Crush the wall!…of your departments to build 100% agile company. This is how we did it:


Idea in brief: Companies that move quickly will always stay one step ahead of the pack. You want you company to make great decisions and execute them with speed. The first thing you might need to do is break down the “department walls” and align & empower your team.

Walls don't make your company great (again).

Walls are there for a reason: To be crushed.

Why do so many companies move so slowly? Why do great companies filled with teams of great people with brilliant ideas and dreams fail to materialise? Why do companies fail to innovate? Why does amazing talent leave?

Simple: Lack of alignment and lack of autonomy.

Without full alignment and team empowerment, a company will not be able to make good decisions and execute quickly. Some studies point out that for every 1 hour of work done by product teams, 48 minutes is spent waiting for a decision to be made. That means in one 8-hour day, 3.5 hours is dedicated to waiting. This is crazy.

How do we fix this? Align and empower

It’s that simple, but it’s not easy.

We started exploring this at HotelQuickly more intensively 3–4 months ago. after we ran a few company-wide, monthly sprints. Such sprints empowered teams to design projects across multiple departments. The projects could be initiated by anyone — with only one condition: to be in line with our big company milestones.

We prioritized & executed on the most impactful projects (= projects with the highest ROI) and…we saw the uplift in our growth and profitability right away.

We got the first taste of what a good alignment & empowerment can deliver. And we liked it!

While it was obvious that the initial misalignment and slow decision-making had a real impact on a company’s growth and speed to market, the best way forward wasn’t as clear. How to make the project sprints sustainable? We were determined to figure out the best path for us, and this is what we’ve learned. This is how we turned our company into a 100% agile team.

Spotify's visualisation of the alignment & autonomy in agile teams

Transforming with a 100% agile structure

If you have followed my previous posts, you know that I’m deconstructing processes using the 10 Step Model. I tackled the team transformation using a similar approach.

1. We asked the right questions:

  • How do you design a company with limited resources (unlike, say Spotify) that can execute fast?
  • How do you build for scale so that it won’t break down with the Rule of 3 and 10?
  • How do you manage the efficiency x effectiveness conflict?
  • What talent are we missing?
  • Once we have it going, what do we have to do to keep it up and running?

We understood very quickly that typical company silos (read “marketing team”, “product team”…) were not the way forward. We had tried many ways to structure our team, but nothing felt quite right.

We had tried many ways to structure our team, but nothing felt quite right.

In the past, we’ve tried the bottom-up approach, matrix organisational structure, completely flat models and target operating models with flatter hierarchical organisations. We implemented best practices internally and externally, and yet we never really nailed the right set-up.

If this rings a bell, read on.

We asked the entire HQ team, what the right team structure would look like & why?

How about holocracy?

You might have heard of it before with terms like “holocracy” and “no-boss” teams. It got hype in 2014 when Tony Hsieh rolled it out at Zappos. We studied it closely. The autonomy granted to team members was very appealing, but we also saw potential gaps in their alignment.

The concept of holocracy has gone through several versions over the years and found that we liked the hybrid agile alternatives which companies like Spotify and Skyscanner are pursuing.

The combination of full autonomy the teams are granted, together with full alignment, sounded like a good recipe. The prospects of small, customer-centric teams (=squads), who can deliver value in a rapid fashion and without red tape was very appealing.

We were thrilled to see what kind of people we could attract if we got it right.

Exciting times.

What are the key ingredients of setting up the 100% agile team?

We asked more questions, specific to the agile transformation:

  • How do you scale agile, beyond just the product team?
  • How do you utilise the agile team structure principles (of tribes, squads and chapters) across the whole company, including e.g. business operations?
  • How do you define the purpose of each team (=squads/tribes?)
  • How do you resolve the potential dependencies and formation of further silos?
  • Is it possible for some team members to be members of multiple teams (squads/chapters)? How do you balance the overlaps?

The answers proved key in finding the path to the fully agile company.

Aligning on the terminology for your agile team structure

Agile?

As far as we know, there is no company in South East Asia that has fully adopted the 100% agile model. Most companies enjoy the benefits of agile product or development teams, but the entire team? We looked around and asked quite intensively, but I think it’s safe to say that HQ will be one of the first (if not the very first) fully agile company in SEA.

We asked the team what would agile mean to them?

We pushed ahead in the spirit of accelerated learning

2. We applied constraints

Fail fast, learn fast, fix fast. We rolled out agile “tribification” in a 30-day window. We introduced the concept of lean & agile to every HQ team member and rebuilt the team structure in this spirit into tribes, squads and chapters.

We reviewed the status and collaboratively addressed any concerns. To ensure that there was zero disruption to the business, we gave the team a single principle to guide all their actions and decisions:

“If you don’t harm the company and pursue the HQ vision, go for it!”

3. We were clear on our motivation

Agile transformation is not some trend you can put on when the mood suits you. We had to make sure we could operate within this structure in the long run, and the best way to do this was to ensure that our efforts aligned with our core values and vision: “To become the most innovative company in the travel industry.”

The alignment and speed of execution we can achieve with a fully agile team matches our burning desire to make our vision come true.

