Mirko Swillus ADT podcast cover
Episode: 67

Mirko Swillus - Organizational models

Posted on: 15 Sep 2022
Mirko Swillus ADT podcast cover

Mirko Swillus is the Vice President of Engineering at Staffbase, a leading platform for internal business communication.

In this episode, we talk about organizational models and the importance of having a model that's closely aligned with the DNA of your organization to see sustainable success. 

We discuss the key role of leadership and the importance of involving the right people in the right processes to best distribute talent and avoid bottlenecks. Mirko also tells us more about Staffbase as an inherently agile company and how they are approaching all this.


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“In the end, we are all here just for the customer. We are creating a service that should, in the best case, solve a problem that the customer has, a real problem, and people want to be involved there. So they want to take part in this and be part of that mission as well.”

Welcome to the Agile Digital Transformation podcast, where we explore different aspects of digital transformation and digital experience with your host Tim Butara, content and community manager at Agiledrop. 

Tim Butara: Hello everyone, thanks for tuning in. I'm joined today by Mirko Swillus, Vice President of Engineering at Staffbase, a leading platform for internal business communication. Today we'll be talking more broadly about organizational models and then Mirko will tell us in a bit more detail about their particular implementation at Staffbase. So welcome Mirko, it's great having you with us today. Anything to add before we jump into the discussion? 

Mirko Swillus: No, thank you so much for having me. It's great to speak about those interesting topics. I'm happy to jump in. 

Tim Butara: I'm sure that this topic will definitely be one that resonates with our viewership, I mean our listenership to be more specific, because we do talk maybe a little bit more about this organizational, business, leadership aspect of the digital business rather than the super technology aspects. So yeah, I think that this will be definitely an interesting discussion both for us as well as for anybody listening. 

So I'm pretty sure that most of our listeners have a basic understanding already of what organizational models are. But let's still kick things off by defining them more specifically to make sure that we're all on the same page so that we all know what we're talking about. So what are organizational models and what would be some common examples of these model structures? 

Mirko Swillus: Yes, I think in the past there have been developed some different directions as well. So I think 20 years ago we all were very used to use like waterfall models for developing software, right. You would talk about requirements very early and then develop something for half a year or even a year or even longer, and then at the end of this development you would ship your service, right.

And then, surprisingly, most of the time those requirements weren't really meeting or those implementations weren't really meeting the requirements of our customers, right, and that's why agile came in and we thought about how to change the whole approach here so that we can iteratively develop software and inspect and adapt early on and deliver every spin so all the things that we know. 

And around that, I think there were different models of organizational structures also developed and by the time, so, some of them more strict, some of them a bit more loose. So to say one famous thing maybe is save the scaled agile framework. I think it's a lot about transforming a traditional enterprise into, a big corporate, into something that is more agile, but it has a lot of structure and a lot of things that you have to follow and from my perspective it's not very flexible and it comes with a lot of conventions and so on. 

So it's a very comprehensive big framework and it's difficult to understand this which is maybe also an issue because we want to have this buy-in from the people within the organization and if people don't get what the model is about then things are going to be complicated, right. 

And then there's other things like over the years that are more bit, more flexible, more agile, but also maybe talk not a lot about all the dimensions, like the Spotify model for instance, where it just talks about how to set up tribes and teams and so on. So there's just different language that they use, right. Like with the squad being a team and then you have a tribe that is a team of teams with different squads in there and then they talk about chapters and guilds and so on. But it's not so much about org charts or about reporting lines or something in that direction. 

And then there's also some more recent developments like the unFIX model from Jurgen Appelo, which is I think great pattern. I think he doesn't like to call it a framework, it's more like a best practice or a pattern that is also interesting for us because it has a lot of parallels to the things that we did, right, but maybe we can jump into that later on. So yeah, organizational models are just the operating system for the organization, right. 

Tim Butara: That last bit was, I think, really well put – they’re the operating system for the organization. That's really spot on. So how does the right organizational model benefit a business? 

Mirko Swillus: Yeah, I think in the end you have to look at the DNA of your company and of your organization. So it has to be a fit, right? And it has to reflect the things that you're doing. Right. And I think for every organization it's a good idea to think about their own way, to look at the best practices and the patterns that they're out there in the market. To have a conversation with peer organizations, with organizations in the same market maybe. Or in the same industry. Or in the same size. And then think about what, should we think about now and what can we leave to be decided later? 

