Kirsten Butzow, VP Product Management & Marketing, Pragmatic Marketing
No matter what size your organisation, you have almost certainly worked in a team that doesn’t work as effectively as it could. As organisations grow more complex, the problems increase in size and complexity exponentially.
Kirsten describes some of the most dysfunctional teams she has worked with and how even leaf-cutter ants could teach them how to function more effectively.
Slides, Video & Transcript below
Slides from Kirsten’s talk here
Learn how great SaaS & software companies are run
We produce exceptional conferences & content that will help you build better products & companies.
Join our friendly list for event updates, ideas & inspiration.
Kirsten Butzow: Ok, enough of that. Ok, so I couldn’t resist. I’m trigger happy- I couldn’t resist when they asked up for walk on music. You know it has to be the marching one for sure. All right, so it’s really unfortunate I think that Mark gave you the indication that there’s drinks in your very near future. And I kind of wished he’d give you that indication after the last speaker because I feel like we’re now in a bit of an awkward position and it’s we have a bit of an expectation to try and keep you hyper engaged because I know you have drinks on your mind. So I have some techniques that I will employ and I will try to keep you mentally engaged. And it’s pretty shameless the way that the technique will work is this. I am an instructor with pragmatic marketing and I have a series of books written by our cofounder. They are called tuned in and they are a series of case studies of the methodologies we teach at pragmatic marketing. So I will be giving these books away and here’s how you can do it – it’s very scientific, completely subjective giveaway that I totally decide on the fly and whatever whim enters my mind at any moment. It’s cool because you have to be engaged cause you never know when it’s coming your way. Do you want a book? Well ok! You have to say please. Plus he’s British and it’s like please, of course you can have a book! Don’t worry! I have more books to give away. The rest will just have to work a bit harder. I was gonna give a book away, know it’s a big deal to take time out of your lives and careers to come and do a conference like this. And you think it’s a testament to you to do that. Sometimes it’s a luxury activity but it’s not because we get this opportunity to spend a great time with my peers and I already learned a lot today. I want to give it to the person who travel the furthest to get here. Ok, so am American so we might have to not make this geography based cause you know, most of us can’t pick up Florida on a map. So maybe it’s hours travelled to get here. Do I have anybody who took more than 10 hours of travel time to get here? Anybody more than 15? 20? What have we got? How many? 21? Ok, this isn’t a gameshow, all right? You’re not outbidding each other. What was yours? 24. Can you beat 24? 23. All right, where did you come from? Sidney, Australia? Holy manoly! So give him a hand! That’s a huge amount of commitment so thank you very much. For the shortest commute, no. Ok, but thanks for asking.
Ok so today I will talk about a subject that I am particularly passionate about. And that is effective teamwork. I am really passionate about effective teamwork because very often when we’re faced with challenges in our business, we look for many ways to fix them but here’s the thing. If we don’t have effective teams, we won’t be able to move forward at all. That’s why I’m really passionate about it. There seems to be a theme for all the speakers today and that’s this. I often find on teams that I’m not alone in this regard after listening to the morning, that very often, those opportunities that we get for learning come from failures. Or they come from when we’ve had a lack of success or we didn’t achieve the results that we hoped to achieve. If we want to say – we’re in the UK and we’ll say it in a fun way. Maybe it was suboptimal and we had a suboptimal output or experience. So when I talk about teamwork today and building effective teams, I want to share a perspective of when I was a member of an executive team that was offered a very robust learning experience by being a member of a suboptimal or we can even go so far as to say highly dysfunctional team. And what we did to leverage, of all the crazy things the wisdom of ants, to help fix our dysfunctional team problems. I will get back to them in a minute, bear with me, but I need to give you a setup first.
At the time I happened to be the vice-president of product management and marketing for a global 500 company. I won’t name the company, we will protect the innocent. I will say if you really are gonna try to use your powers of deductive reasoning, it’s the world’s largest education company, they do happen to be headquartered here in London and at the time I was leading a digital portfolio and the primary product in our portfolio was a kindergarten through 12th grade student information system for united states public schools. Think of that product like an enterprise resource planning system, an ERP, that ran school districts in the US. Now, we thought we were doing pretty great as an organisation. We had more than twice the market share of our closest competitor and we didn’t detect things were awry. We were the 800 lbs gorilla and thought things are going well. In the US when you have software that helps run a public school system, there’s 2 times of the year that you can do a release of the product. You can do a minor release over winter release and the major release over the summer holidays. That’s what we’d done, we completed doing a minor release over one of our winter breaks. We all went home for the holidays and thought that was pretty great, we came back it was early January. I walk into work, sit down at my desk for what I believe will be a normal day and then my phone rings and it altered the course of my professional career because here is what happened on that call.
