Scaling Agile @ bol.com

As an organization designer, I’m always looking for examples of progressive organizations. Bol.com, the largest online retailer in The Netherlands and Belgium, is definitely a great example that we can learn from.

Every day, over 1200 people work together to create the #1 online shopping experience for their customers. Their IT department consists of more than 350 engineers that are part of 60 cross-functional teams. Staying organized at this scale is definitely a challenge.

In this article I’ll share some of my findings. But wait, there is more: we created an explainer video! If you prefer visuals over text, scroll down to the bottom to view them immediately.

Fleets and Spaces

A Fleet consists of 4–5 closely related teams that share a common mission. A Space consists of several Fleets. Examples of Spaces are: the Shopping Experience Space (focused on the customer experience), Retail Platform Space (focused on partners and retailers), the Fulfilment Network Space (focused on logistical operations) and the Technical Platform Space (focused on providing the other spaces with a scalable technical environment and generic infrastructure).

Teams are grouped into Fleets and Spaces

Sense, respond and innovate

The organization optimizes for autonomy, mastery, purpose and ownership. This allows them respond to change very fast. To enable innovation at high speeds, teams prefer doing and learning from experiments, instead of proving that a business case is right. The culture does not like bureaucracy or analysis paralysis.

“We prefer to ‘stop thinking’ and ‘start doing’, because if you don’t start walking you will never end up anywhere” — Menno Vis

Management

Teams are empowered to make most decisions themselves, therefore a different kind of management is needed. A manager is responsible for 15–20 people, but doesn’t have direct influence on what they do on a daily basis. Managers help and support the teams, but only when a team requests it.

Planning & alignment

Aligning 60 autonomous teams to al work together towards a common goal is a complicated process. Bol.com’s strategic plan defines the over-all course. Then, an iterative planning process is followed to select the priorities for the coming period, based on the expected business value and the (T-shirt-size) estimated effort needed. The roadmap is dynamic and continuously evolving.

“Plans are worthless, but planning is everything” — Dwight Eisenhower

Bottom-up initiatives

People are encouraged to start working on something they find important. This level of self-organization unlocks passion and drive. Anybody can publish an idea and people vote on these ideas. Bol.com’s approach to align 60 teams is both top-down and bottom-up. Management sets objectives, but input from the people is valued equally. Hackathons are held often to encourage this even further (I wrote about bol.com’s hackathons in an earlier article).

24/7 responsibility

Handing things over between departments causes waste and is often unnecessary. That’s why teams are also responsible for running their software in production, 24/7. When things break, they can’t blame others, since they are responsible and have ownership. At bol.com this is called “you build it, you run it, you love it.”

Automation enables speed

To enable teams to focus most of their time building new features, they can use platform components that are provided by the Space Reliability Team and the Technical Platform Space. This is not the traditional ‘operations department’, instead they help feature teams to be successful in production, by automating reusable components.

Do you want to learn more?

Together with the awesome people at bol.com, we created three explainer videos which contains more details about their “retail and tech love story”.

Part 1: How are we organised?

Part 2: How do we organize management & coordination?

Part 3: How do we use technology?


The videos were featured on bol.com’s blog Techlab. The article is also available on LinkedIn.

Ready to change how you work? As the founder of Agile CIO and partner at The Ready, I help organizations become adaptive, responsive, self-organizing ecosystems by implementing new practices, rhythms and behaviors that enable transparency, openness, innovation and a progressive way of leading. Contact me to find out more, sign up to my newsletter Change how the world works or book me as a speaker.

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