How to maintain a self-steering culture while scaling up

Self-steering

Why we did it.

When it became clear in October 2017 that the time had come for Board of Innovation to move up in the world, the founders wanted to make sure we maintained our flat hierarchy, and continue working in a self-governing way. The goal? Staying true to our core startup values. It was clear that our natural self-steering workplace culture would need more structure in order to grow long-term partnerships with clients, and bring more clarity to roles, workload, alignment, and communication. We received a fancy Keynote presentation at one of our monthly company breakfast meetings about the new self-managing strategy. Then, we did what we always do: co-create on what it would look like. We challenged the proposal, questioned our assumptions, and got vocal with our input.

What it looked like.

co-creation-session

The new structure operated in self-steering circles (rather than departments or teams) with interesting animal names (official-sounding titles didn’t have the same ring). Circles ran without managers, with defined roles for everyone, each with its own accountability and authority. A client lead maintained relationships with clients over the long term, and a project lead managed and delivered the project. There was a marketing role, a recruitment role, and someone responsible for sales. These roles rotated, everyone could try out which role suited them best, and the circles went about their business like autonomous collectives. They worked in the spirit of taking initiative, and were governed by trust rather than control. Each circle had full responsibility and accountability for their activities, in effect, working as a small startup within the company. Once the circles grew to 8 people, they would split. Board of Innovation was ready to let its innovation consultant babies leave the nest. Congratulations to the proud parents.

Ultimately, we wanted to continue to be culture-driven rather than power-driven. In the beginning we established “circle leaders” — people who had been at the company for a while and knew its quirks and curious inner workings. An external coach gave the circle leaders a train-the-trainer workshop so that they had a framework for giving structured feedback, decision-making, defining who would do what within each circle, and handling any thorny issues that arose. (It’s mostly roses, here, very few thorns).

As the old saying goes, with great power comes great responsibility. In the first phase, there were a lot of areas of increased responsibility. Circles had their own client cases, created their own budgets and roles, and could build their own micro-culture within the larger BoI microcosm. They also had the power to hire and fire team members, and decide which clients to work with from an ethical standpoint. (The book Antifragile was a great trigger and source of inspiration for our self-governance model).

The good: what's working.

We’ve come a long way, baby. As far as our autonomous workplace is concerned, we’re basically functioning like self-driving cars. A year and a half in, the roles are starting to feel more natural, and time set aside for each role has shifted to a better balance. Sales involves a 30-40% time investment, whereas marketing is now a shared responsibility instead of falling to one person (sharing is caring!) Circle leaders have become circle coaches whose focus is on people and business coaching.

We achieved all our targets last year, and beyond. There are more projects in the pipeline than before, so it’s increased our impact, proving the way of working is a success. The founders have never had to step in. Most people thrive in this environment. We are all very infected by the “kumbaya” feeling of helping people be incredible at what they do. So far, the road has been pretty smooth. Most of our problems have been luxury problems.

If we were to create a coat of arms about our current self-governing family, the motto would be: learn everyday, trust over control, be open-minded, and no bullshit. The crest would be our circle animals holding up a shield with flags from the 10 countries we all hail from. We’d wear it proudly.

The bad: what's not.

Admittedly, there’ve been some growing pains. It hasn’t been the best shift for everyone and that emotional journey has, at times, been tough. Some people didn’t like having so much responsibility and preferred to only do sessions. Others felt the circles were forced on them. A few roles had to be removed to help the workload and the flow.

In a perfect, self-steering world, people would be taking the initiative to change things that need changing. Our consultants are often fully booked. Entrepreneurial ideas are still there, but finding a balance between initiatives, project work and running our own business was challenging, as was finding the right priorities. Our summer office, however, was a great example of an initiative we made happen, as is our upcoming NYC office launch and our social responsibility arm.

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The ugly.

The switch to running a self-governing organization has meant that we’ve had to get serious about feedback culture and leave the cozy confines of our feel-good “conflict avoidance” zone. Some sore spots have been when we had to let someone go, which is painful for everyone. People don’t always have the skills (or the desire) to do this. Thankfully, no break-ups between Board of Innovation and employees have happened via text. 

Join the team

Does our self steering culture resonate with you? Look at our latest job offers to become part of the team.
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Thanks!

I’m Jeanie Keogh, In-house Journalist @Board of Innovation. Spreading innovation culture is in our DNA – if you liked the read, contribute to our mission by sharing this article.

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