Radical Restructures and Self-Organising Teams at TradeMe

Responsible for 2/3rds of New Zealand’s local internet traffic and with 3.4 million members (3/4 of the local population), TradeMe is New Zealand’s second largest internet company. So strong that eBay can’t edge into their space. Most amazing of all is their ability to sell 3000 chickens on the website each day!

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Despite using Agile project management and all the latest technology to build their platforms in a customer centric manner, they still face all the problems of any other internet based business does, in terms of developing their software teams.

The Self-Organising Organisation – Total Squadification at TradeMe

On Wednesday I heard from David Mole @molio and Sandy Mamoli @smamol who described their story and the steps they took to scale their teams using a self organising approach.

TradeMe we’re starting new stories to create features regularly but not shipping at the rate they expected

Last years they were in a situation that might be familiar to some of us. Despite their best estimates and efforts, they struggled to release incremental changes on a regular basis. Deployment wasn’t an issue, they had two deployments a day but team members were being stretched across multiple teams and dependencies and bottlenecks were developing.

Coupled with the odd “I need x by tomorrow” feature that would appear form their CEO, the core original developers were being pulled from teams to work on a specific new feature. Entire new teams were hired to help them do it. This method of growth meant an expert was involved, but that the team went through Tuckman’s phases on a regular basis.

Portfolio cards on the wall showed all the projects going on but still new features were being prioritised and there were bottlenecks with testing, design and acceptance.

Management brought us these “just get it done” jobs and they took someone from the roots of our organisation with knowledge to the top of this new project. If we were playing Jenga – our team was starting to look like this. ~ David

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Clearly, dictating ‘who works on what and how’ wasn’t working, but what could?

Their FedEx Hackathon days provided inspiration for a solution

FedEx day: A 24 hour build to push out something cool. FedEx days were about getting stuff done in a fun way. Enjoying working with your teammates on something cool. And of course the question arose: why can’t it be FedEx day every day?

If we were privy to a FedEx day we’d see:

  • All participants wanted to be part of a cross functional team.
  • Teams were small. The biggest had 6 members.
  • Nobody is multitasking.
  • Nobody was worrying about being idle.

Much like a great team building day.

Could squads be the answer and could they scale it?
It was Scrum at its finest and it got them thinking of Squads. Small stable teams who work sequentially on one thing. The evils of multitasking never cuts in!

Others had led the way but TradeMe needed to do it on a much larger scale

Spotify have written an amazing white paper and selection of accompanying video presentation about how they structure their development team. Have a look at the white paper tribes, squads, chapters and guilds from Spotify.

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Of course fear of change kicked in. There’s a big difference between being agile and doing agile. They were adamant that the process shouldn’t be at the detriment of creativity. So rather than tackling the most resistant part of the organisation which might seem like a good move, they decided to take 20 of the most shining team members and polish them to a diamond.

Then they’d bring others along quickly!

Total Squdification, a pilot and then all in!

After meticulous preparation, in a single day they brought the group of twenty together and asked them to self organise into squads.

Product Owners pitched the steam of work that each squad would work on and despite their fears, the team behaved like trusted professionals and self selected three squads. Fully skilled and with all the team members required. Ready to work with people they enjoyed working with on a project they were interested in.

With a successful pilot as proof of concept, they they implemented Total Squadification across the entire 100 plus member team. Creating 10 of their required 11 squads in a single day.

Sandy has a great write up on the process here and a Team self selection kit to help others wanting to implement a similar model.
It’s a spectacular feat that had many pitfalls along the way. A single blog post wouldn’t do the intricacies of their preparation justice.

It’s also the results that excite me.

Self organising teams upped productivity, morale, retention and business results

When Sandy and David began their squadification day, they asked that the team think not only of what is right for the but also what’s best for TradMe. Thinking of their needs and that of the business has meant that six months in and all metrics are up and continue to rise.

Understanding that people know themselves best and that they know themselves better than their manager, was proven. The squads are still intact and working well. The process has also identified the projects no one wants to touch, which has helped them recruit specialist for those projects.

Could this work in your organisation?

On of the greatest benefits I see of self organising is that beyond getting to work with people you prefer to work with on things you prefer the culture changes. I think these type of changes would occur:

  • Not being told what to work on allows teams to follow their passion.
  • Members will feel more inclined to speak up about their ideas for improvements.
  • They will think of the team and the company more than their individual goals.
  • If squadification day became regular, or if trading windows were opened like in football for people to shift squads, then the idea of guilds and chapters would prosper.
  • Chapters of designers would meet regularly to share insights and techniques. Guilds of a specific industry or sector would share knowledge and ideas for how to make each squad function better.

