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The Wisdom of The Pod: Making Your Culture Survive Past 200 FTEs...

Does your company really have a culture?  Are you sure?

Laurie , who writes over at The Cynical Girl, had this to say about culture over at Fistful of Talent

"While what your company does may feel very important, you didn’t create a doomsday clock or invent a unique approach to understanding the constellations. You make industrial-sized foodservice equipment. You’re part Entourage-suits-sucks of the defense industry and process oceans of data for the federal government. Or maybe you’re a large chain of hospitals and employ tens of thousands of people. That’s great. Good for you. Someday, a consultant or HBS professor will write a case study about you. But your workforce — from the people who sort incoming mail to the leaders who sit on the board — aren’t participating in a culture. They have individual attitudes, beliefs, and principles that sometimes, but not always, coalesce into a sentiment that helps drive revenue and profit."

My take falls somewhere in between.  I think you can have a culture when you're small as a company because founders and leaders can talk to everyone.  Then, at about the 100 FTE mark, it gets dicey.

My solution to that breaking point?  Go to the Pod.

What's a Pod you ask?  The Pod is really a form of organizational design, and I'm going to define it here as a self-directed work team on the small side, usually no more than 4-5 members.  Pods are popular in consulting, where you have a senior person, sometimes a partner (or think Sr. Manager or Director-level) leading a team that does work on behalf of clients.

Back to culture.  When companies get beyond 100 FTEs, it's hard to communicate what's expected.  The best way to deal with that in my eyes isn't to go macro with how you communicate what's expected, it's to go micro.  Push team size down. Empower the leader of the POD to get stuff done, but also have an expectation that there's 3-4 things that are non-negotiable about how the work gets done and how you serve customers/clients.  

By reducing team size and giving up some power (Pods by their very nature are decentralized), you'd have a shot at maintaining whatever your culture is beyond 100 FTEs.  Most companies wouldn't go to the Pod because it really put pressure on you to find people who can manage (average team size down from 8:1 ratio to 3 or 4:1), but it's probably the only way to influence culture beyond the PDFs you give to candidates, free pizza Fridays and Ping Pong (if you're really lucky).

Beyond finding people that can manage, the real reason your company wouldn't go to a pod structure is that you have to allow the Pod leaders to be themselves.

Which means that your culture becomes small teams empowered to get #@#t done, often in the personality of their Pod leader.  Which is inconsistent with the macro cultural elements of free pizza, all-hands meetings and Miller Lite, but is probably the most powerful type of culture you could ever hope to have.



wondering what the readers think about Pods versus span-of-control and de-layering - both of which I like in theory but have never seen implemented well.

Andy Savitz

This is helpful but I think the main problem is that most companies fo not have a model for defining and evaluation their culture. My new book, Talent, Transformation and the Triple Bottom Line, describes a simple model for evaluating culture.

It's pretty basic: organizational culture is defined as what your organization does, says and believes. Doing and saying can be set forth by the company but as you say, beliefs tend to be individual and can vary from person to person and department to department.

There is a method for changing beliefs. But it starts with figuring out what they are.

Robert Beriscovich

It's all very nice and dandy. Give pods/cells power and let them develop into their own unity. But it's not the easy. That might work fine with small projects, or with research, but when you have a corporation that needs to deliver big projects that involve a lot of people in the process, your theory starts to crack.

You need to have it under control, and don't let your company break into several enclaves, with different work routines and spiritualities. People will become co-dependant, and losing just one of them, will make that pod disintegrate from the inside.

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