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System questions we’re looking at

This is the fifth post in an intro series detailing the culture change process we’re engaging at Vanti. There’s one on the framework we’re using, one on our strengths, one on big challenges, and one on people-based questions we’re looking at.

Here I’m going to be looking at the system/process questions we’re working on.

How do we create systems and procedures that are flexible and appropriate for now, as well as scalable for the future?

Going back to the ship metaphor I used previously, Vanti has grown plank by plank from the original rowboat. That means that some systems are still either the same as they were when we were doing small projects, there are tacit systems held in the heads of old-timers, or they just simply don’t exist. In turn, this causes confusion about simple things like ‘How do I book time off?’ or ‘How do I receive this delivery?’ as well as a lack of management/financial information.

Things we’re doing: We’ve got a working group that is collaboratively growing policies and procedures that are easy, sensible and fit-for-purpose (no massive wordy legal-y docs here – just editable flowcharts and ordinary language). We’ve also hired a person to coordinate and integrate all of our central services so they work smoothly. Partially, we’ll solve this by just making it a priority and working on the business whilst we’re working in it – not always an easy task when everyone is working so hard on other vital things.

How do we avoid essential knowledge and skills being held by one individual?

A lot of what we’re doing at Vanti has never been done before. That means we have specialists who’ve had to learn deep technical stuff extremely quickly. As a result, there’s often a fragile hub-and-spoke picture of our knowledge map, with one person being a significant hub and lots of spokes depending on what they know. Effectively, if we lost pretty much anyone right now, we’d have a big hole in our infrastructure.

Things we’re doing: We’re developing an aspiration of ‘[leadership/expert]+2’. This would mean that essential info is held by the main person, plus two others. Not a simple thing to achieve, but a laudable goal. The other guiding principle is to make as much implicit knowledge explicit as possible – but again, that’s not always easy or even sensible. We’re exploring what kind of intranet would suit us. 

How do we plan better?

We’re not great at scoping out projects in advance and planning resource. Partially because of all of those construction-project-factors I discussed in a previous post, partially because things have grown ad-hoc and we haven’t put enough attention on project management.

Things we are doing: We’re beefing up our central services team so that we have more people able to work specifically on this. We’re also implementing formal Project Reflection days after each project (and at waypoints in longer projects) so that we can learn lessons as soon as possible.

How do we have more clarity internally?

When we had a whole-company team day a while back, one of the things that people asked for was clarity. Because so much happens so fast, not everyone knows who knows what, and it takes precious time to communicate clearly, and even more precious time to digest all that info. Slowly, slowly we’re doing better, but it is still difficult to get a hold on what everyone is doing, and what direction we’re heading in.

Things we’re doing: A nuance here is that we’ll never know everything that everyone is doing, so this partially becomes about having enough clarity to continue, whilst understanding we will constantly experience turbulence. Some of the ‘solution’ to this is procedural (consolidated places to find out the history of current and past projects, for example) and some will be thinking about how teams and affinity groups communicate within themselves and with each other. We’ll keep you posted on what we try!

How do we have more clarity externally?

Clients and potential clients still don’t know what we do. I mean, it’s evolving constantly, so we don’t always know either. Building a business that pivots rapidly, means we at times will defy definition. We can definitely do better at communicating where we’re at now though.

Things we are doing: This is a really big focus for us. We have Ria working much more closely on our marketing. She has sat down with the leadership team, and then pretty much every member of Vanti (plus some of our clients) to work out how we express what we do and how we do it. This blog post is part of that activity too! We’re both working on our ‘static’ messages plus openly blogging more so that you can see what we’re doing as we’re doing it. Oh, and we have plans for a Vanti videocast station which means you may get to see lots of different faces updating you on different aspects of what we’re up to.

How do we manage cash flow in large-scale projects?

Construction projects are long and sign-off can be complicated and dependent on a lot of factors that are out of our direct control. The type of technology-in-buildings projects we’re working on require large amounts of pricey tech to be bought in advance. We have to be very mindful of cashflow to make sure everything runs smoothly.

Things we are doing: Process, process, process. We are making sure that our financial, inventory and management information systems are up to the task, and suitable for the way that we work. Our new larger Central Services team are going to be a massive help here.

How do we bring on lots of new people very quickly?

It’s often a bit easier when people join slowly and most people have been around for a while. A lot of tacit context can be shared. We’re hiring at quite a rate and that means a bunch of people are joining who are new to the Vanti context. How do we integrate new people? How do we make tacit context explicit? How do we welcome new people in a way that fits with the very real values that we live here?

Things we are doing: We place a big emphasis on onboarding, understanding that that process starts before people even apply for a job. We are working on being more open on the Vanti Life website about what it’s like to work here, and throughout the interview and hiring process. Then we have an induction Asana board which has all of the things to do and people to talk to to get new starters oriented.

Conflict and friction are a necessary part of functional groups, so we’re also having ongoing conversations about how to work alongside people who are different to you. In conjunction with the initiatives above about making tacit information explicit and being transparent about as much as we can, a culture of openness and feedback-seeking helps us to nip problems in the bud.

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So that’s where we’re at.

These five posts are partially informing you about our current situation, and are partially a historical document so we can keep ourselves honest as to our progress – and maybe celebrate some successes along the way!

We’re deeply interested in how we can help you do some of this inside your organisation so please message us with your questions, observations and recommendations.

Coming up: some more granular posts about what we’ve been doing about Diversity/Equity/Inclusion, delegation, meetings, courageous conversations, and project review, amongst others. Subscribe so you don’t miss out!