This interview was part of the Ergon Magazine SMART insights 2020. Order your free copy now ->
Stable but not inflexible. Autonomous but part of a community. This is how our teams see themselves at Ergon. But how did we arrive at this approach? And what shapes the way we work together?
What makes Ergon teams different from teams at other companies?
Daniel: Our developers are usually assigned to a fixed team. In other words, we handle different projects within the team. At other companies, people are typically booked onto specific projects and, so, endless new team configurations are created. You switch team when the project is over and switch “project buddies” as well. With us, you don’t leave the team when the project is completed. Instead, the team casts around for a new project. Team members work together over the long term, which creates synergy. People know one another and are aware of their colleagues’ strengths and needs.
Heiko: Teams normally go through forming, storming, norming and performing phases before they really “gel”. If they are doing that from scratch for every project, it diverts a lot of energy. Once a team has properly settled in, the various participants feel a genuine sense of responsibility – this clearly benefits participants and Ergon, alike.
Heiko: When a project ends and a team is disbanded, it is often unclear who will step up when maintenance, fixes, add-ons etc. are required. There is no such uncertainty in a structure like ours. The projects stay within the team, ensuring that knowledge, and, thus, accountability as well, is guaranteed even after close of play. People feel a sense of responsibility and take their obligations seriously.
Is there a knock-on effect for customers from all this?
Daniel: Absolutely. Customers sense this stability and know that we’re on the same page. They have access to the same experts – they don’t have to continually get to know new people. This creates a connection and feeling of continuity, which in turn strengthens trust.
Heiko: Every team at Ergon is almost like its own little firm. It decides which customers it approaches, how the offering will look and what technologies will be employed, and so on. If there is a lack of qualified staff in one particular place, people compare notes right across the company and also fall back on skills that are available across departments, such as UX, consulting, testing and security. Having such freedoms in our daily tasks brings us back to the issue of responsibility: if something is not going as it should, it is ultimately the job of a project team to find a solution.
Are there any disadvantages to this team structure?
Daniel: Of course, as with anything. If the teams are reshuffled after every project, different ideas from disparate projects are brought together, which of course means a greater dissemination of knowledge across the whole firm. It can also have consequences for innovations, which might take longer to spread throughout the company in certain circumstances. Knowledge-sharing between teams is something we have to actively promote. This is something department heads and team leaders in particular are charged with.
How do you encourage such exchanges?
Heiko: For knowledge transfer, we have our Communities of Practice (CoP), for example. This is where people from different teams meet on a regular basis to swap ideas on a particular topic. Other channels include the Technology Sounding Board, brown bag events, and what we call Z&Bs – Zvieri & Bytes, or “nibbles and bytes” – our in-house events during which staff from projects or returning from training courses etc. hold presentations. Also, when jobs are too big for a single team, for example, multiple teams may end up working on the same project. In such cases, there is automatically enhanced knowledge transfer across team boundaries. Not to mention growth – new team members help to bring fresh skills and ideas into the mix.
How does generational diversity within the team affect the way people work together?
Daniel: Positively, I’d say. The old hands are able to pass on their knowledge and experience, while young engineers, fresh out of university, bring new ideas and technological know-how, and re-evaluate our approaches to everything. Mix these together and it is bound to help the team progress.
Heiko: It’s important to motivate our younger colleagues to get involved – they are often a little shy when they come straight out of college. Openness, and being able to express an opinion and defend it, are critical qualities and part of our company culture.
In 2008, your team was something of a trailblazer – the “first of its kind” at Ergon. How did that come about?
Heiko: It was partly a function of the projects we were dealing with. They were becoming larger and required cooperation between a wide range of people, so we needed a new organisational arrangement. What tipped the balance was the “pain point” we mentioned with the constant reshuffling of teams. It was a bit of a curate’s egg – once the end of the project was nearing, those involved would start casting around for the next exciting topic and commitment would sometimes flag. That cost us lots of energy and was hard on the nerves. A time came when we had a large project with a lot of people involved and we were already up and running as a kind of team. We just didn’t want to go our separate ways. We suggested carrying on with the same line-up and we got the green light. Ergon gave us a chance to try it out and we were able to prove that the arrangement made sense. The team was generating a lot of revenue and the customers were happy. Naturally, we were delighted that our experiment had worked.
Daniel: Further teams were formed from that moment on. Colleagues really liked our initial team’s structure and working practices and began to apply them for themselves. They were given time to find out who could work well, with whom. Each team developed its own character and its own take on the Ergon team concept.
Is this structure still up-to-date?
Heiko: For sure. I’d even say it has become a critical part of our company culture. Entrepreneurial thinking, the sense of responsibility among our staff – all these things are expected and encouraged in the teams, and our customers appreciate it every single day. Having said this, it is important to check that stable teams don’t turn into inflexible teams. But that issue is on our radar. Rest assured, we won’t be running out of knowledge-sharing ideas any time soon!