All and all it was an insightful evening and I’m still thinking through this and it’s ramifications on job structure and the sharing economy. A blog post to come soon.

So to wrap up, could this work in your organisation? Are there team members and projects you’d love to work on or instigate? Are there team members that might not make the cut, or some you’d like to buy in from other teams? Let me know in the comments.

Tuning in to brand channels on social media

New media marketers are adamant that their platforms and channels should be treated differently to traditional media. For decades we as marketers have been placing ads, commercials and the likes into existing channels. Channels that a certain target market are interested in and follow religiously.

Radio

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We purchase or rent slots within these channels in the hope that our messages and marketing will reach its target audience. Ads that were expected to sell you things – on a channel where feedback is indirect and can take forever.

To the untrained marketer – Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn are seen as channels themselves. When in fact they are merely the media or medium for your channel. Using the old approach you throw in advertising or content that is similar to the work created to fall between engaging prime time shows. Ads with nothing between them, thus creating a channel of sell, sell, sell.

Social media provides instant measurable qualitative and quantitative feedback to your marketing.

Your presence on social ‘media’ are true channels. Excite and entertain your audience!

It is the role of the brand to develop their pages and their @ handles into channels. Channels that would be of interest to the target audience. Channels that entertain, educate, excite and create admiration. Channels that are so engaging that people don’t mind when the odd sales piece comes through or service announcement is slotted in.

And this is where the art of the community manager / channel manager / producers and marketers comes into play. Balancing the content calendar, scheduling upcoming content and insuring that the programming of the channel is as good as the leading TV channels.

They use data to be agile. They chop features with low ratings and iterate winning posts. They create content with twists and turns that keep them coming back. Storytelling, content marketing, an empathy and true understanding of their audience are key to their art.

That art of creating a seamless blend of content that forms a channel that no one can resist following.

Getting personal with Buyer Personas

Big data and understanding customer sentiment has been a buzzword for the last few years. Garnering insights and adapting your proposition to suit has been taken to a new levels as we learn to crunch big data sets.

Conversely, running qualitative surveys with clients (enough to be statistically valid) can give valuable, actionable insights.

The trick is conveying these insights in a format that is accessible across the organisation.
Buyer personas are a fantastic tool for combining these qualitative insights, social data, CRM records and basic demographics, into a high level summary.

Having a clear idea of your average customer, you can then move on to the best ways to align your product or service to them.

Typically they will define

  1. Priorities
  2. Success and what it looks like to them
  3. Barriers or things stopping them going with your solution or product
  4. Buying process
  5. Decision criteria.

These personas can then be put to great use when working on marketing user stories and creating solutions to their pain points. They’re fantastic for defining content marketing themes and priorities, allocating expenditure on marketing content and the focus across paid, earned and owned media.

They can also help product owners prioritise backlogs and support their prioritisation – when confronting conflicting interests with internal stakeholders.

In fact, the Buyer Persona Institute (yes it even has it’s own movement) marks – internal preconceptions and guesstimates of what the typical client is – as the biggest hinderance to creating successful buyer personas. Basing the personas on concrete factual input from actual client surveys and interviews is key.

For those daunted by the task of creating these very user centric profiles and negotiating internal stakeholders, remember – we do it every day. I noted on Sunday that we all subconsciously create immensely detailed buyer personas. When we make new friends, go on dates or get to know new colleagues, banking what makes them tick and the best approach to resonate.

Social CRM
Moving beyond the buyer persona, I can’t help but feel that social CRM will allow us to have highly detailed buyer profiles. Not just personas, but detailed dashboards of each buyer or customers interaction with our brand, their sentiment for our industry and peripheral products on social networks and even their purchases, buying habits and triggers.

At a macro level – aggregating these could provide a realtime singular buyer persona or multiple profiles. A daily dashboard to drive strategy and the direction of the company.

At a micro level – the trick will be up-skilling as an organisation to know how best to use this data. Finding the balance with your customers between stalky big brother-ish and delighting interactions and touch points.

Digital Marketing Strategy and The Product Owner’s Vision

Last week I touched on brand storytelling for businesses. Conveying the ‘why’ you are in business – and how you got there – to your target audiences. This ‘why’ for many companies is core to their business internally as well. Not just in their outward facing sales/marketing/recruitment pitch.

Converting that ‘why’ into strategic digital marketing goals is paramount for an affective web presence. Knowing what success looks like enables you to define key metrics to validate success. It can in most cases influence tactical decisions as well. Guiding your design and execution.

