Company-wide improvement is challenging in an organization with a flat structure that empowers its employees to take responsibility for changing reality around them. This was something that I have noticed immediately when coming to Tooploox 2 months ago. It triggered me to think differently about this kind of process and ‘unlearn’ the usual ways of how to run company-wide improvements.
There are some challenges that we as an organization face in such a dynamic environment:
- How to avoid a situation, where different people start working on the same problems (and don’t know about each other)?
- How to allow all employees to choose which actions to support or get involved in?
- How to present value of the improvement initiatives; how to make them measureable?
- How to create room for everyone to speak their mind and at the same time avoid decision paralysis?
Now, that is a lot to think about 🙂 We tackle those challenges as we do all the things in Tooploox: with small experiments and positive energy.
What worked for us so far
Having Tooploox tweaks backlog in Trello, visible to all. This is crucial as with a flat structure (over-)communication and transparency is key to avoid doubling the work and reinventing the wheel. It also allows anyone to see what kind of initiatives are ongoing, which ones are next in line and decide where to lend a hand. This way we address challenges 1 and 2.
Ensuring that we have a proper communication channel. In our case – town hall meetings (an all-hands gathering and company info sharing session) and a dedicated slack channel. It is important to allow everyone to know what’s going on in the company and at the same time not to flood people with information. You don’t have to constantly track everything and be distracted from your work. Once in two weeks you will get a snippet of what’s currently going on (also regarding improvement initiatives) as well as what’s ahead (and is waiting for people willing to help). This helps with point number 2.
Conducting regular review of the Tooploox Tweaks. How has the life quality of our employees changed? Which experiments helped and which not so much? What are the future ideas? We answer these questions regularly on review meetings and gather feedback from our fellow Tooplooxers. We are addressing the challenge number 3 here.
Creating experiments. It’s not enough to just state that we need to ‘improve feedback culture’ or ‘create company vision’. In order to engage people, we need establish why we are doing things, what problems we are addressing and also how we will know that we are going in the right direction (success criteria). We do so by splitting major improvement initiatives into smaller, measurable experiments. This also addresses the challenge number 3 (the ‘measurable’ part).
Here’s an example of how we used experiments is the general improvement of the onboarding process in Tooploox. First, we decided why we do this. Then, we conducted a survey for the people that had joined Tooploox in the past 3 months to get a snapshot of the current situation and gather the pain-points. Later, we had a workshop, which only engaged stakeholders. We then created smaller, measurable and time-boxed changes in the onboarding process (like having a buddy at the start) to address the main pain points. We track them on a board that is visible to all and review the value added during regular Tooploox Tweaks reviews. The last thing will be to make another snapshot (another survey after 2-3 months) to check whether corresponding areas have changed.
The decision process
So what about challenge number 4? The (most) common argument against the consensus model of decision making is that in order to make a decision, we need to have everyone contributing to the discussion and then convinced that this is the right choice. This, indeed, can be a very long and painful decision process, which, in turn, can lead to a compromise more often than not.
But this is not how we do things in Tooploox. Seeking a full consensus (or applying democracy) is not always the best way to go. Below you can find an example on how we approached making a decision on splitting the company profit (also called ‘Bonuses’ in some companies 🙂 between the employees.
First, we asked the Founders of Tooploox what is their need behind changing the current method of splitting the company profit between employees. It was to make it more fair and transparent, but also to involve people more in the financial aspects of Tooploox and to be more aware of the spendings. All in all, the goal was to limit waste.
Then the Founders discussed between each other the levels of delegation for this decision. Shall it be made solely by them, by the employees or somewhere in between? They decided they will make the decision based on the feedback from the employees.
Then, we prepared an open-for-all workshop but to make the discussion more focused, we used already prepared options, brainstormed in a small group, on how the bonuses could be distributed and/or calculated. The workshop itself gathered ~20% of employees. The goals and expected outcomes were clear as well as the delegation levels. People knew and understood that they were to present an opinion to the Founders, not to vote for a final decision).
During the 3-hour workshop we used a simplified SWOT analysis (with strengths, threats and opportunities/ideas) in smaller groups and then presented the results to the whole group. Then, we had a vote for every idea (based on the weak consensus principle). We ended the session with a short Q&A and the Founders had what they wished for: an input to their decision.
This way we presented exactly what the advisory process is all about, on a larger scale of the whole organization. The people driving the process took responsibility for the decision (Founders) and also consulted other stakeholders (employees) before making it. The same principle can be applied to other improvement actions where a smaller group or person (not necessarily the Founder of the company!) can take responsibility for making decisions as long as they consult the other involved/interested/experienced parties beforehand.
Things we still need to improve in our Tooploox Tweaks process:
- The size of the initiatives (to split or not to split?). Usually the initiatives are long(er) projects (1-3 months) as we need to first create, then apply AND measure the results after some time. How to track progress? Currently, we use a Trello board for the big initiatives and then create separate boards just to track smaller tasks for a single initiative.
- How do we do refinement, backlog ordering and who should be involved?
- How to involve even more people in the improvement initiatives? How to create a company culture where raising a hand to report a problem is just a first step in taking responsibility to fix it?
There you have it. And this is just the beginning of my journey at Tooploox and into a fascinating world of dynamic, flat-structured and empowered organization and its improvement processes. Stay tuned for more 🙂