Growing big, thinking small

Recently, we’ve been asking ourselves: how we can improve the experience of being a cxpartners client? And can we improve the experience of working at cxpartners, too?

Little big things

As we’ve grown, we’ve created bureaucracy and hierarchy, almost without noticing. That worries us because we want to be nimble and spontaneous.

The problem is that the larger you get, the more complex the systems you need to make sure that you’re staying on top of changes, planning ahead and tracking progress. Every time you add another person to the team, the number of possible combinations of people and projects grows dramatically. At some point, things become so complex that failure is just a matter of time. We don’t want to let that happen.

For us the solution has been to divide ourselves into smaller units of about a dozen people (we’ve called them pods - I don’t know why, but the name has stuck).

It’s not such a new idea. Over two thousand years ago, the Roman army took its basic building block as the Contubernium - a group of eight soldiers who lived and fought together. The pattern keeps cropping up because it works.

Small teams foster close communication - everyone knows each other's strengths and weaknesses, what work they’re engaged in, and what clients they’re working with.. It’s a closer, friendlier environment. And speed of communication equals speed of response.

Getting closer to our clients

Keeping things small also means that our teams become far more familiar with our clients’ business. Instead of relying on one person to act as a point of continuity from project to project, our teams are more familiar with the problems, opportunities, customers, staff and technology within each client’s organisation.

This means that teams can focus on our clients’ deeper problems, the ones that take two or three projects to resolve completely. That improves our relationships and the quality of our work.

Oh, and small teams also mean that individuals have the chance (and the requirement) to take responsibility. That encourages initiative, makes work meaningful, and helps people to grow. One of the exciting things about working for a small organisation is the excitement that responsibility brings. We’ve found a way to keep that even as we grow.

Meanwhile, outside the pods

Some services have to sit outside our pods. We deliver services like IT and travel planning to the pods from a central team of specialists, but that team has a clear challenge: find ways to deliver amazing services to the pods, without growing out of proportion.

A perfect system

So moving to pods was an obvious change. But there’s no such thing as a perfect system, so we’ve had to think about the pitfalls, too.

We didn’t want to isolate our specialists by having them sit inside a pod, but if we’d left them ‘floating’ then they’d have missed out on the chance to work within close-knit teams.

So we’ve come up with the idea of communities of practice that share knowledge between pods. If you’re a service designer in one pod, you’ll be in touch with the service designers in other pods, trying out new approaches, sharing experience, and keeping skills up to date. Communities of practice should mean clients and colleagues benefit from the latest ideas.

We also continue to run our weekly company-wide catch-up, our company conferences, and cake-Wednesday sharing sessions. And every so often, we’ll move a few people between teams to keep things fresh.

We’ve been running the system successfully in our London office for several months now. Making the change in our Bristol office means we should be able to deliver a better experience to all our clients – and staff.

Giles founded cxpartners with Richard Caddick in 2004. He's author of 'Simple and usable' and an invited speaker at design conferences around the world.