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Today we sat in the castle grounds and I’m pretty sure from this shot, even blurred, you can tell it’s a castle. Understanding it’s a castle you know what is needed or entailed in the creation of a good castle. Turrets, fortified, gate, maybe a moat, and 9 times out of 10 made of brick or stone. You also know what you don’t need and potentially after building a few, know what works and what doesn’t.

Product owners and their clear vision

Your strategic goals should have a similar broad stroke definition. They should tell you it’s a castle, but not how to build the windows or the finer details of execution. If your site is about new business generation, it should be highly optimised and proportionately text rich. If it is about sharing images it will have a whole different shape. As a lead in digital marketing or product owner for digital, this story belongs to you.

The vision should be well articulated, regularly, to the team.

The clearer the vision, the easier it is for those working on the website to make decisions and proceed. This also extends to epics, and then individual stories or groupings of work.

The vision and prioritising the most important features to users (internal or end users) means that even for release one your website is providing value to users. Much like the journalists inverted pyramid.

From there the vision will dictate your next iterations and the success of the site.

Today’s podcast

A few extras on evaluating you tactical adjustments and refinements against your core goals.

Digital Project Management and Tuckman’s Phases

Mentoring teams for digital projects and web development can be plain sailing. No, really.

The Psychologist Bruce Tuckman came up with the memorable phrase “Forming, storming, norming and performing” back in 1965 to describe the path to high-performance that most teams follow. Later, he added a fifth stage that he called “adjourning” (that others often call “mourning” – it rhymes a little better). Wikipedia covers them here –  Tuckman’s phases.

Mad Life

The phases can be seen in project teams of any size, formal or informal and in any setting. Understanding the phases is step one. Knowing how to navigate through each phase at an appropriate speed is the leader’s art. But also a skill for all team members.

Icebreakers, the more embarrassing the better, are great tools to break down the barriers in a Forming team. Unravelling interlinking hands, naming the teams mascot, balloon passing –  all feel a little bit childish. Yet remember how innovative we were as kids. How free our thoughts were…

The Storming phase, despite its name, can be innovation at its best. In a strict management led project – where the projects manager dictates workloads, task and roles – the manager can control overtly domineering team members and assert their positions, tasks and roles. They can also encourage the introverts and push the team through the phases.  Self selecting and self regulating teams, like those in Scrum don’t have this “luxury”, which in a way is a blessing. Team members fall to tasks which they can best perform.

The Product Owner’s job is to ensure they are focusing on the most valuable tasks to complete the project. They must instil an understand of what it is brining to the end product. Giving them an understanding of what, why and when lets them focus on the how.

A good example of teams passing through the Forming and Storming stages in subsequent iterations is the improvements in sizing. As the team learn to understand those that are optimistic and pessimistic about the complexity and time involved in tasks, they learn to how to explain their positioning and understand that of others.

When the team reaches the Storming stage, adhering to strict scrum processes and routine can comfort those who are worried about decisions being made. Point out the phases to team members that have concerns. Also, bear in mind that if your project has dependencies or requires new members mid project, your team to a certain extent, will revert to Forming again.

One Scrum practice that is paramount to the growth of the team is the retrospective after every sprint. An aid to the Mourning or Adjourning phases, the retrospectives focus on open and frank conversation around improvements. This highlights the strengths and weaknesses in the team.

The Mourning, of how things were in their old team encourages members to take the good points through to their next project.

They’ll carry experience of when to sail into the storm and when to tack.

The Locomotive Revolution and Agile Project Management

I was watching a program last night on the evolution of the train, from the first steam trains to the current Shinkansen and AGVs. It was a great story of evolutionary steps to get us to today. Yet one stood out beyond the others. Revolutionary.

Bluebell Railway

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Right before the invention of Stephenson’s Rocket the current train (sorry) of thought was: the most efficient way to move goods and passengers on tracks from one point to the next is the cable car. You would hook the carriages up to steam engines constructed at regular intervals along the track and reel in the cable to bring them up. Then uncouple, ready for connecting to the next engine. Stephenson suggested the engine could in fact travel in front of the carriages pulling them along. Revolutionary.

As I watched I couldn’t help but see correlations to Agile and Scrum. The fix mounted engines gave waterfall progression to targets and the locomotive was Agile. Exploring this metaphor a bit more I now have a far greater empathy for those that have troubles adjusting to an agile project management style. It’s revolutionary.

Fixed steam engines

  1. There were fixed costs for each mile of track and steam engine.
  2. Destinations (results) were defined from the start.
  3. If one steam engine breaks down you could not complete the journey.

