26th January 2017

How teams work at Deeson in 2017

Simon Wakeman
Managing Director

At Deeson we love the “build, measure, learn” mantra and it’s something that we apply to our own agency workings as well as on client projects.

Recently we’ve been reviewing our learnings from our first year of working in pods - the multi-disciplinary teams that we set up in late 2015 (you can read more about why we did that in my earlier blog post).

And those learnings have led us to version two of our pod model that we’re rolling out in early 2017.

There are some principles that we said were important when we launched pods and that we’re reaffirming now:

1. Empowered teams in control

We wanted every Deeson team member to have the freedom to deliver their best work, unencumbered by unnecessary process, restrictions and controls.

A year on we believe in this more than ever. We recognise that this freedom needs to be matched by responsibility and competency.

Responsibility is about knowing the outcomes that need achieving individually by a team member and collectively by a project team - and then doing what it takes to deliver those outcomes.

We’ve also learnt that individual competency is important to be successful in our self-led environment.

By competency we don’t just mean the professional and technical skills that our team members have in their individual role, but also the personal skills that are needed to work successfully in a company where there aren’t managers telling you what to do and when.

Those competencies include strong remote communication skills, self-awareness and reflection, self-driven learning, giving and receiving feedback early and often, resilience as well as a genuine passion for doing your best work for your clients and colleagues.

2. The multi-disciplinary approach

We set up multi-disciplinary teams because we wanted to enable people delivering projects together for our clients to work together as closely as possible.

This remains vital and as we grow as an agency it’s something that I’m keener than ever to hold onto.

Often as agencies grow they fragment into discipline-led organisational groupings, creating distance between the end goal of delivering great work for clients and the day-to-day work.

For 2017 we’re emphasising the importance of our small, multi-disciplinary project teams as a means of ensuring we get this right.

3. Flat management structure

Business growth all too often means more complexity. More management layers, more process and less work actually being done for clients.

As MD my commitment is to have “just enough” management, process and oversight.

Without them we know that we can’t be successful, but I must have a laser focus on ensuring “just enough” doesn’t become “too much”.

It’s a natural human reaction to look to process and rules as a means to attempt control, particularly when things trip us up.

Sometimes process and rules are the right response to avoid repeating mistakes, but other times it can be about awareness, competency, access to information and a whole load of other things as well.

So those three principles remain important.

Deeson team members at desks

But we’re evolving our organisational design to take account of a few things we’ve learnt about our pod model.

Learning 1: Being more flexible

The model of having a fixed multi-disciplinary 7-9 person pod that works on a small number of client projects and relationships has proved too restrictive.

There have been times when we’ve put together cross-pod project teams because those team members from different pods have had right mix of skills and experience for the project.

This has happened often enough for us to see that our model needs more flexibility to deliver our goals. 

So we’re tweaking the model to allow for smaller, more nimble cross-agency teams, but at the same time maintaining the role of multi-disciplinary teams focussed on single client projects.

Learning 2: Matching accountability with practice

In establishing pods we also set up a new role called pod lead.

This was a set of responsibilities that a team member (from any discipline) had alongside their normal role. It was designed as a “servant leader” role to help facilitate the resolution of issues within the pod teams.

But while the team members who took on these roles did a great job of delivering what was asked of them as pod leads, with the benefit of reflection we’ve realised that the role actually took away accountability from individual team members.

As the pod lead wasn’t working on every project within a pod it was impractical for them to genuinely take informed decisions and therefore accountability for how those projects were being delivered.

We realised that through how we’d set up the system we’d created a layer of middle management that was getting in the way of individuals taking responsibility for their own actions.

That’s not a good consequence of the pod lead role so we’re moving away from having pod leads.

And in practice we’ve learnt that leadership is multi-faceted.

Given the right circumstances we’ve seen that leadership can come from anywhere in the agency for specific activities or themes. It’s not something that you can make happen, it needs to emerge naturally from individuals within groups.

At the same time we’re introducing a revised agile delivery framework which more clearly defines roles that Deeson team members play on client projects.

One of these roles is called project lead - this is effectively the project team leader who is accountable to the client and the Deeson business for the overall delivery of the agile project.

We believe this role much more closely matches the accountability for delivery of projects with the work that a project team does to deliver a client project.

Learning 3: Belonging and relationships

As we set up the agency to scale (we’ve grown by a third in a year) we wanted to make sure we retained the ethos and values of the agency.

Part of this was about making it feel like working at Deeson was like working at a small agency - having people around you who you felt were your closest colleagues and teammates.

This aspect of the pod vision has really worked well.

Pods are strongly bonded groups within the agency and this is a good thing.

We’ve seen the power of self-organisation within pods, which is why we don’t think the pod needs a designated lead as we’d envisaged in the first version of our operating model.

So while we’re tweaking our model for delivering projects, we’re keeping pods as an informal grouping - a bit like a “house” at school - a collective that provides mutual support, pastoral care and identity for Deeson team members.

We’re also broadening out pod membership. In 2015 it was the client-facing team members who first joined the pods, but recognising the value of pod membership we’re also going to be including other roles in pods too, including marketing, sales, finance and office management.

We’re also still making sure we align our clients with pod teams for ongoing site support, maintenance and future developments - so that the relationships that our clients value and the acquired knowledge of our clients’ work and platforms is maintained in the long term.

Team members at whiteboard

The latest iteration of the Deeson operating model

When I explain the way we work to a new team member, I talk about the three dimensions of team in our agency. Everyone at Deeson is part of each of these three types of team:

Project team

A small multi-disciplinary team that’s using the Deeson agile framework to deliver a project for a client.

A team member may be a member of more than one project at once depending on the stage that a project is at, but we keep the number of projects that a team member is involved with to a minimum.

The less projects, the better we can focus and not lose efficiency through context switching

Chapter

The chapter is the professional grouping within the agency - for example development, creative or user experience.

The chapter is where professional learning, challenge and R&D happens. It’s also where professional line management takes place, including performance coaching and feedback.

Each chapter has a team member who acts as chapter lead - an experienced professional whose job it is to bring the chapter together and help it thrive.

Pod

This is a loose group who provide mutual support, advice and guidance to each other.

We think this is really important to help maintain a small agency feel to working at Deeson as the agency evolves.

The pod team is also responsible for providing maintenance and support for a set group of long-term clients.

I’m sure that as we move towards this organisational model there will be things we learn and ways in which we need to adapt. We embrace that as an opportunity to make sure we’re always staying relevant to the needs of our clients and our team members - always learning and always adapting.