I picked up the phone. Hello, this is Kirsten. And on the other end of the line, happened to be the superintendent of public instruction for one of our most important, most influential school districts in the entire country. And it’s kind of a big deal and a big point because in the US there’s certain school districts that are considered lighthouse districts. That means everybody looks to them and whatever purchasing decisions they make, have a cascading effect. People would buy what they would buy. So I answer and he says hey, Kirsten. This is the superintendent of public instruction from very important influential school district. I know this particular client because he is very important and I’m kind of delighted to be hearing from him, that’s a nice treat from the winter break. I say to what do I owe the pleasure of this call? And that’s where things – what we would say in the US – took a hard right. Maybe here you say it takes a hard left, I’m not really sure. Maybe there’s no right or left taken. We’ll just say it wasn’t good because the next words out of his mouth were this. Unfortunately, the reason I’m calling you today it’s not good. The reason is this, I need you to help me understand why you hate children. You got a list? Ok, we’re not taking questions yet and this isn’t group therapy, Mark. This is a professional problem that we’re solving. Stay on point, let’s stay on point, you aren’t getting a buck.
Ok, so now just by the way, I know that Americans we already established we like to talk in superlatives so you might think this is an overly dramatised statement. It is not, it’s verbatim how that call started. Why does your company hate children? Yeah, I see the looks on your faces, I had the same look on my face because I was sitting at my desk and I literally had to grab the sides of my desk and steady myself. I felt like I was on a rollercoaster, I was at the precipice getting ready to scream down that first drop with no idea what was gonna happen to me or will ensue after and it was terrifying. But by the same token, you have to kind of be cool and professional. My mind is reeling and I’m thinking what is happening? How am I getting this call? What could have prompted this? I was genuinely steamy. So I quickly gathered myself together and I said to this individual ok, obviously I’m fairly surprised by the nature of this call, obviously I’m deeply concerned by the nature of this call, but I don’t really understand the context for the call. So maybe you could help me get a bit more context. And this is what he said. Well it turns out that that minor release that we did over the winter break we broke our system’s ability to produce high school transcripts. Now, this is a really, really big deal in January because in the US there is a ritual and the ritual is this. In January, February and March of every year, high school seniors complete their college applications. That’s when you have to turn them to establish your path for your future. One of the biggest requirements of your college application is a high school transcript. He goes on to say you know, you and I, we’ve established our paths. We’re on our career. But you are officially inhibiting these children’s ability to launch their futures. And I need you to help me understand why that is. It was an extremely sobering moment.
Now, this was the first lesson that we learned as an organisation. Because when you’re faced with a catastrophic failure, there are two paths that you can take as a team. Very often we find ourselves taking path number 1, and that is something that I fondly refer to as the blame game, where we spend our time making sure we know where we can assign fault, who we can blame and it’s like a game of musical chairs. Do you play them? Where you one person gets in a chair and you don’t really care where the blame lands as long as you get a chair and doesn’t land on your functional department. Probably not the best choice. And luckily for us, at that very pivotal moment as an executive team, we choose the second path and it’s this. We had to sit in a room, we had to look at each other in the eye, it’s very honest, and we had to say hey, we need to be true, real, to think about not assigning blame, not assigning fault and we need to look very holistically at what happened because we realised when you have a failure of this magnitude, it’s very rarely attributable to one thing.
