When the Agile Approach Just Isn’t Enough
This is a story about a company with 400+ people searching for their ultimate organizational design, moving beyond agile approaches into a so-called “team of teams” structure. Meet Unity Group.
Unity Group is a Polish IT services company with offices in Wroclaw, Krakow, Zurich, and New York. This post will explore their valuable transformation story.
Team of Teams
In a rapidly changing world, any company's greatest asset for innovation is its people. When the customer needs dynamically change, how can you build teams in such a way as to capitalize on their potential and deliver the desired results as quickly as possible?
We know that arrogance is often the leading cause of stagnation. As a Commerce Transformation Partner, we’re always asking ourselves how to best operate as a team, with other teams, and in the best interests of our clients.
People have always been the critical difference – we put it right on our home page – and we already knew that an agile, democratic approach was essential for getting through turbulent times. But that was just the start of a broader process to adapt and evolve our organization.
Now, I would like to introduce you to our “Team of Teams” model. After 25 years of experience and observations (both inside the company and out), we’ve found what works best for us — and I hope it inspires you.
What is Team of Teams?
Team of Teams refers to businesses that focus on enabling and empowering teams and individuals within an organization to act to the best of their abilities for the good of the company and its goals.
It seeks to replace traditional hierarchal structures with a more fluid and rapid approach, one where every person has the means and freedoms to act independently — and the trust that they will act towards larger, shared goals.
You may have heard the phrase “Team of Teams” before. It has been around for a while, although arguably from two key sources:
- Bill Drayton, CEO & chairman of Ashoka, published the article “A Team of Teams World” in 2013.
- Stanley McChrystal, consultant and ex-military general, published the book “Team of Teams: New Rules of Engagement For A Complex World” in 2015.
Of course, these are not the definitive sources. During my research, I also found a number of texts invaluable, such as Schrodinger’s World: Chronicle of an Unpredictable Future by Paweł Motyl, and Corporate Rebels: Make Work More Fun.
Other models we considered
We know for sure that we didn’t want art for art’s sake. Over the years, we’ve encountered many methodologies and approaches that often come with external consulting options. However, none of these approaches truly sat right with us, so sometimes it’s better to go it alone.
Specifically, we looked at the wider Holocratic spectrum but didn’t find anything useful. That’s because we already had self-organized teams within our culture – our leaders and team members knew how to cooperate, make decisions, perform effectively, and so on.
In this regard, we recognized Holocracy as a framework that may limit the good practices we’ve already established rather than letting us go further.
How we define Team of Teams
Team of Teams is more of a philosophy than a rigid business model, so it's open to a large degree of interpretation.
For us, the essential factor was freedom and flexibility. I often imagine a traditional company acting as a tanker ship. It’s big, cumbersome, and everyone is heading in the same direction.
And it takes half a day just to turn around and change course.
On the other hand, we could compare this to a network of motorboats, where everyone has their own engines and can rapidly change course and pivot as needed. Each motorboat is also as big or as small as needed.
It’s much more agile – and much more us. As an added bonus, the motorboat metaphor means nobody is listening to one singular captain. As a CEO, I’m happier about that than you would think! One singular tanker led by a captain can’t adapt to all needs simultaneously.
Parallel evolution, perhaps?
Perhaps it’s also worth noting that this transformation isn’t just limited to society and organization. In fact, there’s a clear parallel in IT. We’ve gone from large, cumbersome structures (monoliths) to systems where each process runs on its own (microservices) but works as part of the wider whole.
How we got started
Such important changes don’t happen overnight. From the very beginning, we assessed Team of Teams in three key areas:
- Organizational Culture: Any structure change needed to align with our company values. We know what we want to do, and this is how we do it; through small agile motorboats. The hierarchal tanker had to go.
- Strategy & Technology: Secondly, Unity Group has always focused on commerce transformation by selecting the most appropriate technologies and solutions for each client’s respective needs. Our business model needed to be fluid and independent enough for this to happen. No fixed path and no silos.
- Business Model & Objectives: What, as a company, do we want to achieve? And how do we ensure the new structure still follows this path? Here, we made some of our biggest changes; we wanted everyone to follow the same goals but understood that one objective doesn’t work for everyone. Again, we want to move away from monolithic tankers.
So, what did we do?
Now that we know what we wanted, we went through a careful, thought-out transition to ensure the new system would work well. It’s vital to ensure that such changes happen from the top. We can’t separate from hierarchal instincts if the people perceived as higher-ups are still ordering “like a boss” while the lower-level teams are told to act independently.
