“What differentiates Catalysts from other companies is the level of self-organization.” That was the summary of a consultant who worked in our team for some time. He had seen a lot of companies and teams before, but was very impressed by our environment.
Before we introduced TeamEcho as our main survey tool we’ve been running employee satisfaction surveys 1 or 2 times per year with a handful of questions, one of which was “In my team we support each other.” The answers can range from strongly agree, agree, partly agree, agree less to don’t agree. The value is calculated from the responses and has always been between 93 and 95%, i.e. extraordinarily high.
Our Catalysts Values (see 2.4 The Best Approach to Sort Out One’s Values) surely support cooperation:
- Permission-to-play value “Being a Team Player”, i.e. offering help to others
- Permission-to-play value “Respect”, i.e. always being willing to learn something from others no matter how young, old, experienced or inexperienced they may be
- Core value “Cooperativeness and Openness”, i.e. sharing your knowledge and supporting each other in the search for the best solution, being open for exchanging ideas
Although self-organization is visible in many areas at Catalysts, it doesn’t rule everywhere and everything. Just as there are different leadership styles, as I’ve explained in 9.4 Situational Leadership: you first have to understand a person’s development level for a specific task or goal in order to apply the right leadership style and provide the right amount of directive and/or supportive behaviour. In a similar way the entire organization has different tasks and goals. It can handle some situations with ease while others pose a challenge. Some situations ask for stability and discipline, while others ask for agility and creativity. Let’s explore different areas with different levels of self-organization.
Catalysts is set up for growth. Most of our team members work in software development projects. A few others work in support roles, they are service providers for our team members and clients, e.g.
- People Operations: take care of candidates and guide them through our application process
- Back Office: take care of payroll, accounting, etc.
- Local Office Admins: take care of everything related to the office (heating, cooling, cleaning, repairs, etc.)
- IT Admins: take care of hardware, software, network, printers, scanners, etc.
The routine work for those roles is mostly standardized. As I’ve mentioned in “4.3 Onboarding With Your Personal Coach During the First 4 Weeks” we have a couple of task chains for everything that needs to get done for a new team member (from setting up the work contract until collecting feedback after the first month of work). Via that standardization we can guarantee that every new team member has a high-quality experience, yet it’s efficient from a company’s point of view to deliver that experience. Those standard processes are carefully designed. The tasks are carefully distributed among the roles such that they go hand in hand with each other. That’s 0% self-organization, 100% careful process design.
In other areas like personal development we define a common goal, provide a lot of help and support, define expected behaviours but then leave it open to each team member how to actually grow one’s skills (see 3.4 Company-Wide Learning). That’s 50% self-organization.
Yet in other areas, we rely 100% on self-organization, e.g. everything related to team events. In every location the team members can decide by themselves which kinds of team events they want to have how often, e.g. team breakfasts, sport activities, evening dinners, etc. We want maximum creativity and involvement by as many team members as possible.
When Christopher Avery visited us in October 2016, he asked for concrete examples that make our environment great. Harald Vogl (one of our experienced team members) told a story (starting at 3:50 in the video below): when I mess up the build, don’t recognize it and and go home, I can be sure that a colleague of mine will jump in and fix it for me, without blaming me.
“It’s okay to be human”, there is basically no “blame game” at Catalysts. We help each other, we share our experience. You don’t have to have bad feelings when you do something wrong or when you jump in to correct a situation that went slightly wrong.
From the outside, Catalysts could be seen as extremely competitive:
- We find our team members mostly via coding contests – which suggests that we all like competition.
- For client projects our claim is “From Challenges to Solutions”, i.e. we like to engage in challenging problems and promise to solve them.
Yet, internally, we are extremely cooperative:
- Our team leaders self-organize to decide which pre-projects to accept and which to reject (if there is more work than we have capacity).
- Our cross-functional teams self-organize to deliver working software with every iteration.
- Our team members self-organize to develop their social skills and their technological experience.
- Everybody freely shares his/her knowledge with each other – even if that uses up some of one’s own time, because it’s important “on the receiving end.”
Our typical problem solving approach is solitary in the first step, but cooperative thereafter:
- If you have a difficult task, give it a decent try yourself.
- If you can’t solve it within 1-2 hours, look around in your room if someone is not fully absorbed in his/her own work. If you can make eye contact with someone, ask him/her for help.
- If you can’t get your problem solved with the help from the same room, ask your colleagues from your team (typically via instant messaging).
- If that doesn’t help either and if it’s urgent, use the company-wide Skype channel to broadcast your problem. You’ll get a response quickly and your problem will be solved.
To sum it up, although we all like competition, we’ve set up our environment for cooperation. Most likely because of our natural inclination to competition, we give an extra emphasis on cooperation to allow for an environment with a lot of self-organization and support for each other.