Banners: Supporting self-managing teams.

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After the party!

So we launched Dotmesh a month ago and after all the hard work getting over the line we had a bit to do on our technical and organisational debt! For us, this has meant fixing flaky tests and reflecting on how we can all work together more effectively. This blog post covers what we’re doing as a result of the latter.

Organising for agility and humanity.

For most of us at Dotmesh this is not our first job, or even our first startup. We’ve all felt the pros and cons of different ways of organising a team and one thing that we agreed on was that we want hold onto the culture that we have of “bringing our whole selves to work”. This means being able to use our full range of skills and experience wherever and whenever they are needed.

We also need the company to be agile and to keep our management overhead in the goldilocks zone. Our primary goal at this stage is learning and adapting, and a traditional fixed hierarchy doesn’t feel like a fit.

Banners - defining the work, not the job.

We’ve looked at a number of methods for organising self-managing teams. We have taken inspiration from Holacracy (as formerly espoused by Medium) and Scrum, and also the way that Valve and W. L. Gore structure their organizations. There is a lot to like about them, but we’ve settled on a thinner, simpler adaptation which we call Banners.

Banners are all about defining the work, not the job. We started by looking at all the activities that we needed to do to run the company and grouping them into an affinity diagram using KJ technique. We asked for volunteers or nominations to find a champion for each banner, and any other interested individuals added their names as Bannerkin (we were messing about with names and this one stuck!).

We then went about defining what each banner was for and what its inputs (where work items come from) and outputs (value delivered) would be. The following is a direct excerpt from our intranet (so retro!).

What is a banner?

A banner is a stated area of work that people collaborate on. It shares some characteristics with SIGs, Departments, Job Descriptions and so on. The difference is that the banners are not mutually exclusive in terms of membership and ownership and are more loosely staffed. A person may lead no banners or several, and the lead can be changed as needed without formal process. Likewise, a person may do work under one or more banners for a short or long period depending on the company’s focus and priorities. Banners themselves may also be created or retired from time to time and are regularly reviewed for their relevance and effectiveness.

What are the benefits of using banners?

  • Banners provide a framework that supports a self-managing, non-hierarchical company. They focus on what should be done rather than how.
  • They support a shared understanding of what activities need to be done within the business.
  • They make explicit who is responsible for ensuring that each area of work is being done.
  • They define clear boundaries of responsibility through focusing on agreed inputs/outputs.
  • They allow for organisational agility through a regular retrospection and adaption cycle that tunes their fitness for purpose.
  • They allow a banner-by-banner structure and process to be determined by the people working under them. Small, simple banners don’t have to adopt the way bigger banners work.
  • They support a “bring your whole self to work” culture where people can swarm onto tasks where they can be most helpful and their work is not defined by job description.

How do I set up a banner?

  1. Propose the banner at the next company meeting to get it agreed.

  2. Set up a new page on the intranet under Banners.

  3. Outline the banner’s purpose, inputs, outputs and roles (one must be the banner champion).

  4. Add any other information to the page that you think others will find useful e.g. links to Github pages, resources and Google Drive files. Have a look to see what other banners have done.

  5. If you have a channel in Slack, add a link to your intranet banner page in the channel details.

  6. Create or move any folders in Google Drive to sit within a folder under the Banners folder.

  7. Decide within the banner how inputs will be worked on and outputs provided. Consider capturing the workflows as processes. Consider whether you would benefit from specifying standards to support the consistency of your output or asking for inputs to meet a certain format or criteria.

  8. Consider how and when you will keep the company informed of the work the banner is doing. For example, giving updates at company meetings or capturing banner meeting minutes and making them available.

  9. Plan in a regular retro meeting (e.g. once a month) within the banner to review how well the purpose, inputs/output, roles and working practices are serving the banner and the company. Take feedback from people/banners who consume your output. Consider whether you need to give feedback to people/banners who provide your input. If you feel that something that falls within your banner should move to another banner, arrange with that banner to make the changes needed. Keep the rest of the company informed of any changes that affect them.

The future of banners.

We’re still getting started with banners and we’re sure to hit a few ‘gotchas’ along the way, but we’re optimistic about their potential to help us work together more effectively.

Banners support a “bring your whole self to work” culture where people can swarm onto tasks where they can be most helpful and their work is not defined by job description.
Written by:

Alice Sowerby