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Servers, stairwells and sandwich toasters: the problems of organisational growth


Servers, stairwells and sandwich toasters: the problems of organisational growth

Picture of Adam Thomas
Adam Thomas — Director
October 11, 2018

How we are dealing with an expanding team

When I was working at Storyful, it became obvious when we were growing too fast. Spaces for meetings and phone calls were impossible to find. I would discover colleagues huddled in fire exits, and hidden in stairwells. I once had to take a sales call in a toilet cubicle. I’m pretty sure the person in the next stall was doing the same (I never asked).

Storyful grew from 26 people to 130 in less than 18 months.

Our growth at the European Journalism Centre is somewhat more measured. In the past 12 months, we have grown from 17 people to 25 people, or over 30 if you include key freelancers and interns. (We’re hiring by the way!)

At the European Journalism Centre, and at Storyful, and at Sourcefabric before that, I learned a valuable lesson.

As teams grow, the amount of interactions grow at a faster rate.

“Let’s set up another Slack channel.”

A team of six has 15 links between everyone. A team of 12 has 66 links. An organisation with 50 people has 1225 links to grapple with. That’s a lot of extra noise.

The number of links vs group size. Graph from I Done This.
The number of links vs group size. Graph from I Done This.

When you scale a team as we have (a change of 56%), the number of potential interactions actually increases by around 200%.

Anyone who has been part of a growing team will have experienced this. It usually manifests itself in overflowing inboxes and myriad Slack channels.

So, why grow at all?

At the European Journalism Centre, we aren’t growing the team for growth’s sake.

We are at a crucial point of our evolution as an organisation. Unless we are able to pivot away from the funding that has dominated the previous 25 years of our existence (EU money), our sustainability will be severely questioned.

We know that we need to grow our capacity in order to open ourselves up to new opportunities. New opportunities means a more diverse, more resilient funding model. It also gifts an opportunity to allow the team greater autonomy and develop leadership too.

So how can we develop a structure that allows us to scale the team, develop leaders, and keep all that noise under control?

Here comes the theory…

Organisational structures can be placed on a spectrum ranging from hierarchical to flat. Hierarchical organisations use layers to control information at the top. They issue orders down into the organisation. This can work really well. Just go ask a marine (or their superior at least).

Flat organisations forego this, devolving information and power in extreme ways. Hallmarks of these systems are radical transparency around pay, no job titles, or even “role marketplaces” in which your core work can change daily.

I believe every organisation needs to develop the structure that is right for it. The European Journalism Centre needed a better way that combined both hierarchy and flatness.

Not strictly hierarchical. Not totally flat. Somewhere in the middle. A flatter organisation.

This is how we’ve tried to do that.

Information flows

Flatter organisations need de-centralised, accessible places where information can be accessed. We have put in place a nervous system that helps us to work remotely, even if we are in the same office. Hello Basecamp, Dropbox and Exact. Goodbye local server under the toasted sandwich maker in our kitchen.

Our efficiency as a team has increased; I see this every day in our working hours' registration, project margins, and fixed costs.

Management vs. leadership

Culturally, we have begun to understand that leaders exist to support the employees, and not vice versa. Instead of delegating commands, we should delegate authority. We have done this by putting budgets and project planning under the control of teams and appointing new Team Leads. They are a point of responsibility inside each team to ensure information and accountability flows both ways.

Though counter-intuitive, relinquishing control over budgets has actually led to more budget predictability than before, not less.

Motivation and challenge

Employees don’t need to work at the EJC. They should want to work here. We have refocused our mission, improved our outward appearance, and hired a People Officer to build personalised career programmes. We got comfortable with flexible work arrangements and remote roles. We built a transparent salary system. We rewrote our working conditions. We tried to reduce red tape around work bureaucracy. We are moving into two brand new offices in Maastricht and Brussels.

Our performance reviews show employees that are more challenged and more motivated. Our new hires are bringing new perspectives to the team, and rating the onboarding process positively.

What’s next?

I won’t pretend this has all been plain sailing. There are still many things we need to improve upon to make this an amazing place to work for everyone. We still suffer from information overload in parts of the organisation. Our workload is not evenly spread. It’s not always clear who is leading on what, and why. Our Team Leads are still settling in. Our diversity efforts need to step up.

Stepping back though, I’m proud of the progress. We have 17 funders now, up from ten last year. We’ve posted profits four years in a row. Our net revenue has increased by 10%. We’ve doubled our team, seen leaders step up internally, developed careers, and added some remarkable new talent.

That final part is crucial. People bring energy and ideas. I believe we now have a structure that allows everyone to shape our direction and success.

If you, or someone you know, wants to be part of our change we’d love to talk to you. We’re looking for a Team Lead and Project Managers to join us in our new Maastricht office.

And, before you ask… yes, we have dedicated space to take calls and meetings. I promise your job interview won’t be in a toilet cubicle.


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