Distributed decision making
The most significant change with Team of Teams arguably lies in enabling individuals to make the necessary decisions. Experts with years of knowledge, broad skills, and training in their areas shouldn’t be answering to someone inexperienced because the latter is a “manager.”
Team of Teams is a big chance across our entire company. As traditional “chiefs,” we’ve learned to trust our company and the people we hired to do their jobs well, take care of the business, and go above and beyond. So we decided to make it official.
And secondly, to achieve this distributed decision-making, we needed to actually give people the means – the motorboats, if you will – to do so…
(Want to learn how to distribute decision-making? Click here to join our online course)
Roles over positions
When we focus on strict job titles, a hierarchy happens almost purely by accident. When someone is highly skilled in some areas, but not others, do we give them a high position, so the latter areas suffer, or a low position, where we don’t make good use of the former strengths?
The solution is to forget about job titles altogether and offer numerous roles. With Team of Teams, we work in different environments. In every circle, you can find a number of roles:
- Leaders: Every team has a leader responsible for the business layer. They set the priorities, define further roles within the team, and help them remove work obstacles. They have a few traditional duties, such as setting the budget, but ultimately they shape work culture and enable the rest of the team.
- Heads: These roles belong to people that own a particular process – or otherwise have a strong influence and impact on it – within the team. While the leader oversees everything, the heads have the independence and power to act as they see fit.
- Roles: Of course, people can have more than one role. It’s possible to be a leader in one area, a head in another, and still involved as part of another team altogether. We use roles to ensure that everyone’s involvements are clear. As we progressed, we found it increasingly difficult to summarize a person in one restrictive job title. Roles change all of that.
On a practical note, keeping track of such changes is also vital. Memory alone isn’t enough at the start, and we found that there are many good tools available. In particular, we’ve found Holaspirit to be very effective for illustrating the structure and enabling everyone to see where they sit in each of their teams.
OKRs over Goals
We very soon settled on Objective and Key Results – as coined by Andrew Grove in his 1983 book, High Output Management. Each OKR works the same way: there is one Objective with numerous key results that are measured on a regular basis. Every department or individual has such OKRs and takes actions to complete them.
Typically, these OKRs are designed to be ambitious and continuous – nobody is expected to hit a 100% success rate – rather than low benchmarks that are easy to grab but unmotivating in the long term.
What’s most important, however, is that OKRs are set at the respective level. The Leader is responsible for helping the team make OKRs, but the whole team nonetheless sets them. Each Head, similarly, is responsible for setting and meeting the OKRs related to the respective role. This way, nobody is telling other people how do to the job we trust them to do, but we still have an agreed-upon means of tracking progress, learning from mistakes, and constantly improving.
Team of Teams for employees
With Team of Teams, our employees have the ability to try different roles and work in new environments to find their best personal fit. Positions don’t provide that flexibility for growth and oblige you to have specific development paths within the role — and replace one person with another if the role changes.
Roles build professional bridges instead of burning them. If someone feels tired in a given project, they can test themselves in the next one and return to their original role, gaining new experience in the meantime.
Team of Teams for clients
Despite all the changes, we fully believe the outcome is better for our clients. From the start, we’re not forcing our partners down technology silos. Instead, we’re giving them the best solutions.
Secondly, every person on the team has roles that play to their strengths, rather than one cumbersome position that comes with a few weaknesses that you would otherwise have to accept.
Of course, for the process of managing client relations, we still need stability and order. That’s another key area where we modified Team of Teams for the specific challenges of our industry.
For this, we have a few special roles that act just as their traditional counterparts. For example, projects still need project managers, and we also implemented Portfolio Managers for the clients' convenience. For example, when we have multiple teams working for the same client, the Portfolio Manager acts as the go-to “team representative” for all.
Team of Teams: Is it for you?
When it comes to the challenges of running a business, there’s no one right answer. We didn’t land on Team of Teams right away; we got here through a tried and tested process of finding what’s right for us.
And in all honesty, all companies must go through the same path. Such a decision depends on far too many personal factors – the nature of your industry, the independence of your teams, the maturity of your leadership, and what you actually want to accomplish.
It also goes without saying that the ability to enable self-organized teams strongly correlates with a desire not to be a micromanager.
We don’t believe Team of Teams is right for everyone, as no one option is. I only hope this inspires you to look at your own organization and consider if such a change would better enable your business to do what it does best.