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Disruptions in the force: How breaking down and shifting teams can lead to innovation

When you rip people out of that comfort zone with the force of disruption, all of a sudden the world opens up. And the reward is bigger than you might think.

Disruptions in the force: How breaking down and shifting teams can lead to innovation
[Adobe Stock / Svitlana]

When managing teams, there’s a benefit to people working together long term—everyone knows everyone else’s working habits, is clear on their strengths and weaknesses, and understands their exact role within the team. This type of familiarity can promote seamless cross-functional working engagements, which is efficient for getting products developed, tested, and out to market quickly.

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But, ease doesn’t challenge us. When a group of people has been working on a product for a very long time, they can get stuck in a certain pattern of operation—a reinforced siloed mindset about how products are created and delivered—and develop inadvertent blindspots to creativity. In these situations, not taking the chance to shake things up can be a missed opportunity.

A CALCULATED RISK

I was asked to join Thomson Reuters to centralize a siloed team of creatives, establish a working model between design, product, and engineering that fosters collaboration and innovation, and optimize how the team worked across design for maximum efficiency.

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I felt we could not expect new results with a business-as-usual approach to structuring the team. Starting with industry standards of design to product to engineering ratios, I worked with my counterparts in product and engineering to define what our ratios should be here at TR. Next, I broke down the design number by the specific roles within the design org—UX designers, UX content designers, UX researchers, UX engineers, producers and accessibility specialists—that should be part of each working group, and branded this our “design pod.” Each pod of roughly 20 people would now, moving forward, be a cohort of individuals who would collectively solve our customers’ most challenging problems in partnership with their product and engineering counterparts.

In order to figure out who should be in each of these design pods, I took a calculated risk and made a decision that raised some eyebrows: I created a rule that no more than three people could be historic to any product—meaning, almost no one working in any pod for a specific product could have worked on that product before. I felt we needed to break down our siloed design approach and start spreading our experience across our entire product portfolio to reduce duplicative experiences. (Thomson Reuters builds products for legal, government, tax, accounting, and compliance professionals at firms and corporations.)

It was a calculated risk, and I received some initial pushback. Everyone agreed we had products that required some retooling, and we needed to understand how we could streamline our processes and deliver better solutions. However, we also had projects we needed to get out the door, and here I was, slowing this down—at least in the short term—by moving people around, knowing there would be onboarding involved.

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THE UPSIDE OF DISCOMFORT

Realistically, comfort enables some tendencies that can be counterproductive: Complacency, lack of new creativity, and mechanical thinking. In essence, your “box” has been defined for you. So when you rip people out of that comfort zone with the force of disruption, all of a sudden the world opens up. And the reward is bigger than you might think.

In this case, the “reward” for implementing this change was manifold: We got fungibility in the team. We sparked new creativity and innovation. Pod newcomers brought fresh ideas; for instance, some of our legal team’s ideas showed up in our tax and accounting products.

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When rolling out a big change in an organization unaccustomed to a certain model, it helps to focus on objectives. You might ask, what are our goals? What are the pain points and challenges? And where is our friction in meeting those? Everyone’s looking for positive ROI, and it’s up to leaders to shape the right team that builds the best customer solutions to deliver it.

The arbitrary siloes in which everyone was working were broken down by forced disruption—and that caused us all to revisit biases, look at data from our customers with a fresh set of eyes, and bring great ideas from other parts of the organization. We found that forced disruption had a short impact on timelines, as the excitement of solving challenges in a new segment empowered the pods and reignited their interest and passion.

THE BENEFIT OF IMMEDIATE ACTION

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Prior to the big overhaul, I attempted a test case of this restructuring in a product area that was struggling. I tested it for a couple months before I rolled it out more broadly—then I rinsed and repeated across all the groups. I set regular check-ins so that the people who were historically on the product brought updates to the new team members. We had program managers come in to show them how everything worked.

As far as switching people out, bluntly, it can be helpful to just rip off the metaphorical bandaid. I ripped it off in December and dealt with the repercussions immediately (in January, to be exact). In leadership, hesitation is an error.

At the outset, I thought it would take two quarters to switch everyone around, but it went much faster than I expected—a couple of months at most. Sometimes it doesn’t take as long for the good to come out as one would think.

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EXCITEMENT NEGATES ATTRITION

As it turned out, my team members got a reward too: They got excited. They enjoyed working with new teammates. We have a hot job market now—I could potentially have had 100% turnover if people weren’t ultimately happy. What keeps them here is excitement, vision of where we are going, and the growth opportunities presented by these changes.

Prior to this shift, they might have argued that comfort was why they stayed. In fact, one of my team members said, “I was really nervous about this—I wouldn’t have shifted myself to another group. But I’m actually glad you did this. I’m learning a ton, and I got to bring some of my ideas from my other team over here. I would never have done this on my own.”

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Something companies often miss is that when they try to layer more scope onto an employee, even if it comes with more money and benefits, the employee in question might prefer to try something totally different—a new challenge. When you offer employees new opportunities within the same organization, they get to keep the familiarity of their “home” company, while still doing novel and interesting things. Give them cool opportunities, and they won’t leave.


Charlie Claxton is Global Head of Design at Thomson Reuters

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