Here at Clear Books, our embracing of Agile principles has never been stronger. One idea that has made serious headway is the Agile concept of ‘cross-functional teams’. We use the term ‘workcell’ as a nod to its roots in lean manufacturing, but also because it’s less of a mouthful.

The core principle is that teams should not consist of a single area of expertise.

In a basic sense, the whole company is a team, but with growing numbers it becomes harder and harder to communicate all the nuances of everyday work across such a large number of people.

In fact, in order for colleagues to talk in depth about what they are working on, the number of conversations required to achieve that looks like this: 0, 1, 3, 6, 10, 15, 21, 28, 36 and so on depending on the number of people. Beyond nine team members you’re looking at 45+ conversations!

The two pizza rule 

As a rule of thumb, the optimum number of people in a work cell should be seven people, plus or minus two, and it’s not hard to see why when you look at the above numbers. Some people call this the ‘two pizza-rule’, although I find this terribly arbitrary as some people like eating a good deal more pizza than others!

If left to natural forces, employees tend to gravitate towards people from their own department: a development team, a support team, a marketing team, a group of directors, and so on. Each of these teams become experts in their field, and tensions arise when the needs of these teams do not marry up.

What happens if one team affects the performance of another because they don’t have a holistic overview of the business’s needs — including other teams’ priorities and goals? I’ve heard of very toxic workplaces that put physical walls between teams, resulting in a lot of conflict.

I don’t think that’s very smart.

Well, not for any self-respecting, modern technology company anyway — and this is where work cells come in. The basic premise is that you can maintain a ‘culture of small’ (that is, getting things done quickly and efficiently, with everyone in the loop) in a larger team— and the way you do it is simple.

The basic principles of work cells

While there’s no need to overthink them too much, there are some basic principles you should follow when constructing your work cells.

In a technology company like ours, you allocate one software engineer as an absolute minimum to each team — we went for two. You then pepper those teams with as many of each of the other disciplines as possible. The idea behind building the teams around software engineers is that they are the people that make changes visible to your customers. So with them at the core, every team is empowered to make change happen.

The ultimate team should contain one person from every discipline you have in your business: two software engineers, a frontend developer, a designer, a support agent, a director, an accountant, a marketer… you get the picture.

This means that should someone need help or advice from someone outside of their department, they have a designated person they can go to within their new work cell. Things get done quicker and more efficiently; people want to help others in their team and because it’s so small, there is a heightened sense of responsibility to each other.

I understand that in reality, most business environments will likely not permit this— but you can probably incorporate some of the main principles.

You also may have noticed, that directors are attached to a team too. This limits the breadth of their scope change ability, and empowers the rest of the company to make choices and create positive change independent of the directors.

How to keep focus

As well as creating better communication between departments, each work cell also has a series of OKRs (objectives and key results) which help to focus and unite teams behind common business goals.

We also encourage challenging each other’s teams and offer a dedicated time to do so — every Friday afternoon, beer in hand, each team must present the OKRs they focussed on that week, and speak a little about the work they did to address it, and what impact they would expect from their actions.

Of course a team can choose to go off their OKR sheet, but they should be prepared to justify that decision too.

With OKRs and workcells in place at Clear Books, we’ve found that the amount of new ideas and thoughtful discussion has increased substantially, leading to more focussed teams, increased efficiency, and ultimately huge benefits for our customers. How does your company strive to empower its employees, do you suffer from HiPPOs and top-down mentality?

 

David Eaton

Posted by David Eaton

David is a Chartered Accountant and Director of SME Strategies (smestrategies.co.uk) which offers tailored support to ambitious SMEs and gives mentoring to owner managers.

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