And so we decided we had to dissect everything and that’s what we started to do. And when we were done, we realised we had a teamwork problem. We were a highly dysfunctional team and we didn’t even know it. We looked like this group of people up here. Everybody was doing good work individually, showing up to the executive staff meetings with charts and graphs and pie charts and status reports, but we weren’t really talking with each other, listening to each other. We were talking at each other and we weren’t really interacting very effectively with one another. And we realised that while each of us was producing great independent results, we weren’t producing great collective results. So we realised that we had to fix the team. Because we were operating in silos, we looked like this. Our product manager was writing requirements and they were throwing them over the wall of confusion and our designers who were like what’s this? I don’t know. I’ll design something and they throw it to development who says I’ll just build something and they throw it over to quality assurance, tolerance and marketing and then we ship a product that breaks the universe. That’s kind of unfortunate. And you’ll notice that in this entire process of operating in these silos, there’s no feedback loops and no customer validation. Certainly not. And I will tell you the most sobering moment of all was this. We threw out our real purpose and it was to help children succeed. I can assure you that at the moment we made that realisation as an executive team in that conference room it’s seared in my memory. It was a very, very quiet moment, it was very, very sobering.
And what we realised was this. If we’re gonna succeed, we have to start first by fixing our dysfunctional team. If your team is dysfunctional, no amount of rigor, process, procedure can be overlaid on a dysfunctional team and corrupt the problem. You have to fix the team first. None of us can succeed independently and so we needed help. We needed help and we knew we needed help and we weren’t exactly sure how close we were before we got help. I don’t know how close I can get to the camera without it being weird. So do I have a boundary? Back off! So when this is posted online there’s gonna be a shot like that all of a sudden. You can Photoshop that somehow.
Ok, so we looked at all the usual suspect places, we looked at taking training courses, sending ourselves as an executive leadership off to leadership courses at the local university. I come from Phoenix, AZ. We have a big university there in town. We thought about going to the university, institutionalising new processes and procedures, but none of it felt quite right, like it was hitting the mark. And as you can imagine when you have gone through a catastrophic event like this, it was a rough 30-40-50 days. We had a lot of damage control and did public relations stuff and I became obsessed with how we will fix this problem. My mind couldn’t stop, it kept running through it over and over and how we will fix it and what’s gonna make it happen. There seems to be another theme running through today and that topic is helpful supportive spouses. So I happen to be married to such a guy and he’s a very majored rational person and unfortunately for me, he is pretty much always right. At least he has a soft delivery in being right and that softens the blow a bit but I won’t lie, it’s a bit irritating. I love my husband, ok, even though he gave me the last name Butzow. So I will give a book away to someone if you can guess my maiden name. It’s great if you put the two together.
Ok so we needed help and I’m trying to figure out what will be the right solution and my lovely rational husband suggested to me – he says look hun I love you! That’s never a good start to a sentence. Have you ever stopped to consider maybe you’re just a little too deep? Maybe you’ve lost your perspective and can’t see the forest through the trees. Maybe you need to actively clear your mind. In other words, stop the madness! That was probably followed by something like am I gonna do it? Cause you drive me crazy. He said listen, maybe watch a movie – something, just something to mentally engage off of this topic. Now, he is always right but I do generally follow his advice. So I decide all right, there’s something to it, I’ll at least make it look like what he says matters. I decide that’s what I will do, I will sit down and watch a movie. And I’m sitting there watching a movie, channel surfing through the TV and then all of a sudden, the answer to our dysfunctional team came to us, maybe not for the people from the UK but certainly for me it came out of the most unlikely place and that was this. It came clearly, clearly from Sir David Attenborough and the BBC because what problems can’t he solve? I’ve watched 3 documentaries while I’ve been here. I love David! I love nature, his documentaries! So I’m flipping around and I think this is perfect! Cause he teaches you stuff and your brain has to engage a little bit but he talks to us in that British accent, right? So by default it’s very soothing, so he’s soothingly gonna educate me on something and I will sit back and he will make me feel good and I will have to mildly engage my brain. This is the perfect solution! So I settle in and I get ready to watch David.
Now, this particular documentary happens to be on Amazonian ants. I am instantly captivated. They are fascinating! And I can’t tear myself away. I settle even further in and after about 15-20 minutes, I sit straight up because I have an aha moment. And my aha moment is this; these ants can help us fix our dysfunctional team problems because ants above all things, are exceptional at teamwork. They are known for teamwork. And they’re known for their ability to be very effective at teamwork because they have mastered 3 key attributes of an effective team. So the first attribute that ants have mastered is a very clear shared vision. Everything they do as a colony, as an organisation is really around a common vision. A bigger picture, an essence for being. So when we think about the importance of a shared vision for our business, we have to step away from that trap that we often find ourselves falling into and that is we think about our products and technologies as an indicator of our vision, but they’re not. They simply are a means to an end, your vision is your beacon. It’s your northern light, your compass, your essence for being. So what can ants teach us about having a very cleared, shared vision? The answer is this. Everything.