Clearly articulating our expectation & our standards was key for alignment with our HQ culture

This step is critical in gaining support and maintaining our culture. We aligned on the great benefits the agile transformation would bring, the potential for individuals to unleash their full capabilities, and the opportunity for us to work closely together towards the common mission in tight groups of 6–8 squad members.

We also saw the potential we could offer global talent who are keen to move mountains and execute freely. Building a business in travel is a great challenge. Facing that challenge with empowered teams is an amazing adventure.

4. We set well-defined, specific goals

If this transformation is a success, we should have:

  • A shared vision and unique team culture
  • Teams that have the power to decide and execute autonomously
  • Teams and team members who set clear and impactful goals
  • Teams that move fast to execute on those goals with rapid problem resolution approach
  • Teams that align with well-defined metrics which are visible all the time
  • More freedom as we grow the company; not the opposite
Making goals visible & visual proved to be key for the team's ability to grow fast

5. We emulated the experts

Together with Michal (HotelQuickly Co-Founder & CTO), we reached out to amazing professionals, and are fortunate to be able to discuss the successes and failures of companies who had explored this path before — like Zappos , Spotify, Skyscanner, ING, and Apple — or some of the more local players who took a similar direction, like Kaidee.

We would like to say big thank you to the many people that helped us along the way through their work and advice:

6. We allocated resources for deep practice

To get the entire team structure in place, we had to focus on the big picture while paying attention to the details. Some examples of our practice were:

Outlining team structure:

  • We drafted workflows, specifying what tasks needed to be completed to get the job done and pursue the squads’ and tribes’ business missions.
  • We mapped the lines of communication and determined whether people were a good fit for the right roles within the tribes or squads (considering management style, leadership maturity and expertise).
  • We created templates for the various squads along business missions and mapped the interactions between them to ensure there were no strong overlaps or dependencies.
  • Visual management proved to be essential in this communication.
Clear visualisation of the new team structure

Define the stages of roll out:

It was key for us to plan it out well, roll-up our sleeves and do what it takes to become fully agile. Some of the critical stages of the roll out were:

  • Preparing a detailed on-boarding process for every team member
  • Reviewing the transformation process and responsibilities with Tribe Leaders, Chapter Leaders and Product Owners
  • Running workshops on agile transformation and goal setting for the squads and squad members to align on business missions
  • Letting everyone review the structures and founding documents
  • Reshuffling the office so that the team can sit together and kick off initial meetings
Clear roll-out plan of the agile-transformation is critical for the success

7-8. We got feedback, tested and benchmarked

We are going to have to give time and space for the system to settle.

Effectiveness is what matters.

We invited a great agile coach for a 3-week transformation, which helped us to understand our limitations, where we stand against the industry and define clear actions to get there entirely (Thanks Clo!). The experience would be for a separate post on its own. The importance of receiving a solid feedback and training cannot be underestimated.

9. We review and repeat

We have defined our expectations for this transformation and will review it within the next month. We are aware that this is a learning process. We expect that as we scale and reach a certain volume, we will need to change and adapt the teams again. That’s ok.

Spotify's evaluation sheet of the team's maturity in agile transformation

10. We raise the bar

We have compiled a list of questions from the team that highlighted the further challenging decisions we’re going to have to make together. But finding the answers and being transparent about it will elevate our game. Some of those are:

  • Budgeting: What levels of freedom are we ready to give to each of the teams/squads? What principles should they follow, in order not to prevent their autonomy?
  • Hiring: How is autonomous decision-making impacting the hiring process? How do we ensure we keep the role of the “bar-raiser” that that takes care of culture fit and ensures that we’re hiring A-players? We have received a great feedback by top talents that joined us recently. They love the fully-agile structure and the power they have to run fast with their ideas, but how do we make sure the culture stays intact?
  • Overload & Overhead: How do we make it as simple as possible for everyone to participate in the process of agile transformation? What are other steps besides providing templates, task lists and onboarding that would enable people to co-create the whole process and own the transformation?

What’s the role of the founders or the top leaders?

In agile teams, the founders’ focus is on providing the right environment for the overall organisation. This has meant:

  • Laying down the principles and fundamentals of the agile transformation
  • Developing the guidelines of how agile works at HQ
  • Designing the roll out, step-by-step
  • Identifying who are our leaders within the company & growing them
  • Outlining key processes once we’re up and running
  • Ensuring a solid knowledge exchange and capitalisation of the team
Visual management and knowledge capitalisation are key roles of the leaders

Creating an agile environment is a big step for any company, but we’re committed to an organisational structure that will help our company move fast and innovate. It can be daunting to release the reins, but it does provide opportunities for other people to pick up the mantle and get things done. But we already see how we are moving faster.

We are more aligned, and our amazing teams have higher autonomy to execute.

Our agile transformation journey in 3 steps:

  1. Decide if being an agile company aligns with your values and vision. If the test fails here, you won’t have the ability to stick with it.
  2. Detail your process by asking the right questions and consulting the experts. Knowing how to communicate is a key step in ensuring this is a success.
  3. Keep the floor open for conversation. Review performance, celebrate when things work out and address areas that are weak.

We know very well the road won’t be smooth, but as I said in the beginning:

It is simple, but not easy.