(TheMIX) — Remember working for that start-up? Things were good. You responded quickly to change. You could, and often did, roll out new programs within weeks or days. Your boss approved quick changes with a simple nod. And you got results — fast.
Then you moved to an important role at a big enterprise. Things were different — slower, costlier, stuck in red tape, less tangible, less experimental. That’s because big organizations are complex. And when we are accosted by complexity, we get anxious. We need certainty and coordination — in the form of structures, policies, responsibilities, and rules — to push that fear away.
We can’t change our fear of complexity, nor our desire for control. So, what can we do to keep our organizations agile — even as they grow? How can we ensure that innovation doesn’t get crushed?
1. Practical guidelines, not policies
As organizations grow, they typically try to align people though policies and procedures. Rules offer consistency and, so the theory goes, coherence throughout the organization.
We shouldn’t try to fight the natural tendency toward coordination and control. As a matter of fact, few people will argue against the benefits of consistency. But there’s a better way to do this than to insist on rigid rules.
At Atlassian, we’ve grown from 100 to 700 staff in the last four years. We try to limit hard rules. We favor guidelines instead. What’s the difference? Take, for instance, our Atlassian Design Guidelines, which is an online resource with design components and principles. It provides guidance on how to build Atlassian products and add-ons. The tool doesn’t interfere with the developers’ design process; it just helps them work faster (they can quickly cut and paste code) so they can experiment freely while still retaining a base level of consistency. Unlike rules—which say “you must do this”—guidelines give your people latitude to get the job done better and faster.
2. Ritualize autonomy
Every quarter, Atlassian goes through a ritual called ShipIt Day. The organization halts at noon on a Thursday and every participating team starts working on a pet project of their choice. Twenty-four hours later, teams present their idea to the rest of the organization and everyone votes for a winner. Over the course of six years, 700 ideas have made their way into production.
Giving people the freedom and space to pursue their own projects and interests encourages them to anticipate new ways of doing things and test their ideas without repercussions. Most organizations eliminate the space to think up new things and experiment — too many are slaves to the urgent matters of the day.
3. Feed our social appetite
Few ideas are created by one brilliant mind. Most great ideas are the product of many minds. Thankfully, most of us are hungry for social interaction. We also crave access to information to help us fit the pieces together. For larger organizations to adapt quickly, the easiest way is to encourage those natural desires.
Email stifles transparent discussion. And disjointed software systems limit access to the information people yearn for (like sales data).
That’s why innovative organizations increasingly use social collaboration platforms (like Confluence, Jive, or others), group instant messaging tools (like Hipchat), or social coding tools for technical teams (like Stash, Bitbucket or Github) to make this happen. Such tools help people discover ideas, display data, discuss projects, update teams…in short, do everything they need to do.
At Atlassian, instead of emailing the yearly company strategy plan to staff, we discuss its content on a social collaboration platform called Confluence. As is often the case with crowdsourced ideas, the best ones survive, regardless of who offered them.
Of course, creating a social environment extends beyond online tools. We keep our buildings free of offices, we eat lunch together, we have a built-in bar where people congregate regularly. New hires wheel a beer-cart through the office to get to know their colleagues. And we have an experience team whose key role is to organize weekly social events for staff, ranging from laser skirmishes in our offices to annual friends-and-family day events.
This isn’t the only way to create genuine, productive relationships inside an organization—every firm has to find its own style. The point is that this isn’t trivial, “soft” stuff. Cultivating community isn’t optional for any organization.
4. Give customers solutions, not perfection
The most daring — and arguably frightening — way to respond faster to customer needs is to give employees easier access to your clients. Feedback loops tighten, your solutions get into the real world faster, and you can continuously improve based on new feedback.
Atlassian introduced a “growth hacking team” to release smaller, experimental features to customers. They’re the A/B-testing front-line troopers who put our ideas into practice, absorb the market’s reaction, and make our stuff better.
Anyone, not just engineers, can experiment with customer solutions. Most people don’t like to work endlessly on tasks where they can’t see the results of their labor. This approach has made work more interesting.
Joris Luijke is the VP of talent and culture at Atlassian, an Australian software company. You can learn more about Atlassian’s practices and how to make your organization more adaptable at a Hackathon Hangout with Joris on Tuesday, July 2, 2013 at 4p.m. ET/1p.m. PT.