So the first kind of ants that David talked about – in this particular documentary – were Amazonian leafcutter ants. Now I can tell you I have been to the amazon river basin and I have seen these ants in action. Anybody in here saw them in action? Do it someday! You have? Super cool! You get a buck! I won’t run it up there right now, but yay! So you’re sitting in the jungle and you see these little trails of green leaves being carried through the jungle and you’re like what’s that all about? You look closer and you realise they’re ants. And what’s happening on this trail is these ants are working together in a very cohesive fashion as a very effective team. They are pruning the trees and taking those little leaf bits back into an underground nest, in their home. If you look a bit closer, you realise they are supported by great team members. For example there are soldier ants that protect the leaf cutters. And here’s the cool part. If you look every so often, on top of those little leaf bits is a little ant and that’s a quality assurance ant. How cool is that? That ant is surveying that leaf to make sure it’s the right cut and quality to justify being taken back down into the nest. Amazing! It doesn’t end there.
Those ants get these little leaf bits into the nest and they take the big pieces and mash it up into little pieces of work and they use that to fuel their core product and their core product is a fungus that is growing underneath the forest floor. Now that’s not their vision, but it serves two very important roles. First of all, it feeds the colony, it’s their own food source but all of that is done in service of a greater shared vision. And it is this, to support a healthy rainforest because it turns out that that fungus produces nutrients and those nutrients produce fertiliser and that fertiliser promotes growth in the rainforest. There are studies that show where these leafcutter and colonies exist, there’s a greater biodiversity in the jungle because when you have more plant life, you have more animal life. So these ants are working very hard to produce this great product, but they are doing it with this shared vision of a healthy rainforest that they bear in mind. It’s a vision statement. And so maybe their vision statement looks something like this. To help the amazon rainforest thrive. And they get a super cute little logo. This is a real thing, maybe some of you noticed the logo on our bowling shirts last night. They have a vision statement and a logo. So I’m like either that wasn’t funny or they didn’t get it so I should probably move on at this point.
Ok, recalibrating. Looking back at our dysfunctional team problems we realised the first place we had a problem was our vision statement. We didn’t really have a clear shared vision and this became abundantly clear when we went back and we reviewed our vision statement. This was the statement we had before the catastrophic release. I know this might put some to sleep so I will quickly read it for you. Build enterprise solutions for K12 school districts with a dedicated focus on metrics. Anyone want to take a nap right about now? The problem – let me tell you this. Shame’s a big word. I’m less than proud over the fact that I happen to be an executive member in the room when we created this awesome statement. And it took us like a full day and when we were done we patted ourselves on the back. We congratulated ourselves because could this be any better? It tells you what we do, who we do it for. We used words like dedicated. Dedicated, right? And then we knew that it was all about results so we made sure we put some metrics in there. Mic drop!
The problem is this. It doesn’t really tell you our essence for being. This vision statement is all about us, our products and technologies. It doesn’t say anything about our true north, our compass, our beacon, our reason for being. We knew we needed to go back to the drawing board and come up with a new vision statement. We knew of all the things we did, the most important thing we did was to help children succeed and put them on the paths to their future. We missed that point. So we created another vision statement that put children first and it became this. We unleash the power of potential in every student by enabling, teaching and learning. We completely shifted our thinking away from building enterprise systems to unleashing the power of a child’s potential. This gave us a very clear rallying point. By understanding our essence for being, our true north, by putting children first, it completely altered what we thought about our jobs every day. Helping a child succeed really motivated our teams in a very unexpected way. That was the first thing ants taught us, how to right our dysfunctional team.
