Let’s Get Small to Go Big

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At the end of 2012, Intuitive Company was a tight group of 23 talented designers, researchers, strategists and technical wizards. Over the next two years, we more than doubled our size. We’re still an accomplished and close-knit bunch, but we’re also honest: we admitted the firm had experienced some growing pains and that we needed to do something about it.

Reflecting on the past can be hard for any human being, much less an organization full of almost 50 particularly passionate ones. But if we wanted to be able to maintain the high level of service and quality of deliverables our clients expected of us — as well as hold on to the culture that made all of us want to work here in the first place — we knew we had to engage in a bit of soul-searching. Our goal was to figure out what continued to work well despite our larger size, what didn’t, and where we might be at risk of making missteps going forward.

What Needed Fixing

One issue stared us in the face every morning: our workspace was getting cramped. We’re big believers in an open floorplan, but realized there were limits to how many people could work together productively under one roof. Having an atmosphere that was incredibly active and alive was great, but the steps we had to take to simply fit everyone in — such as sacrificing our communal meeting area for more desks — brought their own set of issues.

Communication issues were also hard to deny. We used to pride ourselves on open, honest, one-to-one communication. We knew that such contact was a way to not only head off employee frustrations, but also keep tabs on who was looking to grow their responsibilities or maybe even try something totally new. It’s likely a big reason why we’ve only had two employees quit since we founded the firm. However, we’d reached a point where face-to-face meetings with each individual team member had become logistically impossible.

We also noticed that the more we grew, the more “cliques” started to form among employees. It’s natural for people to gravitate toward others they have something in common with — within any company, such groups could be based on age, function, seniority, or outside-of-work interests. It’s a wonderful thing when co-workers get along on a personal level and enjoy each other’s company… unless it makes others start to feel left out, or like they don’t belong to any specific circle. In our case, we sensed that Intuitive Company’s culture was in danger of fracturing; we were losing the cross-functional atmosphere that had been so critical to our success. Because of our size, sub-groups had started forming within what used to be one small (now big) happy family.

Another threat to our culture came in the form of the lessening impact of new employees. When there were only one or two dozen people, every team member who joined the mix was able to make a clear mark on the firm, and we loved that. That’s why we took (and still take) our recruiting and hiring process so seriously. But there’s no denying that the larger the group becomes, the harder it is for the presence of any one employee to influence our direction or overall vibe.

Finally, from a purely “business” perspective, we ran some numbers that proved we had become less efficient. As we grew, our revenue-per-employee figures slipped slightly.

It would have been easy to point to our growth — both in number of employees and in year-over-year profits — and, to steal a phrase from The Lego Movie, rejoice “Everything is awesome!” But that’s not how we’ve ever done things. We’ve always encouraged each other to critique, to evolve, and to question the status quo. We help our clients run processes and apps and sites more smoothly, and now it was time to turn the spotlight on ourselves. Because we have every intention of continuing to grow at a measured pace in order to bring our solutions to more clients, and we want to be sure we’re doing it right.

Quick Fixes

There were a few easy decisions we made and changes we implemented to help position us well for the future. We contracted with (and are looking to hire) a full-time Human Resources manager. We created an Employee Handbook. We hold reviews more frequently with new hires — at their three-week, six-month and one-year anniversaries. We lean more heavily on our mentoring program and our onboarding processes. We hold more all-staff meetings.

We also are leveraging technology to help keep everyone informed and connected. Beyond email, we have found success with Slack (a group messaging tool) and Know Your Company (an employee survey tool).

Those solutions helped with some of the more basic issues that arose from simply having more employees. But our bigger concern was keeping our culture intact as our numbers increased. And a core tenant of our culture is the understanding that everyone wants to feel respected, valued and challenged. We realized that one way to encourage those feelings was to give people opportunities to both show off their own work and learn from others. So we set up a bimonthly “Inspire Series” and a new “Spotcase Showlight” (yes, we’re goofy like that) where team members can present their best work, share “lessons learned” from their recent projects and ask questions to those on different teams or in different disciplines. Both go a long way in reminding everyone that even though we’re not all working together on the same client engagements anymore, we are still on the same team overall and have reasons to be proud of what Intuitive Company as a whole has accomplished.

The Biggest Changes

The ideas we implemented to keep our employees better connected have worked well, but they weren’t enough to completely bring back the magic from our earlier years. Our introspection over the past several months led to this conclusion: our efficiency and effectiveness were highest when we were a compact group of just a couple dozen people who knew each other well and were aware of pretty much everything that was going in the company.

