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Is big the enemy of good? How to grow without crushing agility and creativity

By Joris Luijke on June 27, 2013

Remember working for that start-up? Things were good. You responded quickly to change. You could, and often did, roll out new programs within weeks or days. Your boss approved quick changes with a simple nod. And you got results—fast.

Remember working for that start-up? Things were good. You responded quickly to change. You could, and often did, roll out new programs within weeks or days. Your boss approved quick changes with a simple nod. And you got results—fast.  

Then you switched your start-up gig for an important role at a big enterprise. Things were different—slower, costlier, stuck in red tape, less tangible, less experimental. That's because big organizations are complex. And when humans get accosted by complexity, we get anxious. We need certainty and coordination—in the form of structures, policies, responsibilities and rules—to push that fear away.

We can't change our fear of complexity, nor our desire for control. So, what can we do to keep our organizations agile—even as they grow?  How can we ensure innovation doesn't get crushed?

1. Practical Guidelines—not policies

As organizations scale up, they typically try to align people though policies and procedures. A set of rules provides consistency and, so the theory goes, coherence throughout the organization.

We shouldn't try to fight the natural tendency for coordination and control. As a matter of fact, few people will argue against the benefits of introducing consistency. But there's a better way than rigid rules.

At Atlassian, we've grown from 100 to 700 staff in the last four years. We try to limit hard rules. We favor guidelines instead. What's the difference? Take, for instance, our Atlassian Design Guidelines, which is an online resource with design components and principles. It provides guidance on how to build awesome Atlassian products and add-ons. The tool throws in JavaScript for layouts, menus, and headers so that our developers (and our third-party allies), can develop new features themselves.

The best bit is that the tool doesn't interfere with the developers' design process, it just helps them work faster (they can quickly cut and paste code) so they can experiment freely while still retaining a base level of consistency. Unlike rules—which say "you must do this"—guidelines give your people latitude to get the job done better and faster.

2. Ritualize Autonomy

Every quarter, Atlassian goes through an exciting ritual called ShipIt Day. The organization halts at noon on a Thursday and every participating team starts working on an innovative pet-project of their choice. Twenty-four hours later, teams present their idea to the rest of the organization and everyone votes for a winner. Over the course of six years, a stunning 700 ideas have improved Atlassian's products and made their way into production. Also, a few totally new products were developed as a result.

Giving people the freedom and space to pursue their own projects and interests encourages them to anticipate new ways of doing things and test their ideas without repercussions—not just during our quarterly ShipIt Days, but every day. Most organizations ruthlessly beat eliminate the slack and space to think up new things and experiment—too many are slaves to the urgent matters of the day and miss out on sowing the seeds of the future.

ShipIt works because it is at once a well-defined ritual which our people can count on, but which is also designed to be an exciting and playful—and often surprising—experience. Most important, the results have a tangible impact on the "serious business"—the new products and features end up either being shipped or used internally.

Not only engineers do ShipIt days. The concept has spread like wildfire—to other companies, big and small, hospitals, and even high school.

3. Feed our Social Appetite

Few ideas are created by one brilliant mind. Most great ideas are the product of many great minds. Thankfully, as humans, we're hungry for social interactions. We also crave access to information to help us fit the pieces together. For larger organizations to adapt quickly and power innovation, the easiest way is to encourage those natural needs. 

Email stifles transparent dialogues and discussions. And disjointed software systems limit access to the information people yearn for (like sales data). 

That's why innovative organizations increasingly use social collaboration platforms (like Confluence, Jive or others), Group Instant Messaging tools (like Hipchat), or social coding tools for technical teams (like Stash, Bitbucket or Github) to make this happen. Such tools help us discover ideas, display data, discuss projects, update short, do everything we need to do. Together! 

Social collaboration helps us crowdsource content and fine-tune the way we run our company. At Atlassian, instead of emailing the yearly company strategy plan to staff, we openly discuss its content on our social collaboration platform Confluence. I love it when a super smart graduate openly disagrees with our CEO. And, as always with crowdsourced ideas, the best ones survive, regardless of who offered them. 

Our extreme openness invigorates projects and produces better outcomes. An engineer recently implemented a new Facebook style @mention feature, days after reading a customer feedback blog post from our Product Management team. A recent change to our induction program wasn't just driven by HR, our developers also pitched in their ideas.  

