Flatland / agile team structure

Welcome to Flatland

If you’re familiar with startup lore you may well recognize that title. It comes from Valve’s Handbook for New Employees. Valve is the video game developer and distributor behind Steam which generated an estimated $3.4b in 2017. It is a private company, both in terms of ownership and keeping quiet about its internal workings. In fact, the handbook only saw the light of day through a leak.

It’s a far more interesting read than such a handbook has any right to be. It lays out a way of structuring an organization that is about as different from the one most people are used to as it is possible to get. It’s a totally flat structure where employees decide what to work on themselves. That’s a million miles from corporate land. It’s radical for sure. Scary to some. But it works. $3.4b says it works extremely well for Valve.

If nothing else, Valve proves that there are alternatives. The traditional top-down approach is just one – and not necessarily the best. If your organization happens to be military of course then there is quite a lot of historical evidence to suggest that top-down is effective, but elsewhere it is questionable.

Startup organisation

All startups that make it beyond the very early stages face the question of how they are going to organize themselves. Some founders will favour keeping a very tight hold on the reins, others will want to let the team run free, like Valve. Most will probably favour whatever they’ve seen work previously in their carriers.

Is personal experience such a good guide here though? The rigid top-down hierarchies I’ve encountered in large corporates during my career sometimes worked well. I’ve also seen top-down control fail spectacularly. I’ve seen it stifle innovation and productivity and create stress and indecision.

The other Nuons have had similar experiences. So, at least in our current context, we lean strongly away from hierarchy and towards flatland where the freedom and empowerment of people is baked into our identity.

For startup size organisations, flatland is what you have by default. For me, that’s part of the joy of working in a startup. Decisions are made quickly. The organization and its people can be brave. Everyone is in the room when decisions are made which gives a very broad perspective. A marketing person’s view on a problem which a developer is struggling with can deliver surprisingly dramatic results.

The million-dollar question of course is how you scale that.

How do you scale, though?

There are three inspirations behind how we go about doing things at Nuon: Lean, Agile, and Growth Teams.

Agile is the engine. It is how we get things done, it is how we plan, how we monitor, how we measure. We’ve worked Agile (no, really, actual Agile!) for years. Mat F. keeps us on track no matter how we may sometimes squeal!  

Lean is the guide. It is how we decide what we should be doing and how to learn from what we’ve done. It picks up where Agile leaves off – at both ends. It’s how the product owner knows what should be prioritized, and how they know whether it was effective or not when it was delivered.

Growth teams

Well, a startup is a Growth Team in itself, so this is easy right now. But in future, structuring teams with all the skills from marketing through product ideation, development, deployment, to customer support gives a team with a clear objective all of the elements it needs to make it happen in whatever way the team sees as most effective.

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