Last week, the Stable Kernel Sky Squid Squad leaders strolled up the BeltLine together in search of “tiny sandwiches” and some good conversation about the evolution of our Sky Squid Squads.

I’ll come back to that lunch in a moment, but I acknowledge there’s a good chance you’re asking yourself, “What the heck is a Sky Squid Squad?.” Let me give you the back-story:

First, you need to understand that the Sky Squid is our internal mascot who was lovingly brought to life a couple of years ago through collaboration with the extraordinary Kyle Brooks (a.k.a. BlackCatTips). The Sky Squid represents many of the things we value most in our business and colleagues. And he’s spunky and mythically adorable.

Second, you need to understand some of the core organizational questions we’ve consistently asked as a growing company:

    • How can we ensure everyone is getting loads of mentoring and coaching without it becoming too much for one person to manage?
    • How can we empower our employees to better support and learn from each other?
    • How can we prevent becoming a company that is too hierarchical?
    • How can we ensure our clients are well supported?
    • How can we grow while still maintaining our close-knit culture?
    • How can we flexibly adapt to changes in the business?
    • How can we ensure that we are all actively engaged in building this company together?

In response to these organizational questions, we decided about a year and a half ago to group ourselves into micro-communities that reflect and practice the values and imperatives of our company. And because saying, “Sky Squid Squads” is just so much fun (go ahead… try it!) that’s what we chose to call them.

Ok… now back to the lunch conversation over tiny sandwiches.

With a bit more than a year of Sky Squid Squads under our belts, the time was right to assess what was working well, what was no longer useful, and what we’d like to explore next about this structure. Here’s what we determined:

What’s been working well

Our Sky Squid Squads were accomplishing much of what we hoped they would. They were fostering an environment rich in:

    • learning & sharing
    • personal & professional growth
    • collaboration
    • community

Squad Leaders were practicing leadership skills more readily than they could under a more traditional structure (we’re big fans of putting people into leadership roles because they develop awesome leadership skills and love to use them – not just because they’ve been around for a while or deserve a promotion). As we continue to grow, squad leadership gives multiple people a taste of this experience, and it will serve the company well regardless of their decision to pursue longer-term leadership roles.

What seems no longer useful:

Some Squad Leaders were also department heads, and this combination was not serving us well.

    • Those engaged in dual responsibilities tended to feel a bit overwhelmed by the leadership tasks tied to both roles. This led to blurred lines between departmental & squad functions and often, the task-driven nature of specific work trumped more general personal development and bonding.
    • Squads led by those not directing departments were likely enjoying a more relaxed camaraderie.

Our squads had been composed according to department (Squad Dammit & Skunkworks were developer squads, The Marketing Goddesses & Sales God made up of marketing and biz dev folks, our design team rocked it as Squad Sasquatch, and Three’s Company encompassed our operations team). The idea was that projects would be assigned to squads, rather than smaller teams. We hoped this would ensure that even those not principally working on a project would be familiar enough to contribute to its success in a less formal way. However, this concept was proven no longer useful once our project management team, average project size and scope increased. Alternatively, we found great success in assigning project leaders to project teams.

    • Some squads were considerably smaller than others, resulting in reduced satisfaction with the structure.

What we want to explore

Based on what we’ve learned, we are launching Sky Squid Squads version 2.0 with the following evolutions:

New squad leaders: This will allow more of our colleagues to develop leadership skills and give our veterans a chance to enjoy squad life without also leading it.

Cross-departmental squads: Squads will now be composed of a handful of colleagues from different parts of the business. We’re anticipating this will result in:

    • exposure to a broader range of points of view
    • an increase in cross-company collaboration
    • broader learning & sharing experiences
    • greater innovation
    • a better understanding of different job functions within the company

More consistent squad sizes: Appointing new hires to cross-departmental squads will allow us to more readily control the size of each squad. We think 4-6 people per squad is likely our sweet spot.

Like all things at Stable Kernel, this program will continue to evolve as we collect data and ask, “what if…” As we learn important things, we’ll be sure to share them with you.

If you’re experimenting with a non-traditional structure in your organization, we’d love to hear from you. Or, if you are intrigued by this sort of approach, have some mad skills, and are looking for a place to grow both personally and professionally, please give us a call or shoot us your resume so we can get to know each other over some tiny sandwiches.

Jami Sieder

Chief People & Culture Officer at Stable Kernel

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