So I think some of us being engineers coming from the engineering side, we always have this idea of premature optimization, right? We want to do things right from the beginning and want to think about things very early and that's maybe also an issue, but for us, I think it's a good idea to just look at the challenges that you're currently having and trying to anticipate the next step and see what's right for you. 

Tim Butara: So in a way, it's like the right organizational model helps a company kind of be more what it is, to put it really bluntly. It allows a company to stay closer to their vision if the organizational model is aligned with that vision, with that DNA. 

Mirko Swillus: Yeah, I mean, it's also about keeping the people in the business, right? I mean, nowadays the competition on the market is very rough, right? I have a lot of colleagues as well, and I've been with a big corporate for seven years, like a big enterprise, and a lot of people left because of the structure, like, you can say because of the organizational model. Right. That was kind of a competitive disadvantage in that sense. And that makes a lot of difference, right, in the competition on the market for this talent in the end. 

Tim Butara: That was a very good point, especially in current times, where I think that this competition is kind of getting tougher and tougher due to a whole number of reasons. So, we discussed the benefits of choosing the right organizational model for your business DNA, but how do you know which model is right for you? How do you go about choosing the right model for your company? 

Mirko Swillus: So I think in the end, it's connected maybe to the success that you can measure in a way, like how do you perform, how are your teams performing, and what kind of feedback do we get from the team, right? What are the points in your processes in the structure where people get annoyed, where people feel that is not working well, and then connect it to a broader structural issue, maybe, and fix those things. And I think if you have the feeling that you are progressing in that sense, then you're on the right track, right. And if not, then you have to change something and also inspect and adapt the things that model your organization. 

Tim Butara: Okay, yeah, that makes sense. And what kind of role should leadership be playing in all of this? In measuring the model, in choosing the model? And also has this role of leadership change at all in the past few years? So let's say since the beginning of Covid. 

Mirko Swillus: Oh, yeah. That's a couple of questions, right? I think nowadays we differentiate between management and leadership. Why we think, like, projects should be managed, right? Things should be managed, but for people, it's more interesting to have a real leader, so to say, a servant leader in the best case. And those people, I think, should lead in a way by example, like doing the things, just showing how they work and make this transparent, showing all the challenges they face, and also the failure and the mistake in their work as well. 

For me, as a leader in our organization, my mission statement is to create the best possible work environment for all of our engineers. In the meantime, that's a big, huge group of people, right? And for me, it's always and has been exciting, very much, because it's my first management gig. So I started with Staffbase as an engineering manager and then my responsibility grew over time. 

What I always wanted to have is this kind of inspect and adapt things that we look at organizations and look at the things that we can fix or that we should fix right now and also to collect this kind of feedback and see also our developers, our engineers as customers. As people who have specific requirements regarding their work environment, right. And regarding the level of autonomy and the level of belonging to a team and so on. So that is their requirement. And we as leaders and the people who shape this kind of organization together with the team are in the responsibility here. 

Tim Butara: Yeah, I mean, definitely your employees should be, if they aren't, they definitely should be one of your most essential stakeholder groups, because after all, it's usually not the leader, the manager that directly creates experiences that will then directly connect with the customers and users. It's the people, it's the employees. And if they don't feel valued, then that feeling of being unvalued and unappreciated will probably translate at least somewhat into the experiences, into the content that they create and that will in turn negatively impact your company's brand. 

So investing in your employees and investing in their wellbeing should just be a no brainer if you want to be successful. Especially since we just discussed the top, the heavy competition both in the innovation side as well as on the talent side. So this is what you should be doing. 

Mirko Swillus: Yes, I totally agree. It's also about the impact that people can have on their service and their product. I feel that people want to have this impact and they want to progress and grow together with the service that they provide for the customer. Because in the end, we are all here just for the customer. We are creating a service that should, in the best case, solve a problem that the customer has, a real problem, and people want to be involved there. So they want to take part in this and be part of that mission as well.

