priorities and goals of the company clear, people have the context to make good decisions. With a common data-driven process for vetting ideas, people have a good, structured way to propose changes. With autonomous teams, we can test new ideas locally and let the best practices emerge organically. With an inclusive mechanism for proposing larger-scale changes, the organization can participate in the process instead of having it pushed down from leadership. Finally, with a practice of retrospectives at all levels, the organization can learn from successes and mistakes made in any of the other components.

These frameworks created an environment that was not only adaptable and nimble, but also one where the members of the organization were empowered to make changes and were given tools to make advocating for change easier.

If there are more companies with continuous improvement cultures, it means a healthier and happier industry for all of us.

[This is a repost of https://www.techwell.com/techwell-insights/2018/05/building-culture-continuous-improvement]








Slides from my talk on Distributed Teams

Compare the Market was nice enough to invite me to speak at their tech managers’ off-site about distributed teams. This talk reflects my own experience leading distributed teams.

I was presenting to them over video. Their meeting included people in two different offices and also folks dialing in from home. Ironically, in the middle of my talk, I got disconnected from the video conference. Because I was sharing my slides full-screen and had my speaker notes on my second monitor, I didn’t notice. So I spoke to myself for about 15 minutes before I realized what happened and dialed back into the meeting. It was a bit mortifying, but the folks in the UK were extremely nice about it. I can’t think of a better example though of the challenges around working with teams who have to communicate over electronic means constantly, so it was a good illustration of the issues I raised. 🙂








Leaving Avvo

Now that the sale of Avvo has closed and the transition is progressing, I’ll be leaving the company. It has been an absolutely stellar experience. I have loved working with everyone here. After Spotify, it was critical for me to find another company that had values that aligned well with my own, and a senior leadership team and board that I could learn from. Avvo was that place.

I’m extremely proud of the team that we’ve built and the one-of-a-kind engineering culture that now exists at Avvo.

I’m taking a bit of time to consider my next move. I always aspire to be deliberate in my actions, and I need to get a bit of distance to decide what is next. Now that I have a bit more time, I hope to share some of my lessons from Avvo in writing and talks.

This is the e-mail that I sent to my team:

In Simon Wardley’s article “Bits or pieces?: On Pioneers, Settlers, Town Planners, and Theft“ (http://blog.gardeviance.org/2015/03/on-pioneers-settlers-town-planners-and.html), he talks about the need for skilled folks to explore uncharted lands (the pioneers), to take the crazy ideas and turn them into practical products (the settlers), and to industrialize those products (the town planners). I have worked in all three of these roles in my career, but I am happiest as a pioneer and settler. Last year, an interviewer asked me about this article (https://youtu.be/4tqJJ2c6BrU).

As Avvo moves into its new home in Internet Brands, it needs a new leader that will help it thrive and grow in a company that excels at Town Planning. I know that I am not that leader, and so I’ve decided that it is time for me to find my next set of uncharted lands.

I have been privileged to work with every one of you. I am incredibly proud of what we have accomplished together. We have built a mentoring, inclusive, diverse and agile culture with strong teams of people who support each other. While sometimes we focus on how far we are from where we want to be, it is worth realizing how far we’ve come and what rarified air we breathe.

It’s important to understand that the tough changes that have come are not due to the culture that we created. They are the result of two very different companies coming together with different priorities and goals. I will do my best to make sure that every person who is affected gets a new role as soon as possible.

For those that have joined in the last couple of months, I am disappointed that we won’t have more time so that I could get to know you better. I have been thoroughly impressed by what I have seen. For those that I have been able to spend more time with, I’m glad to have been on this journey with you.

I wish each of you the absolute best of luck. While our paths are diverging, there is a bond that we share and a responsibility towards each of you that I will always feel. I’m always available for a coffee, a beer or a phone call if you want someone to hash through something with you.

My last day will be April 6th.








Building a Management Training Curriculum at Avvo

[This is a repost of http://engineering.avvo.com/articles/building-a-management-training-curriculum-at-avvo.html]

This week, we kicked off manager training for Avvo technology managers. Before we could build a curriculum, we needed to decide what was important to learn and where we as a group needed the most development.

If I had done this with my organization at Adobe, years ago, I might have made a list of capabilities or requirements for our roles and then assessed each person against those requirements. I’ve since learned that the top-down approach tends to isolate and alienate people. It is something done TO them. They don’t feel investment or ownership of the process. If they disagree with the list or my assessment of them, it is hard to challenge due to the nature of the process.

When I was at Spotify, I worked with Paolo Brolin Echeverria and Mats Oldin to build manager training for my Tribe. They developed an excellent kick-off exercise that I repurposed for my team at Avvo.

The process is straightforward.

We began by individually thinking about the qualities of a good leader in our organization. We each wrote every important quality we could think of onto individual post-its. This effort took about 20 minutes. Then, one by one, we put each of our post-its onto a large board. As we placed each quality, we explained why we believed it was important for a leader at Avvo.

Kyle getting us started
Kyle getting us started

When we finished putting all of our post-its on the board, we affinity-grouped them. Affinity-grouping resulted in 30 groups of similar qualities as well as a few individual post-its that did not fit into any group. The grouping process required a lot more discussion so that we could all agree on the final groupings.

Nic, Ian and Jordan working on cleaning up the affinity groups
Nic, Ian and Jordan working on cleaning up the affinity groups

At this point, we had collectively described 30 essential qualities of a leader at Avvo, which is far too many to effectively focus on. To narrow things down, we each received six votes to put towards any group of qualities that we felt were the most critical. Then, we tallied the votes and took the top eight as our core qualities of a manager at Avvo.

The voting process also led to a lot of valuable discussions as we saw where we had voted as a group. Were these right eight? Were they the most important eight? The eight qualities that we picked were: empathy, develops autonomy, builds good teams, is real and trustworthy, is a big picture thinker, supports mastery, gives feedback, and has a bias for action.

Dot voting in progress
Dot voting in progress

Individually, we then assessed ourselves against the eight core qualities on a three-point scale: “I need training on this,” “need training, but it can wait,” and “I can train others on this.” One by one, we went up to a board that had the eight qualities mapped on a spider graph. We put dots on a line for each quality where we rated ourselves. We explained why we chose that assessment. This led to further good discussion about how to assess ourselves against these qualities.

Our collective spider graph
Our collective spider graph

The group as a whole found this exercise to be very valuable. We had excellent discussions on what it means to be a good leader at our company, including the values we agree on, and the ones that we don’t. We were also able to prioritize those collectively in a way that everyone feels ownership and allegiance to them.

And we came to an understanding of where we need to develop the most as a group. This mutual understanding will inform the curriculum for our management training – my original goal.