The next thing we learned about ants was commitment. It’s great to have a shared vision and it’s great to be very emotive and to evoke that true north, the direction you’re heading, but if people won’t commit to your vision, it doesn’t matter. You’ve got to have the clarity of purpose but also alignment so you can create common objectives. Ants teach us a little something about commitment because in that documentary, one of the other type of ants he shared with us were these guys. These are Amazonian fire ants. I am telling you I’m obsessed with these ants and their ability to demonstrate true team commitment. Here’s how it works for them, it’s kind of harsh. They live on the land, they have a nest, but unfortunately for them 2 months out of the year, their land based colony floods and the only way they can survive – they have little barbs on their legs – it’s if they interlock them and they transfer their colony into a floating raft. They take their little eggs, babies, the queen, they put it on top of this floating raft and they float around for 2 months, until the water subsides and they can re-inhabit land. It’s incredible! This raft is unsinkable! You can take a stick and press that raft down under the water and the little ants will encapsulate themselves in little air bubbles so they can breathe and create bouyancy then they bounce back to the top. Amazing! Imagine if you were the member of the team trying to survive a little fire ant, trying to survive flood season by yourself, floating around for 2 months every year. My guess is your chance of survival is not very good.
But here’s the thing. Once you’ve defined your shared vision, here’s what will happen. You will share that with the company and you will be in a meeting like this. Maybe you’re the CEO and talking about unleashing the potential in your student community and every one of your employees, whether you like it or not, they’re doing this as they listen to you. They may not do it physically but this is exactly the way it looks in their mind. Because when you have a shared vision that you’re imparting on your organisation, every member of your company is asking two questions. They are asking themselves is it worth doing and do I think it will succeed? And if the answer to those two questions is no, they won’t commit. And without commitment, you get dissension and this sets the stage for in-fighting and politics. And this was exactly what would have happened to us, because we were so inward focused and just about our products and about our technologies – we were lacking commitment. And because people weren’t working well together, every group was picking and choosing what products they wanted to work on, or projects, deemed on what they thought was gonna be a winner or was interesting to them. Because we were functioning in silos, blindly throwing work over the wall at each other, each individual group was deciding individually with no continuity of those choices being made. This created highly variable results that we didn’t understand until we had that catastrophic release.
So we needed to foster belief. We needed to foster belief in our vision. I chose the word belief very, very carefully. This is not a trivial word, for me. As a matter of fact, if you ever interview for a job with me, I will ask you this question. What is the most important attribute for an employee to have in any organisation? And I want the answer to be belief. I will tell you I had someone nail it one time but that’s how passionate I am about this word and let me tell you why. Very often in business, we think in terms of buy in. Let’s get buy in! Let’s socialise that for buy-in. And the reason I don’t like it is because it implies that you have to sell your idea in some way shape or form. I would think if you had a very clear, shared vision it should be easy for people to get on-board and believe in that vision and without it, it’s very, very hard to get people to commit. So what we realised was we needed to foster belief and the way we decided to do it is we put a face to the constituents in our community that we were serving. We sat back and looked and said ok if our purpose if to help children succeed and unleash the potential in every child that we’re serving, does it start or end with the child or is there more to it? We realised there was more to it, that in order for that child to succeed, they also had to be supported by parents, teachers and administrators that were gonna help them succeed. And we created faces, we put a picture on that target that we were trying to hit. And when we brought the people that we were helping to life by really understanding the constituents in our community, it completely altered the way we thought about building our products. Because now, when we sat down to build a product or do a project, we would ask ourselves, well who in our community is this helping? Is it helping the student, the parent, the teacher or the administrator? And then we would ask ourselves this very important question. What is it about this thing we’re getting ready to do that will actually enable teaching and learning that will unleash the power and the potential in that student? If we could distill every choice we were making about our products down to those two very simple points, it gave us real clarity and it started to create belief in a way you can’t imagine. It really was very motivating for the team.
Ok, I love that – I want to say the Balsamiq… Peldi talked about organisms, because I will talk a bit about organisms too and it really rides on what you were saying earlier this morning.
So we now had a great shared vision, we had fostered belief and by extension commitment in our vision. So the third step that we needed to take that we could learn from ants was we had to figure out how to create an organisational structure that was gonna enable us to get the work done. This is where our ability to learn from ants just accelerates! Because in biological terms, ants are what is known as a superorganism. You have to be careful when you say that in a speech at a conference too. I’ve been terrified of this moment for quite some time.