The locomotive

  1. Costs would vary with the length of the journey.
  2. Destinations could change. The train could even switch tracks (pivot).
  3. The locomotive was independent.

This shift in focus is polar. Switching from focusing on cost savings to revenue creation is a big change in mindset. Yet taking the jump from emphasising defined costs and outcome to flexibility and incremental value puts clients and users at the forefront of projects.

This places organisations in an even better position to give value in return for value.

Tried and true vs. something new on Pinterest

It’s often possible to try something different in beta. Soft launch or A/B test your marketing campaigns and  in fact turn them into iterative waves of content.

I’m into residential architecture and my Pinterest board Modern Residential Architecture has been gaining real traction since Pinterest added the “Also pinned to:” feature. From 100 odd  followers last week to 801 today. The site really seems to be taking off. Stats about it being the third largest are highly believable. With good content the instant gratification of a like or repin comes with ease, vs. getting someone to retweet my posts.

Yet I digress, a few days back I posted this to another board, as a tester. Something new. It was far more popular than my architecture pins in plain likes and repins.


So the challenge this week is to find an architecture related motivational pin. The combination of the old and new that doesn’t alienate my followers and target audience.

Being agile, I can always tweak the idea as I go. Launch, analyse, learn and adjust. Of course if the analytics don’t support it I can still roll back to my tried and true without investing in a big campaign.

Follow me if you want to see where the iterations lead.

Strategy vs. tactical implementation in digital marketing

We face a fine line right now between Minimal Viable Product or Post and launching something with no sequel.

For those close to the software and technology sectors Eric’s Lean Startup and Agile principles push us to launch a product that will bring SIGNIFICANT value to the user but under the premise of minimal viable product. Make it “good enough”.

Costs, ROI and resources are ever more scrutinised. Despite this the #agilemarketing hashtag and the cause is still grass roots in volume despite the Klout scores of those involved and its ability to provide measurable returns.

I am scrum trained and an agile proponent as a product owner. Yet I can’t help but feel that there is a scalability issue vs. overall business strategy. Unless agile is embedded throughout the organisation.

Agile is a project management method that is hard to beat at a tatictal level. A Kanban or agile approach to “what needs fixing” on an existing website can be very effective and a base for building an understanding of agile within the organisation.

Yet try to explain this or fit it into an annual marketing plan or 5 year strategy and well…

In a way some of the basic principals of agile can be refreshing to an organisation battling priorities.

  1. Your backlog (list of things to do) is prioritised and you do the most valuable things first, not by who shouts loudest with the most seniority. Things that add value to the end user. It is however good to note that clients are not the only user. Your product or digital marketing has many users: clients, prospective employees and current employees. Fixing your CMS so that internal users can post content could be a high priority for example.
  2. The INVEST acronym defining a good story (the agile term for a set volume of work) means you’re investing in the right manor.
    • You break tasks in to Independent bites, you don’t end up waiting for someone else before you see the project complete.
    • You Negotiate, to understand how difficult those who have to do the task feel it is, conflicting values mean there’s more to it than meet the eye, and is raises flags.
    • Tasks must deliver Value to the end user or why do them at all!
    • Your tasks must be Estimable. To that end you should not attempt tasks who’s dimensions of success and scale are not well defined. E.G. “Make the website pop”
    • Small or sized, means tasks or “stories” are small enough to fit on a post-it. Refining a “register now” button to make it black is far easier than “fix our events site” as a task
    • finally the stories are Testable. Each one can be independently tested. Meaning we can see what ROI did we get from changing the register now button to green from red. This was possible because we defined success (and acceptance criteria) for the task before it was started

Starting out with Kanban, or Agile, and building your team into the process is the first step. With success and ROI your case builds and the groundswell develops. Those who’ve adopted agile see it as common sense, yet they all understand that common sense is rarely common or sensical.

But it’s with perseverance that the rest of the organisation will follow.

The Minimal Viable Post

The MVP epitomises the top layer of Inverted Pyramid with just enough, value, excitement, resonance or information to motivate readers to share it, NOW!

Inverted Pyramid

Your most important thoughts and work are done first as Agile Marketing encourages us to ship, and ship often.

You launch analyse learn and adjust. It is an iterative process, not a big long build that waterfalls.

Seth Godin masters the Minimal Viable Post – very brief, yet worth the click through.

Don’t get me wrong the MVP is still optimised for SEO and includes an image.

But the tweaking and the other pieces can come later.

After you’ve shipped you curate, to social networks.

You share with A and B titles.

Related links are added.

Then it’s done.

Well almost.

Comments?