A company ‘of the web’ not just ‘on the web’..?

I know I’m not using the ‘of the web..’ idea correctly here — though I suspect there aren’t that many of us around who remember people at the Guardian espousing that principle that led to me using it a lot at the ONS.

The thing is I find myself in a — for me — pretty rare situation career wise. I have joined a company that is just barely a year old and for a variety of reasons is probably even younger than that as for as the evolution of its culture. So I am in a position to potentially help steer that culture from an unusually early stage — devoid of the usual institutional inertia I’ve faced elsewhere.

So I’ve been thinking a lot about what kind of company I want to be a part of.

As a starting point I see my job description as basically making Tom’s definition of digital a reality for organisations:

Applying the culture, practices, processes & technologies of the Internet-era to respond to people’s raised expectations.

..and I wonder what a company culture would look like if everything started there.

Things didn’t work out for me at mySociety but I learned an enormous amount — not least it gave me an inkling of what an internet-age organisation could look like.

There is a brilliant culture page on their website that gives some real insight into their ways of working. As I’ve written before I really struggled with being in a totally remote organisation but I can’t imagine how much worse it would have been without the steps mySociety already had in place to ensure the internal communication was as great as it was.

A highlight of my brief stay at Defra was working with Emily as she brought a discipline and structure to remote team working as well — in less than ideal circumstances — and also she really upped my understanding around things like ‘communities of practice’ and true multi-disciplinary teams via her ‘team onion’ work.

All these experiences have helped my thinking but none of them are directly applicable I think. Nor is everything I’ve learned from Mozilla over the years or wonderfully open organisation examples like Gitlab. They all help though.

The model that seems to be emerging for us is more like a ‘distributed’ organisation than a ‘remote’ one. To bring it back to being ‘of the web’ (and to totally brutalise another saying) I see us as ‘small teams, loosely joined’.

Being ‘distributed’ though means you need to work harder and smarter to ensure that you have a shared culture and behaviours. It would be pretty easy for nodes to go rogue.

Not surprisingly I think one of the ways to mitigate against this is to work in the open as much as possible. When you are a mix of permanent staff, ‘associates’ and occasional contractors having your principles and processes out in the open just makes sense. One practical example of this is that James (our CEO) is introducing a ‘code of conduct’ for all NotBinary staff — whatever their status as far as HMRC are concerned. We are light on HR overhead but this ‘code’ — based on examples from open source communities — feels like something native to our industry and a good fit for our ambitions. I want to get this out on the open web as soon as possible and then build out our shared identity from there.

Every individual is different though and I think a distributed model means it takes longer for everyone to get to understand each others nuances, eccentricities and ways of working. While it is true that probably something like Cassie’s ‘User Manual’ might be too much for some people I do think a lighter weight version would be useful for all staff — maybe an extension to the Slack user page? — to accelerate the getting to know each other phase.

For the hundredth time Giles recently inspired me with something he wrote as well. This post about allowing strategy to emerge by doing the thinking in the open as you move forward — and capturing the important themes in stickers to reinforce thing with your people — really clicked with me. Talking about what you are seeking to achieve, why you think it is worthwhile and how you are going to do it — as you actually work it out — is the sort of thing that builds trust and for an organisation built on ‘small teams, loosely joined’ to succeed there will need to be trust.

As I’ve said often the original GDS Design Principles have always been the most important thing for me that came out of Aviation House (as was). Those 10 principles inspired more than anything else and have remained a constant touchstone in my career since. I remain proud of the collective principles we agreed in ONS Digital Publishing as well — having a shared understanding of what you are all signing up to is incredibly powerful for a team.

For all of this I think you need a constant programme of reinforcement to make things habit but given Slack has become our ‘office’ to all intents and purposes and we are a digital company I think pushing the capability of the integrations and bots to support the wider goals is a good idea. A couple of years after the fact and 18F’s Mrs. Landingham bot to help new staff is still one of the best things I’ve come across.

So what does this come down to:

An organisation built on;

  • distributed, self-organising, ‘small teams, loosely joined’
  • being open by default, thinking out loud
  • team members sharing their preferred ways of working
  • communicating often* and with discipline
  • shared principles
  • using the tools of the internet to reinforce all of this

*too much better than not enough

This all seems pretty common sense to me — anything obvious I missed or just got wrong? Let me know!

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