The Secret(s) to Company Re-Orgs

This summer, Artsy faced a big challenge. In addressing it, we discovered our own approach to leading organizational change.

During the last two years our company has grown massively, but until this summer our product organization hadn’t evolved with it. What had started as a simple service for galleries to share their artworks online had evolved into a much more sophisticated ecosystem — robust service offerings for museums, art fairs, benefit auctions, and galleries, as well as an editorial platform providing the latest art-world news and stories. Despite the transformation of our business, our organizational structure was out of date.

Growing Pains
Our old model divided our product and engineering resources into two big teams: a “user-facing” and a “partner-facing” team. As a result, communication had become increasingly difficult. Few people outside the Product Team itself knew who was responsible for what and who they should talk to, leading to tensions between the Product Team and others.

It was clear that we needed to evolve. Our hockey stick growth during the last two years had left us with some organizational debt that we now needed to repay. We knew that these changes would ideally happen incrementally, with constant learning and adjustment over time, but at this point we needed a larger, more immediate re-think.

Having previously helped organizations restructure and optimize for the next big leap, I was asked to lead the charge on these efforts at Artsy. During my time at the design and innovation firm IDEO, we were often tasked with telling organizations things they already know about themselves but don’t want to admit, and then supporting them through the necessary change.

I had learned that you have to do two things to have change embraced across teams:

Consider every role and perspective in the organization

Every type of role and part of your team will have its own set of needs. When considering a re-organization you need to make sure that you are considering everyone — from different functional teams to managers and individual contributors to tenured and brand-new team members.

This might sound like a high requirement. Surely you would need a lifetime of experience in organizational design to envision something that nuanced and all-encompassing, right?

Well, we’ll let you in on the dirty secret of organizational change. A secret that is equally obvious as it is profound:

Your team already knows the solution.

All the information you need is already there. You just need to draw it out of the team. Which brings us to the second criteria:

Let it come from within

Organizational change that feels handed down from the top, or like it is the brilliant vision of one person, risks rejection by everyone else. It truly needs to be created by the team and for the team.

There are probably many ways of accomplishing this, but we’ll tell you how we did it:

First, ask the right questions

We reached out to the team asking where they felt tensions and identified opportunities for improvements. This wasn’t limited to the Product Team itself, but included everyone who collaborates with it.

The format was a simple survey, a small set of open-ended questions. By reaching out to as many small groups of people as possible (in our case this included art team leads, people who often collaborate with product, engineering leads, our Design Team, our Engineering Team and so forth) with personalized questions for each group, we wanted to make sure that as many people as possible shared their thoughts. (Faceless, generic, team-wide surveys be damned!)

The responses were plentiful. We went through each comment carefully, making note of themes that emerged across teams. Any opportunity for improvement that was relevant mostly within a team or between specific team members were logged to be addressed separately.

Second, create empathy and understanding

Next, we reflected what we heard back to the team. By sharing our learnings in clearly distilled themes supported by quotes from multiple team members we created a shared understanding of what the problems were.

These themes ranged from the high-level to the tactical:

In the presentation shared with the entire company, themes were accompanied by quotes from team members on different teams.

A clear pattern in the feedback was people expressing different sides of the same tension. For example, team members on the Design and Product teams described an unmanageable and often shifting set of stakeholders to take into consideration, while team members on our Arts Team expressed that things got decided and shipped without their knowledge. By showing both perspectives we created empathy between the teams. Beyond the structural changes we instituted in the re-organization, this increased empathy was valuable in itself in addressing tensions then and now.

Rally support through multiple solutions

Having created a shared understanding of the challenges, we moved forward towards a solution. Here I borrowed another trick from my background in design — generating multiple options. We thought of different ways we could structure product leadership, engineering, design, and cross-team communication, informed by the challenges we had identified and examples from other organizations.

Having previously shared all the feedback with the entire team shifted the focus of our discussions away from personal concerns and toward what was best for Artsy as a whole. We discussed each possible direction for the organization and identified the pros and cons of each solution. This approach — team-wide support for multiple options — was a welcome alternative to trying to forcefully get buy-in on one stroke of genius solution.

Considering a variety of solutions helped us identify weaknesses in each structure and think about how to compensate for them. For example, our final structure enabled teams to work as independent units to pursue clearly defined goals, but risked siloing technical and design solutions into product teams. To address this we put complementary responsibilities and forums in place to assure consistency and collaboration across teams. (Look out for future posts on the Life at Artsy blog to learn more about what the actual structure looks like).

Aim for an anticlimax

When we finally presented the new structure to the whole team the reaction was exactly what we wanted it to be — a total anticlimax. Many people had at some point seen and weighed in on the final solution and those who hadn’t could see a clear connection between our challenges and the new structure, making the solution seem obvious.

Of course, this re-organization just marked one point in time for how we work together. We have already implemented a number of changes since, but hopefully we can move in smaller steps going forward.

Even if our re-organization this summer was largely successful there were also some clear takeaways:

What could have been done better?

— Planning for next steps
Collaborating on the new product structure was an intense process and we were ironing out kinks up to the point we shared it with the team. What we did a less good job of was outlining how and when we would transition into our new structure, creating a fair deal of confusion and lost momentum in the weeks following the new organizational structure.

— Looking out
We did a nice job of understanding the tensions that different parts of the organization were experiencing during the re-organization, but looking back we could have spent more time speaking to other companies about their experiences and how they organize themselves. Although we do believe that our culture and business are unique and we can’t blindly adapt another organization’s approach, it would have given us a better understanding of what we might be facing 1–2 years out.

Are you curious about the actual structure we landed on, or how we’ve evolved things since? We’ll be sharing more soon!

Robert Lenne is Head of Product at Artsy. He has a background in making new products and services for design and innovation companies in Europe and the U.S. You can follow him on twitter @robertlenne.

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