A structured start-up?

by Chris Howroyd, Service Development Director

Back in November 2013 I wrote a piece about our team; musing over fancy words like multi-disciplinary, collaborative and holistic. A full 26 months later, I thought I’d take a fresh look and see how it’s grown, how it works and why.

One of the biggest challenges start-ups face is finding the right skills; most typically have a dire shortage in one or more key areas, making the holy grail of sustainability incredibly difficult (not to mention the prospect of growth).

Enter lean and agile — philosophies which should, in theory, enable even the smallest of start-ups to better cope with skill shortages. Inject some design-thinking to boot and all should be rosy, or will it?

The truth is, no matter how much lean and agile practices are worshipped, a team of individuals is fundamental to how successfully these philosophies are employed (or not). It’s amazing how many times I hear these words bandied about these days, only to be reminded just how few organisations actually (truly) embrace their principles. And I can understand why, as ‘buy-in’ is crucial, across the entire team, which makes it rather difficult — meaning lip-service is often the result.

So, how have we got on? Well, I’m pleased to say, pretty good. Granted I may be rather biased, given that I believe lean and agile theories are very close cousins (if not siblings) to design thinking, but it does offer me a rather unique perspective; I’ve seen the journey the team has made, from being first introduced to these foreign practices, to them being embraced, not wholesale, but 95% of the time.

Taking commitment, passion and a no-nonsense, can-do attitude for granted, I’ve think we’ve made it work for four reasons:

Our hierarchy is flat

Contribution is king, titles and egos are overlooked. It’s amazing how hard work, common values and soft skills can plug gaps.

We only recruit T-shaped people

We love T-shaped people. Our team is full of specialists, but they’re specialists who are willing and able to work across the business, which means we have very shallow departmental silos that are transparently and fluidly interconnected. An example is my own role: my official title is Service Development Director, but Director of Stuff is probably a better description.

We have increased in size slowly but surely

Perhaps not entirely agile, but it’s ensured a good balance is maintained — no footstampers, no bureaucrats, single track minds. We typically bring contractors in first, like Unboxed, before making a longer term commitment.

Although our core team is still less than 10, the fact that we are so T-shaped means that we can grow, without too much fear of burnout.

We embrace lean, agile and design

No lip-service is paid to these principles. Having a designer on the board has helped, but our team has appeared to come to love and respect this way of working. It’s often said that organisations that have a designer on their board fare a lot better on the world’s stock markets — whether it’s me or someone else, I hope there will always be one on SH:24’s board.

Feature creep is our number one enemy at the moment — so many opportunities, so many ideas and a team that is both excited and committed to making a difference — question is, which ideas to invest in and when? Introduce lean, agile and design thinking again and all becomes clear, most of the time (money often temporarily blurs our vision). The odd sense check aside, I personally believe we’ve stayed on track, regularly pivoting (but not too much to upset) and taking stock, when we face tough decisions.

Let’s hope we can make the step up from lean start-up to lean enterprise.


Originally published at sh24.squarespace.com on February 19, 2016.

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