Organising for World-Class Specialised Work

How Wonderbly’s organisational structure is built with one goal in mind: enabling our team of creatives and creative-technologists to produce their best work.

Organisational structure drives culture. Often nebulous and vague in the early days of a business, org structures provide a foundation for all operational processes, and are a window into the priorities of a business. (The leadership team’s position in this structure is a magnifying glass of sorts, but I’ll leave that can of worms for another day.)

One beauty in a startup is being able to work at everything from a new perspective; one not rigid with prehistory, or encumbered by bureaucratic requirements. The founding teams of start-up and scale-up businesses have freedom to explore nontraditional, well, everything, including organisational structures. This is a delicate blessing, and one that should be respectfully considered and planned before enacted, at risk of your talent, your culture, and your businesses’s future. Reorgs aren’t pleasant, so I share this as a cautionary tale as equally as it is an inspirational one.

Wonderbly’s org structure (OS for my poor, tired, typing hands) has been as creative and whimsical as our products, and we’ve learned a lot along the way. Wherever you are in your #journey from 10 to 150 employees, I imagine you (like myself) have much to learn from stories like these, and I encourage you to share your thoughts in the comments.

Our story

The early days (0 to 25)
I wasn’t with Wonderbly in 2013 when we opened our doors to employees willing to join our teams (literally — some employees were hired via a blackboard sign by the door of our office inviting them into interview). If I were a CFO I would tell you this is the time I’d suggest you begin considering your HMRC audits, I am, however, a HRD, so this is the stage I suggest your company begins considering how their organisation will evolve into the future.

Naturally, it is unlikely this is a high-priority consideration at this point; certainly not above finding, convincing excellent talent to take on the almost ‘odd-job-like’ positions within the fledgling company, and maximum ambiguity. And that’s okay.

However, once you’ve established growth, I’d suggest to all founders that you begin to search for your first HR hire, I’d suggest before 50 heads, so that you can make future-proofed decisions in this space.

Scale-up and growing pains (25 to 50)
Between 25 and 50 employees a HRD should be arriving in order to begin the continuous process of talent mapping, org design, and future proofing so that many growing pains are never experienced.

When I joined Wonderbly we were operating in the last few months of our “squad period.” Squads are autonomous, full-stack teams, working on specific projects in a business. Squads were, also, a suitable way for our business to scale, but not without it’s downsides. Excellent for quick-scaling, our squad formations were now damaging our team’s abilities to produce their best work.

At this point you may feel, as we did, that you are running far too many reporting lines into the C levels of the business, straining decision making and causing concern around development. Additionally, due to ineffective (or absent) talent mapping and OS, this is the point where businesses have a habit of recruiting far more individuals than needed.

It’s time to, seriously, consider an OS strategy (OSS, stick with me) which can last you for your next phase of business growth, or enable sustainability (as we have done here at Wonderbly).

Four Thoughts

Don’t lead with structure
It’s hard, I know. I, too, get enticed by new experimental organisational designs, and HR methodology. If there is one thing my career has taught me, it is to always ensure what you are implementing is fit for purpose, define the need and then seek the solution. There is no quicker way to fail in people operations above the forced implementation of an ineffective solution (or worse, just implementation of a problem where none existed before).

Define your business’s special sauce
Wonderbly take pride in being a place where creatives can produce the best work of their career, and we consider ourselves a world-class employer of creative and technologist talent. Yet our creative workers were buried in a non-central team, with some of our best technologists working under marketing leadership.

If you are in a technology business, relying on your engineering talent to do the best work they are capable of, I’d question how much you value their work if they are buried in an OS of marketing, operations, or management, which ties all of their miraculous, analytical, clever hands.

Maximise your assets
Put your special sauce (i.e. production teams — ours is our Product & Design, yours may be, for example, engineering or consulting) in the middle of the picture. Begin defining what they need to produce their best work, is it a production assistant, is it a team of administrative clerks? (al la investment banking, which puts traders with strats and administration to maximise their best work and enabling the businesses optimal chance at successful returns).

Wonderbly have placed Product and Design at the ‘core’ of our OS.

You cannot change the tide
All org designs and reorg processes should come with an element of future-proofing; taking time to make models and predictions for future changes in the business, and how to prepare for them gradually, rather than through a sudden org redesign. Your team structure and role requirements within your overall design can, and should, change as your business evolves, but accept that you cannot control or change some factors of change. Technologies may change, people may leave, and you may suffer market challenges.

Develop and build an organisational design which enables your talent to smoothly and efficiently produce their best work in a way that immediately impacts you business’s mission. Communicate that clearly, widely, and confidently, but accept the nebulous nature of people, markets, and technology.

We’re one month into our new OS and OSS, with a lot more on the horizon before I can confirm if we’ve been successful in truly enabling our Product and Design team, alongside Commercial, to build the world’s best children’s books, and publish them to every country in the world.

I am sure we’ll make some changes before I next check in, and I’ll be to share them with you here, in the mean time… what have you learned when you’ve approached an organisational design or re-design, what are you future-proofing for, and what unique ways have you conjured up to keep your top talent happily fulfilled in your business?

Writing about the work behind the scenes done by the writers, designers, engineers and everyone else @WonderblyHQ

Recommended from Medium

5 Things To Know About Starting an Health Tech Career

3 Ways Establish a Routine When You’re Working From Home

Independence and Collaboration

Cold Email Series: “How did you make it?”

48 years in the making

Strike the right tone for your audience

Focus third organization high career.

Last week it felt like I had a million things to do before my vacation.

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store
Jessica Zwaan

Jessica Zwaan

G’day. 🐨 I am a person and I like to think I am good enough to do it professionally. So that’s what I do.

More from Medium

How we redesigned our rating scale: From a behavioural science research perspective

Designing Team Values

Graphic depicting the word “values” as a series of connected dots

Comparing Design Mediums

Straw management