A note from Partner Will Watson: “Typically we write about organizational operating systems and cutting edge organization design. We’ve got something a bit different this time — an article written and originally shared internally by one of our clients, Vermont State Employees Credit Union. VSECU has embarked on an organizational transformation effort to develop an operating system that supports their purpose of improving the lives of all Vermonters. The end goal is to support their iterative transformation into an organization driven by continuous, participatory improvement toward organizational resilience, adaptability, and responsiveness.
Shawn Christianson, a digital specialist at the Credit Union and a member of our Core Team, writes here about his experience working with us and watching as the organization builds its learning muscles to serve their purpose more effectively. Without further ado, we’ll turn it over to Shawn.”
How do you build a business capable of keeping up with today’s technology?
How do you do that while keeping your members’ needs front and center?
And how, once you’ve achieved those goals, do you prepare for tomorrow?
None of these questions are easy to answer, and indeed entire books have been written on each individual topic. The truth is, that while technology has spent the past 50+ years improving exponentially, the structure of most companies has remained the same. And in addition to their structure, in many cases the way they work has been static.
Thanks to the leadership at VSECU, our organization has embarked on a mission to challenge these traditional norms in search of a better way of working together and organizing as a team. As the adage goes, “change is hard,” so we enlisted the help of The Ready, an organizational design and transformation partner based in New York City, to help us get going.
The beautiful thing about the approach The Ready takes is that they don’t pretend to have “the answer.” Instead the focus is on mindset and process, tailoring their work to each individual organization as opposed to trying to make vastly different organizations fit within the framework of one model. This makes their method flexible, responsive, and easy to apply to just about any size company in any industry. That isn’t to say they don’t arrive with specific tools and procedures to try, but the overall transformation effort is much more fluid than it is rigid.
As we have progressed, a couple of key factors have stood out as being of utmost importance to this change-effort being successful here at VSECU. These are elements within our organizational structure that we have identified as needing to be specifically addressed.
Policies & Procedures
Being in the financial world means dealing with stringent regulations that help ensure safe business practices. Thus, as an industry and an organization, we are very heavy on the number of policies we are required to follow, and thus procedures that govern internal processes within this context. Our work with The Ready is focusing on creating ways we can hold ourselves to the same standard of quality and accuracy, while streamlining where possible and organizing everywhere to create a better, more seamless experience for our members.
Over the years we have developed quite a bit of “institutional inertia” which is being evaluated as part of this process. Institutional inertia, in this instance, refers to things that have been created over the years and not may not have been reassessed since their inception. Our goal for this process is to identify those internal procedures that are no longer relevant, necessary, or which can be consolidated and shortened. All this in the name of creating a faster, more accurate experience for our members!
How’s it going? We’re working on a “Procedure Bounty,” which would provide a reward structure for employees who can identify procedures that can be simplified or eliminated. We’re also looking for ways to reorganize policies and procedures that are necessary to VSECU so that they can be accessed easier and faster to create greater consistency.
One of the first issues within our organization that was identified as problematic was communication. This was (and still is) compounded by the fact that, as a credit union for all Vermonters, we have branches from Burlington all the way to Bennington, creating vast physical distances between staff. We started by testing a new communication program called Slack, but due to its popularity “testing” quickly snowballed into rolling it out to the entire organization.
The goal is for Slack to start making internal communication more transparent, accessible, and to shift the culture from pushing information to pulling it. That is to say, by making all of these discussions visible, it allows people to contribute and be engaged when they want or need to be, but avoids requiring everyone to know information that may only be pertinent to a few individuals. The goal of this project was to reduce information overload and make more conversations public, thus increasing the knowledgeability of everyone.
How’s it going? It’s still in experiment phase, but initial indicators are good with up to 30% of all conversation now happening in public channels, and there have been many reports of significantly diminished emails.
Decision Making Rights
When you look at a company like Zappos, who has been lauded for their forward-thinking organizational structure, it’s easy to get caught up in their culture of empowered decision making which focuses on putting decision-making authority directly in the hands of their employees. On its face this framework may seem less organized and more decentralized, but the truth is, for this style of system to be effective, there must actually be more framework and structure within the organization.
As a result, not only are we looking to pass along more authority to our individual team members, but we are working to create a culture and structure in which that authority is clearly defined. Having these in place will ensure accountability, accuracy, and most of all, our members’ experiences remain top-notch. It will also make us faster and more nimble to respond to member requests and changes in the marketplace, leading to an overall better experience for VSECU members.
How’s it going? This is a difficult issue to tackle as there are so many moving parts. The biggest switch — realization of the need for change — has already been made, and we are now starting specific programs to look at implementing these changes throughout the organization.
So How Does It End?
The easy answer is, it doesn’t. However, we believe that we are close to making the biggest change — creating a culture in which constant, iterative change drives us to create a better company that can compete today, tomorrow, and on into the future. The effects are already being seen in how we approach a problem, look for a solution, and move towards that solution.
As we continue down this road, there will undoubtedly be plenty of bumps. But the fact is that without moving in this direction VSECU, and many other companies, will face major disruption if it hasn’t happened already. As technology becomes continuously more integrated into our lives and consumer demands shift, institutions must be willing and able to rapidly adjust to these circumstances.
So we’re building the muscles, learning how to retrospect our projects, learning about ourselves and the process, and moving forward with the knowledge necessary to do it better next time. We’re creating a culture and environment that empowers its employees to step up and own their work, while letting them improve the process and create a better experience for their members. To be honest, the process is never “finished,” but we’re feeling very good about where we are going!