We are a TEAL ORGANIZATION: Code Poets CASE STUDY
A few weeks back we’ve posted our first, introductory article in the teal series. It explained in detail what a teal (self-organizing) organization is, so if you have no idea what I’m talking about, make sure to check it out first.
Today I’d like to continue the topic, this time speaking from our own experience. In this post you’ll find out exactly why we wanted to shake things up, how we came across teal organizations, what it was like to start implementing these practices and the lessons we’ve learned along the way. Let’s go!
Our first exposure to the teal concept dates as long as 6 or 7 years back thanks to our CTO Kamil, who happened upon Valve while doing some research. Valve is a holacracy, meaning the decision power is distributed among self-organizing teams which is very much in line with teal. While Kamil was enthusiastic about the concept, Adrian, our CEO, thought it was a utopian vision that would be impossible to recreate. Naturally, soon everyone forgot about it and the business went on as usual.
Actually, it went better than usual — we had more and more clients and the team grew by a lot of people which presented a whole set of management issues. There were almost 30 of us now and suddenly new problems started to appear, ones that have never bothered us before. With the new employees came new questions, needs and organizational challenges — it was no longer just a few guys coding at a small office.
Up to that point in time, we haven’t really analyzed our management model. Everyone did their job to their best abilities, and whatever needed quick action or authority went through the hands of the co-founders. It worked well until more and more issues started requiring their attention. Suddenly, there was no more time to discuss the company’s strategy because the majority of workdays were taken up by “trivial” dilemmas such as “Is it the right time to buy everybody new equipment yet?” or “Isn’t that hotel a little too posh for a short business trip?”.
The other thing that was lacking apart from time was competences — no one could possibly be the best decision maker in every aspect. Our CEO didn’t feel particularly comfortable with making detailed decisions that affected other people… people who were perfectly capable of making these kinds of decisions themselves.
Trying out the traditional model
Our first thought after analysing the aforementioned problems? Hiring managers — obviously. That was the way to go.
… but was it?
We didn’t see any other solutions. Either you keep the power or you delegate it to someone else — we’ve decided to start building a management structure. It was supposed to free up the co-founders time by limiting their contact only to the managers.
Pretty soon we’ve realized that this model can’t work at our company. Adrian hated feeling separated from the whole team and feeding into an artificial structure (and so did everyone else). There were also many problems with communication and ultimately any time saved was immediately lost on fixing what went wrong and... we were back to square one, only a little bit wiser. We knew now what we don’t want: hierarchy, centralized decisions, managers and directors. We also knew we didn’t want our founders to assume these roles. The only thing left was to find what we did want.
Adopting teal values
After a lot of discussions about the company’s core values and its future direction we agreed on several things. Our team should have a lot of space for new ideas and decisions, rather than being micromanaged. We want to encourage the feelings of responsibility and work on our decision making skills on a daily basis. Sounds a lot like… a teal organization.
This aha moment showed us we were onto something. I remembered everything we’ve talked about years back and immediately bought the teal bible: Reinventing organizations by Frederic Laloux. We’ve read it back to back and started digging deeper: watching webinars, talking to fellow entrepreneurs who were adopting a similar model. It all simply made sense — time to try it out.
My initial worries centered around communicating this new idea to everyone on the team. After all, it was something completely different and could potentially spark a lot of doubts and resistance. Thankfully, we’ve had Tech Talks — our regular Thursday lunch meetings, during which we’ve shared presentations about relevant topics we’ve felt passionate about.
Care to guess what was the topic of the next Tech Talk? I did my best to present the concept of teal organizations in a comprehensive way, describing the motivations behind our search. The talk was well-received although I wasn’t wrong in anticipating some degree of resistance to the new concept. Naturally, most (or all?) people on the team have never experienced or even heard of this organizational model so they were concerned about the typical factors: what if we have complete anarchy, who will make the final calls in case of a crisis and so on. To be perfectly honest, similar things ran through my mind as well, but I knew these questions had good answers and was willing to make the jump.
More discussions followed and we all agreed that things must change and adopting teal values could potentially be the solution to (at least some of) our problems. The decision that was made didn’t pull the trigger all the way — we wanted to implement changes slowly and have the space to turn back at any time.
The greatest catalyst was a big step our CEO decided to take in the name of full transparency: making our financial records, information related to projects, negotiations, recruitments etc. publicly accessible for everyone at the company. This move has proved that we were willing to walk the walk and shifted something in our heads: from now on, everyone knew the results of our daily work and felt that much more responsible for them personally.
Our newly created CP-news channel on Rocket (the communicator we use internally) has been serving since then as a space for keeping everyone at the company informed and included in making all key decisions. Another similar outlet is the weekly retrospective (Retro) meeting which is not only a discussion panel, but also gives us the chance to familiarize ourselves with everyone’s individual tasks and achievements.
But going teal isn’t just big flashy decisions; it’s also regular, mundane work to change our mindsets and the way we think about our roles in the organization. We’ve soon created a working group dedicated to all things teal. Our weekly meetings (accessible to anyone who’s interested) serve as a space for discussion and thinking up ideas to improve our rules and processes. Laloux himself has said that no company can ever be 100% teal — it’s a constant iteration and that’s definitely been confirmed by our experience. In fact, we really like this somewhat agile approach.
How teal works for us
So far so good. It’s been nine months since we’ve made the decision and today we can dare to say that Code Poets is starting to feel like a teal organization. What have been the results?
First of all, we feel a greater sense of involvement in the company’s life. It’s no longer me (the employee) against them — to some extent each of us acts like the CEO. The company’s success is our success, which translates to increased motivation and productivity.
We’ve also been practising our decision making skills a lot, which in today’s world of almost limitless options is a great asset (also in our "private" lives). While at first only a few people dared to make their teal decisions, sooner or later everyone got involved. Just as Laloux has described, the decisions we’ve made ourselves were no worse than the ones the CEO used to make. After all, everyone has stuck to their area of expertise and consulted all team members who might be affected — so why should the decision be bad?
… And even if it wasn’t the right thing to do (which simply must happen from time to time statistically speaking), we were able to quickly fix our mistakes. Owing to the increased sense of responsibility, we knew exactly what should be done and who should do it. The new operational model has also sped up our company’s evolution. Since it’s no longer just the CEO’s job to monitor the organization’s strategy and come up with ideas for new developments, we’ve had a lot more headspaces dedicated to these issues.
Anticipating future challenges
We like to think that the reason this new operational model has been working so well for us is that people who make up the Code Poets team are open and willing to work for a common goal. They know that a software house isn’t only about programming and that if you want to have a workplace that brings you a deeper sense of satisfaction you should invest time and energy into making it so. But it’s not all roses and unicorns.
We’re actively working on designing processes that’ll make our operational model as failproof as possible. One of the most important steps is recruitment. Making sure that new team members are willing and able to work together this way is both crucial and hard, which is why we’ve been dedicating a lot of time to our HR strategy lately.
The other issue that’s been on our minds is crisis management, with the 2020 pandemic serving as a great (albeit horrifying) example. It’s definitely not true that a teal organization goes into a state of anarchy in difficult times, but you do need some great practices in place for times when you can’t afford to waste a day.
In a few weeks you can expect the third article of the teal series, in which we’ll go into way more details about the challenges that come with becoming a teal organization and how to solve them. In the meantime you can hit us up to discuss this concept (or anything else). We know firsthand how important it is to find at least one other company that does things this way in order to bounce some ideas and worries around — we’d love to pay back the help we once got.