Of course, a creating a truly social environment extends beyond online tools. We’re relentless about finding new ways to connect people, create space for collaboration and have fun. We keep our buildings free of offices, we eat lunch together, we have a built-in bar where people congregate regularly. New hires wheel a beer-cart through the office to get to know their colleagues in a fun way. Loud music reverberates through our office at 2pm to rouse everybody from their seats for our daily all-hands stretch routine. And we have an experience team whose key role is to organize weekly social events for staff, ranging from laser skirmishes in our offices to annual friends-and-family day events. This isn’t the only way to create genuine, trusting, and productive relationships inside an organization—every organization has to find its own style. The point is, this isn’t trivial, “soft” stuff. Cultivating a sense of community isn’t optional for any organization.

4. Give customers solutions, not perfection

The most daring (and arguably frightening) way to respond faster is to give employees easier access to customers. Feedback loops tighten, your solutions get into the real world faster, and you can continuously and iteratively improve based on new feedback.

At Atlassian, we introduced a "growth hacking team." The team's job is to release smaller, experimental features to customers often (since inception, they've launched countless tests) and analyze the billion of lines of data that come back every week. They're the A/B-testing, analytics-breathing, front-line troopers who put our ideas into practice, absorb the market’s reaction, and continuously make our stuff better.

By introducing this growth hacking team—and emphasizing getting solutions in the hands of customers faster—we made "experimentation" and "growth-hacking" part of our company's common vocabulary. It has become a natural aspect of how we think and work across all teams.

Anyone, not just engineers, can experiment and iterate with customer solutions. I believe every team should think outside the box, disregard the status quo, and discover new ways to solve problems. Most people don't like to work endlessly on tasks where they can't see the results of their labor. Growth hacking makes work interesting, solutions more daring and innovative, and teams more agile.

Joris Luijke is the VP of Talent & Culture at Atlassian, a fast-growing Australian software company. You can learn more about Atlassian’s progressive innovation and engagement practices—and what it means to hack HR to make your organization more adaptable—in a Hackathon Hangout with Joris on July 2nd. Learn more here.

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martin-schillig's picture

Some interesting ideas – I like the focus on „culture“ and believe it’s a key factor to manage such a growth rate successfully. A big challenge is to retain the culture which made the start-up a success. Many companies seem to make the mistake of falling for best practices rather than searching for best fits.

donna-luisa-eversley's picture

Quite an inclusive and innovative culture, great for growth and idea generation. Very progressive use of social media. I wonder about the administrative requirements though, how much of it can be automated, and by offering 'guidelines rather than policies' does HR have challenges defining boundaries. Overall I love the philosophy, more in tune with present corporate development for future operations.

frederic-jleconte's picture

It is good to see that "Downunder" Mix hackers clearly have a "Think the Opposite" advantage...sounds fun too.The "new comer cart rally" is one of a smart induction program.
Cheap, fast and for sure efficient bonding.
Your job title is telling a lot too.Nice pick.
For every company enjoying growth the name of he game is either to keep tiny flexible orgs with spin-offs for any new anything that can be called emerging business (worked for years), or...., because times are changing, solve the double hit by melting inertia and taking advantage of the growing number of elements and smart inputs by pushing toward temporary clusters.
Simplicity and splits seem easier but as of today it is a very bet not to leverage the power of the big everything (brain, data, party etc....).
Big comes with typical risks but as you describe very clear many new organization shifts can solve the issue and bring additional creativity.

helen-jackson's picture

Culture, culture, culture, culture. If this is delivering what the organisation's customers need, then the need for rules and policies is reduced. Rules and policies become about maintaining and developing the culture so that people are able to work autonomously - they are unwritten and deeply ingrained within all processes and activities, so individuals can make appropriate decisions independently.

The culture grows and changes organically with the needs of the customer, not at the whim of the new MD, so the whole organisation has the time and motivation to change with it.

The difficulty arises if the culture that has come into being as the organisation grows is not aligned to the needs of the customer. At this point, rules and policies about "how we are going to behave" need to be overtly expressed and followed through.

mike-orchard's picture

Some fascinating points of consideration, I am especially interested in how companies benefit from ensuring people involved with their business retain their natural Autonomy and organic Sociability. For me that doesn't involve ritualisation or enforced 2pm stretching, it is about enabling a natural culture of innovation to evolve within the creative talent pool.

As more Intrapreneurs leave the frustration of Management and Govenance behind and either return to or enter the Entrepreneurial world, more an more companies will be looking to re-engage those talents as part of an extended virtual team, but it will be on jointly agreed terms set in a peer to peer non-hierarchical relationship.

max-tay's picture

By then management is replaced by the magic word "governance". Unfortunately without management, governance in most cases over killed agility and creativity.