Squadify with Self-Selecting Teams

Mar 20, 2016  ·  Sandy Mamoli

"No one had ever done this on the scale we were contemplating. Could it possibly work?"

Fast growth has a way of forcing organizational change on a business, but it also presents opportunities to try new ways of working. When Trade Me, New Zealand’s biggest e-commerce provider, hit a new level of growth, we saw an opportunity to drive productivity by reorganizing its technology department into small, stable, agile teams. And we decided the best way to go about it was using self-selection: in other words, to trust the people who work in the department — the engineers, testers, business analysts, designers, and UXers— to come up with the best solution.

The Problem We Needed to Solve

We reached a point where the organization was increasing in size by roughly one person a week; but adding new people no longer meant we were necessarily getting any more done. If anything, the delivery of new features was slowing down. Somewhere along the way a web of dependencies had evolved where every person and project was reliant on someone else and there were a large number of handovers between groups. Projects were constantly being left on hold because there was no one available to work on them; everyone was busy somewhere else. We wanted to avoid these delays of waiting for people to be freed from other projects, and we wanted to minimize handovers with their associated loss of tacit knowledge and create small units where the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. We decided we needed to pull people out of a complex matrix and get them into fixed, stable teams where we could make sure that one person would work on only one team, and one team would work on only one project at any time. Our question at the time was how to go about creating these teams quickly and in the best possible way. Not an easy task for a company with 250 people in technology!

Self-Selection Helps

Helps This was where self-selection came into the picture. Self-selection is a way of letting people choose which team to work in. It is a facilitated process of letting people self-organize into small, cross-functional teams. It is the fastest and most efficient way to form stable teams and is based on a belief that people are at their happiest and most productive if they can choose what they work on and who they work with.

Quite simply, it is an alternative to the most familiar way of selecting teams in most businesses: where managers come together and decide how teams should be made up. In writing the book Creating Great Teams: How Self-Selection Lets People Excel, we think we have not only provided a viable alternative but that when people try this way of selecting teams, they will never go back to traditional management selection again! However, as no one seemed to have done self-selection at this scale ever before or at least hadn’t published guidance, we were quite nervous about whether we could develop a process that would allow us to safely let people self-select into teams. Fortunately, the company-wide Ship-it Day came to our help.

How Ship-it Day Showed Us the Way

So called “Ship-it” Days give people 24 hours to work on whatever they want— as long as it’s not part of their regular jobs — and the aim is to complete something within a 24-hour period. The idea was originally named “FedEx Day” after FedEx’s 1980’s slogan “When it absolutely, positively has to get there overnight.” We’ve had many Ship-it Days over the years at our Kiwi E-Commerce provider, and it has always been a joy to see an entire organization self-select into small teams and work away on projects of their own choosing. During one Ship-it Day we had roughly 80 people in 15 teams working on 15 projects that all benefitted the company in one way or another. We saw Ship-it Day as a case study in what happens when we give a group of people complete freedom to work on what they think is important, with whomever they like, and using any approach they think will get the job done. Whenever we have run a Ship-it Day, we have noticed that:

  1. People naturally form small, cross-functional teams.

  2. No one chooses to work on more than one team or project.

  3. People communicate face-to-face.

  4. A shared, clear goal makes everything so much easier.

  5. People are highly motivated, enjoy the experience, and get lots of work done.

So we thought, why can’t every day be Ship-it Day!? And why can’t people choose the team they want to work on and the people they want to work with? This kind of thinking took us a long way but we needed to come up with a process to support our intention. We didn’t want chaos, we wanted structure. And so over time we have created, tested, and refined a self-selection process that has now been used in multiple countries, across many organizations, and with hundreds of people involved.

How the Self-Selection Process Works

At a high level, the self-selection process looks like the diagram below.

There is a significant amount involved in preparing for the teams that people can sign up for on the day. The self-selection process takes an iterative approach to problem solving: In each iteration people select their squad of choice by sticking their photo into the corresponding squad diagram. At the end of each iteration, people communicate each team’s status to the room and if all squads haven’t been fully formed another iteration follows. Repeat until done. It usually takes 3 to 4 iterations to achieve a great result. Sound Scary?

How We Dealt with Fears

We have 100-percent positive experiences with self-selection, and no company we have worked with has failed to conduct a successful self-selection event. We know that the idea can be scary at first, but this is entirely normal. We’ve seen a pattern emerge when people hear about self-selection for the first time. The first reaction tends to be positive, but it can move quite quickly to fear and resistance. Fear of something new and different, fear of what might happen, fear of being stuck with someone you don’t get on with, or of being stuck in a team that you can’t change your mind about later. If you happen to suggest self-selection at your workplace, people will throw a lot of questions and “what-if” scenarios at you, and you need to be prepared to answer them honestly. Getting the communication strategy right could be the difference between your self-selection event going badly (or not taking place at all) and being a roaring success. Based on our experience, we recommend the following approach to proactive communication:

  • Talk to as many people as possible

  • Actively listen to their concerns

  • Be patient with people as they work through their fears

  • Record people’s fears and “what-if” scenarios

  • Manage risks actively

  • Paint a very honest picture about the worst-case scenario, which is never as bad as people think

  • Talk to people individually and present in groups

  • Show real examples from your Ship-it Days, trials, and from other companies

  • Ask people whether it is they, or their manager, who knows more about where they should be placed

Where to Find More Information

We explain in a lot more detail just how the process works and use real-life examples from companies who have used this with 200+ people at a time. If you would like to read more, the book is available from the Pragmatic Bookshelf: Creating Great Teams: How Self-Selection Lets People Excel. You can also read more articles and blog posts in the squadificaton category on our website and download our self-selection kit with templates, example run sheets and visualisation aids ready to print and use.

This is a Cross Post :: Published in PragPub, Issue 87, March 2016

by Sandy Mamoli and David Mole

Categories: Self-Selection, Case studies.

Tags: self organisation, self-selection, squadification, Team, teams.