The Loop: A New Way of Organizing
Traditional organizational scaling is broken. Most successful companies grow despite their organizational structures, not because of them. At balena, we make software that powers IoT devices, but we also strive to innovate on our internal structure just as much as we do with our commercial products.
As our team has grown from a dozen people in 2013 to just around 100 now, we've consistently taken to the drawing board to find better ways to work. Some experiments have worked, some haven’t, but we’ve learned a ton along the way.
Now, we’re looking to share our experience with the world — both to get feedback and because we know that we’re not the only ones wondering if the classic org. chart is the best we can do.
Tribes vs. Companies
A small company gets to act like a tribe. Everyone has an organic, personal relationship with everyone else on the team and their roles mesh together naturally. It’s like a big family.
As companies scale, however, it becomes impossible for everyone to be involved in everything. We hire managers, set deadlines, and use org. charts to neatly order the chaos.
Employees get fragmented into their own silos and their incentives get warped. Where previously there was unity around the goal of shipping the best product, the structure now encourages people to keep their boss happy, meet deadlines at any cost, and worry more about politics than the products they're working on.
Our team members (endearingly referred to as "balenistas") know this reality all too well. Most of us have been in these roles previously and we’re familiar with the song and dance.
There had to be a better way, we thought. And so, being entrepreneurs, we chased after that feeling.
'A bad system will beat a good person every time' (W. Edwards Deming)
Along the way, we encountered the work of systems thinkers like Donella Meadows, W. Edwards Deming, and Russell Ackoff. We learned about principles like Conway's Law and read The Tyranny of Metrics. Eventually, we realized that it was our systems which would make or break us.
Through it all, we understood that fulfilling our vision of maintaining our nimble-ness and serendipity at-scale would not be a minor undertaking. We had to start from the ground up and build a fully home-brew solution.
We’ve been developing our commercial product, the balena Cloud infrastructure, through a tight feedback loop for many years. We utilize “support driven development” which means that, rather than having a specialized support department, it’s our development team that answers support inquiries from our users.
Support driven development shows us the realities of how our software works (and fails!) in practice. When we talk to our users every day, we have the context necessary to build top-notch solutions to their problems.
What we’ve also found, however, is that customer feedback can help guide our product development. Instead of having a top-down system of control where managers decide on projects, we could rely on the feedback loop to give us direction.
It was here that we found the beginnings of our new organizational paradigm: If we can make something as complex as fleet management easy and self-serve, why can’t we do the same for the core functions our team needs, especially given the fact that our team is the one thing we spend the vast majority of our budget on?
Enter: The Loop
So we formalized our loop process and began applying it to everything we do. A diagram of the loop is below.
Signals come in from the outside world (the “surface”) and get grouped into patterns. Patterns sort signals based on similarities and allow us to begin discussions around potential improvements we can make to the product.
Once improvements are agreed on, the process on the left side of the loop implements them back into the core product. The loop then begins again. Along the way, anyone can pull in other balenistas for a brainstorm session to discuss their work.
The “loop” is how we organize our company. We pay attention to all signals coming in and use them to guide our daily work. Balena has 4 main loops, which are teams responsible for different aspects of the company.
The balena.io loop is the oldest loop and the one responsible for our commercial product. The TeamOS loop deals with everything relating to the internal team. The ProductOS loop creates the tools that we use to do our work, and the CompanyOS loop is our financial and legal interface with the outside world.
Each loop has a “product” that they maintain and “customers” that they receive feedback from. The key difference between a product and an organization is that a product can be viewed from the outside, examined as a whole, questioned, and continuously iterated. Instead of tribal knowledge, half-written wikis, and painful human-driven processes, each loop aspires to be as smooth and automated as our commercial product.
Most companies have hundreds (or thousands) of SaaS apps jerry-rigged together for their particular needs. We did too, at first, but we felt constrained. We were letting our tools define our work, rather than the other way around.
Once we had the loop in place as the core of our organizational process, our ProductOS team got to work creating our own piece of software that would be custom-tailored to the loop. That tool is now known as Jellyfish.
Balenistas use Jellyfish as the single place to create patterns, organize brainstorms, and keep a unified timeline of everything they’re working on at any given time. Here’s what the loop looks like inside of Jellyfish:
The way of the Product Builder
We have no departments, no bosses, and the deadlines that we do have are kept to a minimum. In an organization where direction comes from the bottom, rather than the top, it’s up to each balenista to take full responsibility for their work. Each of us has a product that we decide the direction for and own the outcome of.
We are free to leverage the rest of the team when necessary, and we use the loop process to continuously iterate on our products. We call ourselves Product Builders and our culture is designed to help us build better products every day.
We’ve become fascinated with feedback loops. In fact, we believe that well-engineered, self-reinforcing ways of working beat traditional organizations in almost every respect. Our loop methodology allows us to retain speed at scale, do better work, and feel more fulfilled at work.
We’re still learning and trying new things, but we’re confident that as long as we stay close to the feedback coming in, we’ll be better every day.
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This is a guest post from George Hristov, writer at balena a company that builds the infrastructure you need to develop, deploy, and manage fleets of connected devices at scale. For more information on George and the company, check out his rebel page.
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