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Developing The Organizational Language

This is another follow-up post on my first year at eyeo.

In a company where the norm was to shun any hype, and avoiding cargo-culting by all means, it was not easy to use the language I had come to learn in the industry. Mentioning "Agile" would derail any discussion into shoot-downs, anecdotes and personal opinions and experiences. Few of the agile values, principles or practices were taken at face value. The more experienced colleagues had bad experiences with "agile transformations", and the large majority of younger colleagues had not recognized the pains of silofication, nor experienced the joy of successful organizational change.

As is the norm these days, "DevOps" has already been reduced to infrastructure engineering. Scrum was a fad, XP forgotten, Kanban was a board on the wall. Sprints were pointless, we'd rather ship when there's a big enough reason to ship. Conway's and Little's laws were unknown, as were Lean, theory of constraints and other constructs I took as being common sense or industry "standard" (if there were such a thing).

Rationality, skepticism and pragmatism ruled. Which can be good, but it can also grind conversations about organizational improvement to zero velocity (pun intended). How can we even discuss without having words for the things we see and the things we want?

The Survey

Around a month into joining eyeo, I started with a survey: "What should we call the things". The main goal was to manifest the separation between temporary projects and more permanent value streams, and separating the idea of cross-functional teams from profession groups.

This lead to the introduction of some new entities that never really had organization-wide definition:

  • Groups of people in the same profession were termed departments
  • Project teams would be our cross-functional groups (the ones working on a project or product together)
  • A project team would own one or more work streams which were the categories of work they would do or take care of.

The people and teams graph

Armed with these basic terms, we got management support and rolled on by beginning to map out the organization. I began building a graph database of persons, teams and departments to give a graphical overview of the relationships in the organization. This was useful for me to gain an understanding of the layout of the company, but it was more useful as a device for explaining others how we are a social network with many kinds of relations between many people and their areas of work.

Screenshot from 2016-11-22 00-57-32.png

At some point, the database counted almost a thousand relationships in a company of less than a hundred! In retrospect, this is where we blundered by investing too long and too much time in analysis rather than learning through experimentation. We spent almost half a year before we went public with our findings and plan for the new organizational structure. A month would've been enough to get something good enough to try, and rather give people themselves the ability to chart out this graph in detail.

Launching the new organizational language

When we figured we had a very solid model of the organizational layout, basically a spreadsheet saying who belonged in a project team together, we published it along with a declaration of rules on how project teams could continue to change.

While that launch and the following 6 months were bumpy and would be worthy of several blog posts in its own right, the short story is that while it alone failed at transforming the organization into where we wanted it to go, it successfully blasted the new terminology into the company.

People began questioning and challenging both our new and the old organizational units placed around their own work - a crucial precursor to organizational development. Cross-functional teams and their work became a first-class citizen in our organizational language.

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