Ok being a superorganism, means this. You get special status when you’re a superorganism, to be called that. And you only get to be called that in biological terms if as an organisation, as a colony, as a group of individual beings, when you come together and work together it is as though you are a single organism unto yourself. You are so efficient, so effective at your team interactions you function like a single functioning organism. Amazing! Ants are able to achieve this very exalted status because they do not have a hierarchical command and control structure. They are very, very dynamic, very empowered teams. When they see opportunities, they can capitalise, they can react to challenges. They don’t have to run it through some phase review, quality review, management review board in order to get permission to capitalise on those situations. They just do it. For example, if they see a great food source, they all run off and get the food source and capitalise on the opportunity and go back to their job. If those little leafcutter ants run in a blockage in the middle of their path, they all come together and remove the blockage and go back to do the things they were doing. They don’t have to ask anybody for permission, don’t have to ask if they have headcount or anything like that. They are empowered to work in this very dynamic team structure.
Unfortunately, for us, as is the case for many organisations, we are about as far away from a dynamic structure as we can get. We are kind of overly obsessed with building these awesome hierarchical org charts. They were multi-layers, they have lines and shaded boxes. We like to talk about span of control and none of that had anything to do, by the way, with the work that we needed to get done. What happens is when you have this very defined organisational hierarchy that doesn’t relate to the work that needs to be done, people start to create workarounds. People start to decide who they will work or not work with. People have formal relationships, informal ones, inside the office, outside the office. You go to people who you know will get something done even though it’s not their jobs. People will avoid someone because they have a very strong personal relationship with someone you don’t like in the company. So all of these weird workarounds and politics and formal and informal and expertise and random kind of relationships start to take over and when they take over, dysfunction ensues. And this was the exact boat we were in.
We knew we needed to regroup, we were the antithesis of balsamiq at that point. We’re gonna get a little closer to you. So we knew we needed to revisit the way we were structured and what we realised is if we have 4 key constituents in our community that we’re serving, maybe we should think about the members of our organisation relative to those key constituents. So maybe we got people who work on parents stuff, people who work on teacher stuff, people who work on student stuff, administrator stuff. And so we started to convert from a very structured, rigorous hierarchical command and control, up and down, chain phase review kind of system and organisational structure to fully integrated cross-functional teams that represented a member of that community. For example, we had a student team and on that student team we had somebody from marketing, sales, services, product development, management – every functional area of the member of the team was embedded in the fully integrated cross-functional team. And we did that for all the constituents we were representing.
The next thing we did was this, we followed that structure that the ants followed. We fully empowered those teams. Because those teams were fully integrated, we expected them to be 100% responsible for delivering a complete solution to the marketplace for the community they were serving. When they delivered something they needed to be the marketing, sales tools, the operational enablement. All those components had to be in place and that team was fully empowered to be 100% responsible for that delivery. We blew away those hierarchical command and control processes and procedures.
Because we were operating in silos we also wanted to make sure that we gave visibility and accountability across the teams. So every 3 weeks, led by the product manager, so he led a cross-team review with each of the other teams as well as management. Every 3 weeks a team had to show up and said here’s what we’ve been working on, what we’re showing you, what we’re doing next. This gave everyone visibility into what all the other teams were doing so we were no longer functioning in silos.
Did it work?
So the very important question at this point is this. Did it work? Did we learn from David Attenborough and those ants? Well for ants, I can tell you it’s an unequivocal yes. Ants have achieved world domination. Their effective ability to be great team players enabled them to be one of the most successful species on the face of the planet. They’ve been around for almost 100 million years. There’s so many ants on the planet, they outweigh humans. For every human on the planet, there’s roughly 1 million ants. And I don’t know how that’s working now with the trajectory of American’s weight contributing, but let’s say that that statistic that I got was current and if you add up the weight of all the humans on the planet ants actually outweigh us. They are one of the most prolific species on the planet. They have figured out how to be very successful on every continent except Antarctica. And just like very, very effective product development teams, ants happen to be some of the fastest and strongest creatures on the face of the planet. They can lift up to 100 times their bodyweight and run proportionately 30 mph.
That’s interesting but what about for us? Did it work? And the answer is also yes, although we didn’t get world domination status. We had very respectable results and a bit more modest than world domination. Because we were working better as a team we were producing better products. Because we were producing better products, we saw our customer satisfaction rating go up by 10%. Because we were producing better products, we saw the calls that were going into our support desk, over a 12 month period, actually go down by 20% because when the product was released to the market, they hit the mark, they were more effective. And weirdly, this was unexpected. We got better and faster in building our products with a higher rate of velocity. We actually could build products faster when we had these empowered dynamic teams.
