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Learning From Engineers

Kara Swisher and Walt Mossberg's new tech news site Recode had a good interview with Twitter's SVP of Engineering Chris Fry in which he talked quite a bit about the balance between centralised and de-centralised organisational structures, something that has arisen again and again in the course of the work I've done on digital structures and resourcing over the past few years.

There have been some notable recent examples of high-profile digitally-focused businesses (including Medium, and Zappos) adopting holocratic principles and designing their organisations with no hierarchy, job titles and many of the trappings that come with more conventional structures. Twitter haven't quite gone that far, but they have some interesting ways of managing the kind of tricky dynamics that most companies struggle with.

The company, says Fry, is pretty unique in how rapidly it has scaled. Originally set up around allotted, independent teams that worked in isolation (perhaps a little like Amazon's Two-Pizza Teams), the challenge has been to work out how to scale, and properly co-ordinate effort across multiple teams, whilst maintaining agility and autonomy:

"The trick is figuring out as you scale from one team to 100, how do you make it so that the teams can still have a little bit of structure so that they know what they need to work on, but are still able to rapidly experiment and iterate? That’s a lot of what I work on — to keep giving teams autonomy."

In fact Fry deliberately focuses on delivering three things to everyone that work for him: autonomy, mastery and purpose (sound familiar?). The role of leaders is key and they put a lot of effort into supporting good leadership, but initiatives including Twitter University, a programme to facilitate engineers moving teams regularly ("creating a free market for talent inside the company"), alongside peer feedback and peer-supported promotions, are deliberately designed to support these fundamentals. As is a focus on building infrastructure that can support experimentation, early stage ideas, and a real learning culture.

The market for good engineering talent is highly competitive so creating the right environment, and getting the balance right between centralised capability, functions, support, guidance, governance and standards, and more distributed autonomy at both a team and an individual level is not just about recruiting and retaining the best talent, but very much about creating real competitive advantage. There is of-course a danger that we over-idolise Silicon Valley practices and end up misappropriating the potential learnings from engineering-centric organisational cultures, but I do think that there are valuable learnings beyond processes, into culture, environment and structures. Not least because a number of these companies were once small, but have scaled rapidly in a highly competitive talent environment whilst needing to maintain a critical level of agility.

…and P.S. whilst we're on the subject of organisational resourcing the smart folk at Undercurrent have a couple of interesting posts up about Functional vs Divisional organisations, and the idea of 'pairing' as a way of leading strategy projects.

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