It’s Popular to Go Podular: How Your Company Can Make the Switch

By Shawn Freeman

What does an architectural engineering professor from France who died more than 80 years ago have to do with the health of your company?

Everything.

Max Ringelmann’s study of team effectiveness found that one person pulling on a rope gave 100 percent of his effort, but as more people were added to the rope, each person contributed less effort. Essentially, the larger the team, the smaller the individual output.

Unfortunately, growing businesses are producing teams of suckers with lousy customer service output, poor internal dynamics and culture, and woefully inadequate levels of team accountability. The solution, my company has found, is to stop creating massive teams -- instead, get “podular.”

Pods and Pizzas

A podular structure -- where small, autonomous full-service teams replace individualized departments -- flies in the face of the much-practiced vertical silo. Instead of uncommunicative departments and exhaustive protocols, podularity allows people to tackle responsibilities with autonomy, authority and efficiency. But when is it time to create a pod? Consider Jeff Bezos’ rule at Amazon: If it takes more than two pizzas to feed a team, the team’s moving toward unnecessary levels of bureaucracy.

Everyone’s a sucker in the big-team scenario. That’s why supercells are so powerful. Four-to-six employees working together can remain innovative, positively affecting engagement and motivation internally and externally. The more autonomy teams have, the more accountability they’ll take on.

Part of a (Smaller) Whole

By keeping teams at a functional level, you give them the ability to be complete; they’re now fractals. And customers will love the results: After all, they want to build personal bonds -- and that happens only through genuine relationships.

Podular units can foster mutually beneficial client connections. Give each unit a few clients, and they’ll spend their time wowing and wooing them. If the pod members are at the top of their game, your clients will stay with you because of them, not just because of your product or service.

Other downstream advantages to mutually beneficial customer-business relationships include word-of-mouth referrals, upselling opportunities and happier employees who know their jobs are secure. That last benefit is especially critical: Employees who feel ownership are more likely to stay. Richard Branson is an outspoken advocate for the power of satisfied workers. And who can argue with his success?

Living Proof of Podularity’s Power

Our company utilizes pods to provide exceptional internal and external customer service. Each pod is assigned clients, and the pod’s technical account manager has the unique ability to craft IT solutions around clients’ needs. This builds a personal rapport that wouldn’t be possible with packaged, cookie-cutter services.

Our podular culture has fused us into agile, tight-knit teams. We don’t waste time on hand-holding or babysitting employees. We don’t have to. Our teammates know they have autonomy and authority to take charge. Their actions have noticeable results on the bottom line, too.

Ready to join the podular movement?

1. Focus on your long-term objectives.

Map out your company’s goals and define each staff member’s role that will help achieve those objectives. For each of my company’s big ideas, I consult small groups of people as sounding boards. I consider risks, worst-case scenarios and different perspectives. We’ve made changes across our support desk, network operations, projects and administration, and I generally consult with a few people who will be affected in each area.

When I incorporate staff feedback, I find great results. Make sure you delegate authority to specific employee pods. Continue to review results and make adjustments with objectivity.

2. Rearrange organizational workflows when bureaucracy rears its ugly head.

Perhaps bureaucracy should be called “bureaucrazy” because it’s insane to make processes so complex. Bureaucracy murders trust -- and trust is essential in business. At our company, if an employee asks to work remotely or take a day off, the rest of us barely notice. We trust one another to get work done.

As soon as you see the telltale sign that independent autonomy is waning, it’s time to break down into smaller pods or rearrange your current pods to suit your needs. Often for us, the sign is simple: Either decisions aren’t getting made or uncomplicated projects aren’t getting completed on time. We also watch our service levels. Because our business is service-based and is our most important offering, we need to ensure we're keeping that at a high level.

3. Maintain simplicity.

Unless you’re a collie competing for an agility medal in a dog show, you’re not interested in jumping through hoops. Employees who regularly deal with maddeningly intricate process chains will start to buck the system, which will lead to poor client experiences. I fill my company with passionate, efficient employees who are self-starters. Urge your personnel to be creative but practical by operating in self-sufficient pods. Overthinking leads to a loss of perspective, persistence and proactivity.

Our company has started implementing tools to put processes and roles in place with specific accountabilities, such as EOS, which breaks down each part of your business to a simplistic form that’s easily repeatable. This tool can align your team with the delivery of your service, ensuring everything runs in a systemized manner. Likewise, the Rockefeller Habits Checklist is a great guide to getting your organizational ducks in a row.

If you fell off the face of the earth, would your company continue without you? It’s a question that keeps founders up at night. If you’ve instituted a podular culture, you can stop worrying: Your small teams will continue to perform without giving in to the sucker effect.

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Shawn Freeman is the founder and CEO at TWT Group.

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