How We're Better Today Than We Were Yesterday

Posted by Spencer Pitman

February 10, 2014 at 8:30 PM

We run into the concept of "responsiveness" all the time. Whether that is tweeting about how Klout's redesign isn't, or thinking carefully about our team's ability to rapidly solve complex problems for our clients, it's something that I find myself obsessing over lately. But responsiveness is important not just in the daily, or even the quarterly. We have found that it is absolutely fundamental to our entire organizational approach.

Before we get too far down this road I'll share my thoughts on what the word "responsive" means here. If a given thing is responsive, then it dynamically reacts to contextual changes. In web design, this means a page that behaves differently depending on how it is sized (this is an oversimplification), a critical feature for web apps focused on both desktop and mobile users. In account services it becomes important as a given team addresses the emergent needs of many different customers. In strategic formulation to be responsive is to build processes that empower agile, iterative tactics.

Why this Matters

When we look at the world around us, especially with respect to technology and culture, we can derive a rate at which it is changing (f′). This is the approach that many legacy companies have developed: They adopt models and processes that are efficient now with respect to f′ and they create regular review intervals to ensure they stay efficient in the future. This notion is theoretically sound, but practically incapable of ensuring either efficiency or effectiveness, because the derived rate of cultural and technological change is not actually the relevant equation. What matters is the acceleration of the rate of change (f′′). The last decade has seen more consolidation and adjustment in the way that customers are interacting with products than the previous two or three did. And we expect that the next two or three years will likely see more than the last ten. Even if we establish a short-rotation review interval, the slope of f′′ eventually catches up and continually reduces the effectiveness of our review. In short, the acceleration of innovation is not linear, but if our approach to addressing external change is then we are off our mark.

The Responsive Org

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What we realized it means for an organization to be responsive is that its entire structure must be built around perceiving, identifying, contextualizing, and then ultimately solving problems in a dynamic and attentive way. The company must be reactive to multiple feedback channels: the needs of our team, the problems of our customers, the technology in our stack, and the constraints or advantages of our model. We intake huge amounts of information from each of these pipelines, and much of that information dictates the way that we must manage the others. No matter what, the task of leadership is to service each channel in such a way that they all continue to support the achievement of our overall vision. If we fail in effectively addressing any one channel, all of the others suffer.

The Responsive Team

As it relates to our business, responsiveness is necessarily fractal. If we want a dynamic organization that is capable of rapidly rendering excellent product in evolving contexts, then we must expect the same of all aspects of our organization. We cannot simply fire and forget, sending out a directive memo yelling that we expect dynamism from our team and then walk away. We must build a system that support agility & growth. In many cases we have to remove structures that were once useful but now stifle those things. We have to create environments that allow for creative-productive work and that recruit the highest level of buy-in from our team. We have to hire believers who are both confident and imminently coachable.

I’ve discussed before how we borrowed heavily from Undercurrent’s Skills Maturity Matrix in the development of our own toolkit. Even in the short while since I posted that we’ve already conceived of a number of different uses and subiterations of the matrix. It is showing up in hiring, in client meetings, over drinks at Aardwolf, on HipChat sessions and often whenever someone wants to make fun of my tendency to organize information into cubic grids. The point is, the SMM (or ESM, as we term it) is an artifact of “culture.” This is the essential piece of the Responsive Team: a culture of evolution and growth.

Culture is not ping pong, mini fridges, catered lunches, casual dress, or a boss that says fuck sometimes. We have all of these things, but they are, at best, byproducts of our culture. Culture is our team coming together to solve each others’ problems across mentorship spheres or specialization verticals. Culture happens when we are moving offices and our team gets stuck in a single room workspace but we still kick ass. Artifacts like the ESM or my next big project, the Handbook [working title] help us ensure that we stay focused on responsiveness and excellence, but culture itself rises from the team and should bleed from leadership.

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Using Technology to Solve Customers’ Problems

By hiring effectively (we don’t always do this, but we tend to rapidly apprehend and resolve it when we don’t) and creating cultural artifacts, environments, and traditions we are able to respond to changes in our industry without needing to upheave and renew our staff. Just as we will reorganize to support our team, we need our team to respond effectively to the problems and opportunities that arise for our clients. Again, step one is hiring the people equipped with the ability to conduct themselves intelligently in a crisis (because to clients, many things we are trained to handle easily are crises). Step two, however, is finding ways to promote cross-pollination and collaboration.

Technology has made this prospect incredibly approachable. A few weeks ago I was in Boulder, Jessica was in Jax, Drew was in Paris and we all worked together via Hangout to address several organizational concerns. HipChat, Google apps, StrikeBase, giant whiteboards…the more we can externalize information and make it available across our organization, the better we find that we are able to produce outstanding and novel results for our clients. Sometimes it is also about process, but even then, processes are specifically minimalist and operate as a framework, not a checklist. If a team member comes to me and shows how and why they went outside of the prescriptions of a given process, I’m happy. If it produced something winning, I’m fucking stoked.

The Organizational Model That Isn’t

In the post I linked earlier I explained a bit of why it is inappropriate for us to be truly flat. The way work is divided and the way that skills and experience stratify mean that we need a little more structure in order to balance creativity with efficiency. Despite this fact, however, we work well as an agile squad.

I built an org chart a few months ago that we presented in a HubSpot partner broadcast. To the surprise of many it included the client. The artifact is more accurately an illustration of the way information flows through our company than necessarily a formal org structure, but the point is that feedback channels like our clients and the technology we use to service them are just as relevant to our structure as the relationships that might exist between differing spheres of mentorship. We can and do rapidly reorganize around problems so that we are developing the best solutions, and we do so on the basis of the information we’re collecting from each pipeline. What is relevant ultimately is the drafting of solutions that make us and our customers better, not the structural frame we use to get there.

Everything we do as a company is in service of our team and our customers, addresses the concerns and opportunities presented to us by technology, and is often a new configuration of our extant model. The task of leadership is to harmonize these ends by constantly evolving and refining our approach. We are always dissatisfied but inexorably hopeful and confident that we are going in the right direction.

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 This article was originally posted on Medium.

Topics: Strategy