Evolving Teams at Ncontracts

A platitude I find myself going back to again and again is “The only constant is change”. Attributed to the Greek philosopher Heraclitus from ~3000 years ago, it’s still remarkably relevant. Especially when talking about the process and structure of digital teams.

Conversely, one of my least favorite phrases to hear is “it’s the way we’ve always done it” …a capitulation to inertia and admitting that no cycles are being spent on ‘why’ we’re doing things in the current fashion. Hearing this is typically indicative of a way of thinking that permeates deeply into an organization. It creeps into how you schedule releases, when you conduct research, which deliverables each team expects from the previous team in your work stream. “The way we’ve always done it” ends up being the enemy of improvement.

How About at Ncontracts?

I would be underselling our digital transformation as an organization if I described it as anything less than exceptional growth. From 2017 to 2020, the in-house R&D team has grown 900%. In this time, we’ve experimented with all pieces of the department – from development models, from waterfall to different forms of Agile to Squads, approaches for scoping features, to how we create as a team, who tests what and how we test before we ship, how we measure success, and everything in-between.

The one piece that’s stayed constant, and what I consider one of our biggest competitive advantages, is the team’s appetite for introspection. By continually turning a critical eye towards ourselves, each retrospective and planning meeting is an opportunity to have an honest discussion about what’s working and what isn’t. Our processes that worked for us until now, are they still effective? Are they scalable if our headcount doubles (again)? Process should be something that grows and evolves at the same pace your organization does. If it feels like it isn’t working, let’s do things differently to achieve our goals. After a few years of gradual iteration on process and team structure to accommodate growth, we’ve been able to deliver meaningful products (2 brand new) and features (too many to count!) while figuring out how to deliver faster, with higher quality, and with a better overall user experience.

Turns out that communicating early and often to build a shared understanding is the key to being better as a team!

Structure Aligning with Goals

We’re big fans of the OKR framework that’s been made popular by Intel, Google, Netflix… the list goes on (read Measure What Matters for a great synopsis). It’s a tool that through making the goal-setting process transparent has proven extremely helpful in surfacing areas in which we can get better. Aligning each team’s objectives to the department’s objectives, which are aligned to the organization’s objectives has made it clear that our overall goal as a unit isn’t to be the best “feature factory” that we can be (although we’ve gotten pretty darn good at that).

The true goal of our team is to deliver the most value to the most people possible with our efforts.

There’s a lot to unpack in that statement. What is “value”? How do you measure impact? One of the great things about evolving as a team is that we are continuing to find better and more nuanced answers to that question. To make the biggest impact, you have to solve hard problems. Hard problems almost never have a readily apparent ’silver bullet’ solution and are usually more abstract in nature. Words matter & how we frame problems is an even bigger indicator of what we are trying to accomplish as an org. “Build a product financial institutions can use to stay compliant with rules and regulations” is a big lift and an impactful thing to do as a team, but the major measure of success of “Did we build a thing & ship it by the deadline?” is focused more on the output being delivered. Let’s contrast that with “Customers want an easier way to interact with their data”. A much fuzzier problem, actually framed as a problem, with potentially immense impact across every product we offer. The measures of success for this objective are framed around customer satisfaction: “Is the way you access data more intuitive than before?”, “Are customers able to access data themselves?”, “Do customers feel that their data is more integrated & accessible than before?”.

We’re continuing to evolve the department to mirror this value-based approach, focusing on delivering outcomes instead of specific outputs. Our teams are now operating in a more Lean modality: testing assumptions we have about a problem, validating hypothesis we have about possible solutions, and collaboratively iterating through solutions led by continual discovery. Each team is focusing on solving a problem (tied to the OKRs from the org) and having the latitude to determine what features are needed, based on meeting an outcome that’s determined by market / SME / customer feedback all along the way.

In addition, we’re maturing processes to make sure all of our employees have a voice in our products, being involved in collaboration early and often, having the tools they need to collaborate in a remote-first environment, and feeling empowered to help evolve the process, participate in setting goals, and building our culture of inclusion.

Looking Forward to Looking Back

I look forward to circling back in a year or two and reporting back on how we’ve done staying true to the values of building shared understanding as an organization, understanding our customers even better than we do now, and how we’ve changed our products to better serve our customers. We’ll be writing more about this journey in future posts – stay tuned!