So while this presentation started out as a very, very tragic story about hating children, I am happy to tell you it has a happy ending and it is this. We were able to leverage the wisdom of ants to become a successful organisation. We learned how to develop a really great shared vision, we learned how to foster commitment in our vision and by leveraging that wisdom of ants, we were able to become a superorganism. And I will tell you it went from being absolutely, positively one of the worst experiences of my career to one of the best experiences of my life. Because the lessons that I learned there had been transferrable not just through a professional setting, but also a personal setting. So when you leave here, I want you to ask yourself if there’s a little something you can learn about ants to also become a superorganism. Thank you very much!
Learn how great SaaS & software companies are run
We produce exceptional conferences & content that will help you build better products & companies.
Join our friendly list for event updates, ideas & inspiration.
Audience Question: Hello! Thank you so much for this! This was absolutely invigorating and amazing! We’re here as a team and we loved it. You touched on descent and what happens when folks don’t sign up into the vision. What do you do about that, how do you recognise it, any tips or advice for teams that have that happen?
Kirsten Butzow: First it starts from the top of the organisation. You have to set the tone at the top of the organisation and you have to filter that down through the organisation. Me personally, if I recognise that was going on in my organisation, I would pull that member. Because there’s a very special opportunity on the table here and it’s this – I would pull that member aside in a quiet, private space and I would just bluntly ask them it seems a little bit to me like you are not fully committed to this vision. Can you help me understand a – do I perceive that correctly? That’s one answer. Or b, if you’re not fully committed, help me understand why. If I’m perceiving it incorrectly, move on and everybody’s happy. If it’s the latter of the two, there is a holy grail moment on the table for you and it’s this: there might be something you missed. And there might be a little grain in there that you want to understand why someone can’t commit and maybe you have an exceptional great point that needs to be brought in to the dialogue. The first thing is I want to do is seek and understand either if I’m perceiving it correctly and if I am, then what is it that’s causing this? I will tell you then there’s two choices. Either it’s valid and you want to consider it or it’s not and that person has to make a choice and if they won’t commit, they need to vote with their feet. Because we only have people who are committed to the vision or we’ll never get anywhere as an organisation. I don’t mean to be harsh but it’s the fact. And I will also tell you this. If you realise you have a team member that’s not committed and one of the worst thing that can happen is they commit, they give the appearance of commitment, but behind the scenes they are engaging in some sort of sabotage, they got to go because it’s toxic and it will drag you down faster. Early in my career, I tried to continue to bring one of those individuals along and the level of energy that was required wasn’t worth it and they left anyway. So you have to cut your losses and you can move together as a team.
Mark Littlewood: You’ve also got another thing there. This is the sort of point where this idea does fall down a little bit, not completely – . The superorganism doesn’t give a hoot about any individual ant. So if any ant doesn’t pull its weight it’s out. You don’t have a conversation with it, you just kill it.
Kirsten Butzow: It’s true.
Mark Littlewood: Wouldn’t it work better like that?
Kirsten Butzow: No. We’re not advocating homicide. This was an analogy. So some leaps have to be made for the analogy. And there is, you’re 100% right and when I put the presentation together I struggled a little bit with how accurate it would be. Because this actually is a true story because there are harsh things that go on in the ant colony. But I kind of, I kind of left those aside. But thanks for bringing that up. Really appreciated that.
Audience Question: My question is related about the vision side of things. With your second more exciting vision, I was wondering how you got to the point where you had a vision that everyone would believe in. Did you involve the teams in getting there?
Kirsten Butzow: We did and I will tell you the other thing we actually did. We hired a firm to come in and help us. Because we knew we had a problem, we had to fix it, but we were so deep in building enterprise solutions for K12 systems or whatever, that we were having difficulty figuring out how to elevate that conversation. There’s a local branding firm that I happened to know the person who runs the company so we hired them or a half-day engagement to come in and shake us up and help adjust our thinking. So we did ask an outside force to come and facilitate, creating that new vision statement. Then there were other things going on, we had a lot of graphic changes right before we had picture of our servers, now we had pictures of children in primary colours. So there was a whole rebranding that went on in the organisation to really impart and disseminate that vision throughout the organisation. I don’t know what’s happening.