A bigger change was needed, and it came in three steps: promoting two people into newly created Managing Director (MD) positions, splitting our workforce into two cross-disciplinary teams that each MD would oversee — two “mini” Intuitive Companies, if you will — and then giving those two teams their own separate workspaces. We were going to attempt to get small (again) in the hopes of growing even bigger and recapturing the culture that drove our success.

We were going to attempt to get small (again) in the hopes of growing even bigger and recapturing the culture that drove our success.

Intuitive Company had remained a very flat organization since its inception, but this change in company structure justified the addition of an important layer into our hierarchy. We posted the Managing Director job description internally and invited staff to apply. There were no doubts about how serious this process was. We asked each applicant to address a scenario about our future and suggest solutions. We interviewed the candidates thoroughly, and the two people we ultimately hired were considered great choices by the rest of the firm.

We made such a big deal about hiring and promoting these MDs because we knew that now other senior (and even not-so-senior) folks would look at the role as a potential avenue for career growth. Which it is. It also frees the principals up to focus on the big picture: marketing the firm, establishing new partnerships and developing stronger ones with our existing clients, and finding new opportunities to expand.

With the principals shifting their focus to more high-level strategic work, the MDs are each charged with daily oversight of a cross-functional team. We want them to use what worked for Intuitive Company in the past while also weaving in newer and better ways of doing things. They’ll then be sure to share learnings between the two groups in order to keep perfecting processes.

Everyone is on the same page that the most important aspect of our earlier success was that team members from our four disciplines — Research, Design, Development and Engagement — all worked together on projects and helped influence client solutions. That’s what we need to get back to within the two smaller teams.

The final step was a physical move. We rented 5,000 more square feet of open office space across the alley from our current office and moved one team over as the calendar rolled to 2015.

Work hard, play hard… from our new space across the street.

Work hard, play hard… from our new space across the street.

Our hope is that we’ve designed a solution that can be replicated in the future, meaning that we could add another MD and break out another team as we grow. And though our two buildings are currently only 25 feet away from each other, the hope is that if this “mini company” approach works, we could also use it in an entirely different city or state.

These changes haven’t come without anxiety among the staff. No one’s really sure how it will be over the long-term when everyone isn’t in the same physical space. There are worries of how the skilled disciplines will be affected after being split between the two teams. There are fears of missing the influence of more seasoned mentors. These concerns are valid, but everyone agrees that the bigger danger would’ve been not changing at all. We wanted to be proactive about bringing the company closer to the vibe we had when we were just 23 people. With that size came significant benefits in the form of retention, profitability, and most importantly employee satisfaction. When the staff is happy, the clients are happy and the workplace stays happy.

So as we prepare to dive into the new year and settle into our new structure, we have asked the staff to do what they have always done in the past: to try. Try to be open-minded, give this solution a chance, be prepared to deliver honest feedback, and then let’s evolve. We’ll see what works and what doesn’t and make adjustments as we go along. Change is never easy, but there is excitement and comfort to be found in the fact that we are all united in the same goal: to preserve Intuitive Company’s incredible culture as we grow.

Meet the New MDs

Travis Earhart

go-big-travisLooking back: “I was full-time employee #9. When I started, the entire office was the same size our conference room is today. But there was an energy because of that closeness — not only the proximity (sitting on top of each other), but also because communication wasn’t splintered.”

Looking forward: “That’s one reason this change makes sense — to get a better idea of the work being done. As we’ve grown, some people have taken a back seat and we don’t want them to. We want everyone to shine.

One of the things I’m most excited about is that I think it will be nice to get to know each team member on a deeper level, develop our junior staff, and then have the ability to switch things up and inject new people and new perspectives into the mix again. We can switch people around across the two teams so that our team members are exposed to new ideas, new thinking and new experiences — all which benefit our clients in the end.

Jes Koepfler

go-big-jesLooking back: “There was just a huge communication challenge. We were still doing a great job of sharing ideas, just not as efficiently as we could have as a smaller group. We were creating siloes unintentionally. There were challenges moving projects from design to development, or from sales to research and strategy.”

Looking forward: “This change gets us back to thinking like a multi-disciplinary group and allows people to leverage their full skillsets. Designers can use their development skills, or strategists can help support researchers, instead of just doing the thing that they were hired to do. People get to dabble in other aspects of a project that might have been regulated to a specific person or group before. I see the excitement about that cross-pollination.

And now other folks — especially newer or more junior employees — are getting used to the fact that they can just come up with an idea and propose it to the whole team. People are taking leadership.”

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