4th April 2016

Pods - Delivery teams in control

Simon Wakeman
Managing Director
Deeson staff collaborating

One of the things we believe in at Deeson is giving our team the freedom and responsibility to make decisions. At many agencies there’s often a centralisation of control and influence, but we believe that by giving that control back to the people who actually do the work we get better results for our clients.

Working in empowered teams

Our vision is of an empowered team with the freedom to do what they love in better ways, and the responsibility to make decisions that will deliver innovative, data- and insight-driven products that bring genuine value to clients and their end users.

Over the last year we’ve expanded, not just in size but geographically too. We now have people spread around the UK and Europe, and one question occupied us in 2015: How do we retain freedom while maintaining our ability to communicate well, to develop our skills individually and as a team, and to deliver the highest quality digital products to our clients? At this point, the expansion of the team was already adding a level of complexity to delivering projects for our clients. So, we started to do some research into models for self-organising teams.

Introducing permanent, multi-disciplinary teams

Under those circumstances growing agencies will often hire more managers to handle that complexity. We didn't want to do that because it's counter-intuitive if you believe, as we do, that people do best when they manage their own schedules and projects, rather than having someone else tell them what to do and when. Instead of adding layers of management hierarchy we wanted to enable everyone to stay focused and close to the work, and that’s what led us to start working in multi-disciplinary teams called pods.

A pod typically consists of 7-9 people and is made up of an account manager, a solutions architect, a user experience consultant and a cross-section of designers and developers. Each pod has a set number of projects and clients that they work with at any one time, meaning that everyone in the pod has a detailed knowledge of each project - and, crucially, everyone can work on every project within that pod.

Having a small, dedicated and permanent team is core to the way we work, and even more valuable is the accompanying change in how we view responsibilities.

Establishing joint responsibility

Whereas before the developers were responsible for development work, the designers for design and the project manager for planning and scheduling, now the whole pod is jointly responsible for bringing purpose, judgement and their own specialist skills to the solving of clients’ problems.

We don’t have a gatekeeper doling out tasks to individuals, or prioritising the work, because the pod members are invested and equipped to make those decisions more effectively than anyone else.

The practice of pod working

We begin each day with the morning stand-up, where we share updates on a per-project basis (with distributed team members in attendance thanks to Google Hangouts). This ensures everyone in the pod is aware of the status of each project, whether they’re working directly on it or not. It also removes the need for separate daily project meetings, because any issues are identified right away and can be dealt with by the appropriate people.

We do most of our written client communication via Basecamp, which means we all have a record of what’s being discussed and agreed. This is reflected in the quality of the work we give back to the client, who gets the same level of communication as before - but with a wider pool of people with a deep understanding of the project who can step in and be involved if necessary.

And that flexibility and scalability is key: depending on our schedule and team size we can add new pods as and when we need to, in order to manage our growing portfolio of clients and projects.

Sharing the knowledge and responsibility across the pod means we don’t find ourselves stuck if someone is ill or goes on holiday, and reducing the number of meetings we have means everyone has more time and a better ability to focus on the day’s work, as well as a quicker feedback loop for solving problems.

Close, collaborative pod working gives us all a chance to share our knowledge and skills, to spot where we can help someone out by pointing them in the direction of a solution to a tricky problem, or by spending half an hour working on something that will unblock their progress. It also gives us the opportunity to develop pod members’ individual careers, by putting people with different backgrounds and levels of experience together and letting them find the best ways of working together and sharing their expertise.

Promoting professional development

Cross-discipline collaboration and shared learning is essential, but we also recognise that we want to grow strong specialisms as well as strong delivery units. We facilitate this by running separate teams we call chapters: groups built around specialisms like engineering, UX, and design.

Each chapter has a lead - an experienced practitioner who in addition to their role within their pod is responsible for promoting best practice and shared professional development across the chapter. In this way we ensure that our core skills are constantly being developed even as our day-to-day focus is on delivering work to our clients.

Positive changes of putting delivery teams in control

For one, it’s led to a stronger team spirit (as well as some friendly rivalry between pods).

And while we are proud of our flat management structure, the pod model gives everyone the immediate day-to-day support they need from their peers, so that decisions can be made, issues resolved and advice received right away.

Unlike with other agencies, our clients don’t have to spend a lot of time dealing with account managers. Instead they get direct contact with skilled, dedicated, knowledgeable and trusted people who are focused on doing the work that delivers what they and their businesses need.

Read our blog post "How we work" to learn more about Deeson.

Update - January 2017 - You can read about what we've learnt about working in pods and how we've iterated our approach in 2017 here.