Audience Question: Is your maiden name Loven?
Kirsten Butzow: How do you know that?
Audience Question: I googled.
Kirsten Butzow: How did that come up so fast?
Audience Question: I do genealogy research and I did a little bit of digging.
Kirsten Butzow: I would never, ever had that happen. That’s right! My name is Kirsten Loven Butzow. That’s right. Apparently in the UK you can pick so I can either be Loven Butzow or Butzow Loven. I don’t know, you decide!
Audience Question: I have an actual question. That wasn’t the actual point. We have a great team and we’ve been working on our teamwork but we actually have somebody who work too much and kind of throw themselves into the team and sort of leave that – kind of take over and sort of exhaust themselves. And kind of the martyr and they throw themselves in. I wouldn’t see an ant do that.
Kirsten Butzow: They don’t sleep, they work all the time.
Audience Question: What happens when you have employees who do that? Do you have any advice?
Kirsten Butzow: I actually do. I’m a huge fan – who had the quote today that said forced downtime? What was the quote? You said there was forced something, basically sit and do nothing time when you have the afternoon available. It was on schedule. I’m a huge fan of everybody in the company having forced downtime. I want everybody to spend 4 hours a week doing something not related to their specific job. Whether that’s attend a conference, take an online class, read a chapter out of the book they’re reading. Whatever it is, cause I’m a huge believer in the law of diminishing returns. There’s an algorithm and it reaches the diminishing return so you can’t work and get better results. There’s a point where working and working damages yourself and it damages the team. We want to force people to take the down time because when they come back with the fresh perspective, you bring a level of creativity to the conversation that you couldn’t get to when you’re so mired in the daily tasks. The other rule I had for my team member is you’re not allowed to communicate with me in any shape, way or from when you’re on vacation. I’ve had people who sent me an email when they got to their vacation spot. I’m sorry why are you sending me an email? If you send me one more email it’s gonna reflect badly in your review. Because that’s not the definition of a vacation. I want you to come back fresh and creative and you can’t do that sending me email when you’re on vacation. I will not respond and it will not reflect well for you. Well I’ll knock you on your review if you continue to email me on vacation. Ok I’m not that mean but you get it.
Audience Question: My question is about the decentralisation – decentralised software architecture has become the standard in software development. Especially the micro services architectures, and one of the key tenants there is the idea of a time, giving these teams and services a large autonomy. I was wondering in your case, what degree of autonomy did you award these teams? Was there an overarching marketing department that for example is steering meetings or did these teams have full autonomy over their domains?
Kirsten Butzow: So they had full autonomy but they had full accountability. So they have full autonomy within the team, but they had full accountability to the organisation. So they couldn’t do whatever they wanted and that’s why we had those 3 week reviews and those were very direct and honest reviews when we said that sounds right/ doesn’t sound right. Have you thought about this? People got that cross-functional visibility where they said hey you’re working on this thing, we work on this thing. I think if we can create a sort of interconnectivity between these things, we can get a thing like this versus two independent things. So a really critical component wasn’t we sent everyone to their 4 corners and wished them well because that would be creating silos in a different way. We sent everybody to their 4 corners to be very deeply integrated, almost like an agile team, that you want to put in a petrie dish and keep there because that’s how you get your velocity, but they still had to be accountable to each other and the management team and to the organisation. We were still running a business.
Audience Question: You mentioned the period of 3 weeks. Why? Doesn’t divide into 52.
Kirsten Butzow: Why 3 weeks? We picked 3 weeks because we were actually an agile organisation and we were on a 2-week sprint cycle so we wanted people to be able to complete their sprint, give a week for that review, making any adjustments and then do the next two weeks. So we tried to keep that third week where they had prepare and get ready for presenting and doing the peer review as a prestine week, that wasn’t gonna muck with that 2-week cycle. That’s why. It worked, I mean there’s no magic about the 3 weeks thing.
Mark Littlewood: Cool! Kirsten Butzow Loven!
Learn how great SaaS & software companies are run
We produce exceptional conferences & content that will help you build better products & companies.
Join our friendly list for event updates, ideas & inspiration.