Moving to cross functional teams

The journey towards building the best teams in Europe.

“How confident are you in building a 500 person company?”“Zero, no idea” I replied. “We’ve never done that before. I have no idea what it looks like.”“How confident are you in building a high performing team of 5 people?”“Yep, we can do that. We’ve done that before and we're starting to do that at CharlieHR too.”“Okay, well just build 100 teams of 5 people and you have a 500 person company.”

That’s when the penny dropped for me.

I realised we were building the wrong type of company structure. If we didn’t do something about it, it was going to bring down the whole damn business.

Let me explain.

We’re two years into running CharlieHR and it’s been a whirlwind. The company is currently at 16 people. They’re all extremely talented and we love working together.

We have the company set up in the obvious way. Four teams each focused on their role disciplines; product design, engineering, customer experience and growth. Call them departments if you will.

We have a couple of senior people who together with my co-founders Rob, Ben and I make up a leadership team. We use OKRs (Objectives and Key Results) to guide our journey (which are awesome and I would highly recommend).

Yet, over the last 6 months small cracks were starting to appear between these departments.

Growth regularly required more design input. Engineers were needed by customer support to fix and help users. Meanwhile, design was working without the necessary customer experience to inform and help them to understand user feedback, and we weren’t ever deploying marketing properly when launching individual features.

Communication at Charlie started to look like this:

At the same time, a few of the team team were giving me feedback back that that things felt like theywere changing. They were telling me they felt like they had less input on product, less ownership over the company and fewer opportunities to impact objectives.

This was coming from some of our earliest team members. It worried me like crazy.

One teammate even went as far to say they were starting to feel like a resource. I hate that word resource. People are not resources, and worrying about this kept me awake for a few nights.

When we looked deeper into this feedback, we found that everyone needed a touchpoint with everyone else at some point to hit their objective. This was slowing us down, as it relied on a huge volume of communication (resulting in a lot of miscommunication) across the company.

Even at 16 people there was too much friction between departments.

Just small cracks for now, but they didn’t feel like things we could just paper over.

When we drilled down further into how departments were working together, we found that teams were often compromising their own objective to fulfill other department’s objectives. This was building a feeling of scarcity, and the frustration levels were mounting.

We could start to see a future where the departments got so big that genuine, perhaps even insurmountable, problems would arise. Communication between departments would cause so much friction that no work would ever get done.

We could see a future where this structure killed innovation, exacerbated internal politics and formed cliques in each department. Realising this felt genuinely scary.

So I did what I usually do when I’m scared: read as much around the subject as possible, and tried to speak to as many experts as I could.

I learnt about how the US military changed their structure when fighting Al Qaeda by reading the Teams of Teams. I leant what teal organisations are through Reinventing Organisations, and how Jeff Bozos’s two pizza rule works in The Everything Store. As well as reading more about how Spotify, Patagonia and Transferwise are building their companies.

Through the ever-helpful Carlos Espinal at Seedcamp, I got to speak to Jeff McClelland at Transferwise. It was this call that gave me my solution.

We would shift to cross functional teams, based on a small group of people with all the skills to plan, deliver and hit an objective.

Right now, we are in the process of moving to cross functional teams at CharlieHR. They look a bit like this:

Every team will contain a Product Manager, a Product Designer and at least one Engineer. It will be supplemented with specialists in areas like growth, marketing and customer support, alongside more engineers or designers where needed.

These teams each have their own objective and importantly, they will have everything they need to hit that objective.

Teams will be able to discover the problems they need to solve, decide on a plan, design and deliver the solution

As a senior team we debated the pros and cons of cross functions in depth. However, the decision was made and I presented my research and thinking to the whole company. I was prepared for a cross examination, even a backlash.

But it never came. Everyone just agreed. It made sense and solved a lot of the small cracks that were starting to appear.

We believe this new structure will help our company move faster, be more efficient and give real ownership to the teams. Of course, we also know that there are going to be a number of pitfalls and challenges along the way.

I’m going to try and write about them as we go. Hopefully it will give some insight to anyone else who is thinking about trying cross functional teams.

So it begins. Charlie is becoming a team of teams. Onwards…

To make this model work, we need brilliant people. You can see the roles we’re currently hiring for here.

Interested in the future and who will invent it. Co-Founder @JoinCharlie