And since you asked for Covid, I think there was just this change with work locations, obviously. So that was a big shift for us as well. I mean, from the structural side, from the end point situation, we never had any issues. We were like able to work remotely right from the start, but there were no issues on the technical side. 

But on the cultural thing, we also had to have a look and keep this feeling of belonging for our team members because for us, the team is the most important foundation for us. So that's where the value is created and also where the people have this feeling of belonging to a team. And with COVID this was going to get difficult because people wouldn't meet personally on the coffee machine or in the office, standing together on the whiteboard, sharing all those little micro interactions with each other. 

So that was really difficult and we had to kind of work around this and try things out. And also we talked about how to do virtual events and all that stuff that all of us did back then. And now we are slightly coming back to the office. But we experienced and we observed that the situation changed dramatically. So people were used to work remotely and the whole work situation changed for them and for us as well. 

Especially me personally, I was always striving for having co-located teams because I thought it's a good idea if you can manage it. So for the engineering here in Europe we have four different engineering locations and I was thinking, okay, if it's possible then make it possible that the team can stay co-located. And when we did interviews and so on, we always looked into okay, this candidate could be someone for Berlin, for instance, for our Berlin office and it would be maybe a fit for the team over there. And that was always in our heads. 

But with COVID now this totally changed because teams are distributed at way and nowadays we just want to make sure that they can meet maybe for a sprint switch where we have two weeks and then that they can meet in some of the offices and the traveling wouldn't take that long to those locations. But other than that we are distributed now. So that's a change. 

Tim Butara: Yes so it was a very similar change to what a lot of other companies experienced that were already kind of allowing for some remote work, kind of embracing the digital. But still, it just goes to show that even the companies that were somewhat prepared were kind of thrown into the deep end two years ago in March when everything struck and first we just thought that it would last for like two months and we didn't really prepare as thoroughly as we probably should have because we thought it was just something temporary. 

But I assume– so we talked about how Agile has kind of become this new default model and I assume that you also apply Agile methodologies at Staffbase and I'm wondering if this is something that you already did pre-Covid. I assume it is, right. But you probably took it to the next level in the past two years. 

Mirko Swillus: We are constantly developing this forward, so Staffbase was founded eight years ago and it had back then a very deep Agile DNA already. So all the principles were already in there, because when you create something on the green grass, so to say, then it's going to be the thing that you create. And the people were very conscious about the decisions back then and I'm very grateful for this because it created right from the beginning an environment that is just great for us. Right. 

And we started with Scrum, so every team did Scrum and today also, I believe all of our teams are more or less doing the Scrum, some more by the book, others being a bit more flexible, but we want to– in the end, we want to also have this kind of responsibility and ownership with the teams. So we want to kind of dictate the agile model that they have to choose. So if a team wants to do Kanban because they feel it's a little bit too much over there with that methodology, then it's okay for us. 

So it's just the team that should decide what is the best way of working for them. And we would only challenge this if we feel that they're struggling with something and then they can't solve this thing themselves. But other than that, we just leave this autonomy to the teams. 

Over the last two or three years, we scaled massively. So we grew in a lot of dimensions, like adding a lot of people into the team. We had some M&A's going on and that was huge changes every quarter, so to say for us, so with everyone that was with Staffbase at the time, even if your business title stayed the same, your tasks and your responsibilities would change with every quarter without changing your business title because the environment changed so rapidly and so dramatically. And then we also had to think about, how do we scale this whole thing? And that was kind of the main challenge throughout the last two or three years. 

Tim Butara: It really sounds like you have embodied this true agile mindset of kind of constant adaptation and kind of embracing that. So that's really cool to hear. There's one thing that I forgot to ask or that we didn't get a chance to talk about. I wanted to ask you as a leader, and you just told me about your very interesting leadership approach based on teams, on these distributed teams, how do you ensure, taking all this into account, how do you ensure that the right people are involved in the right decisions and the right processes without creating any bottlenecks or any friction? 

Mirko Swillus: Yeah, that's a challenge still for us as well. So that's also something we struggle with. We have certain experts that are experts on multiple domains. I think every organization has it, right, so those most senior tech persons, for instance, right, and you want them to have them involved in nearly every technical decision because they are so crucial to the domain and they are there, the experts there, and there's a handful of those people only. 

And that's also creating an issue in bottlenecks, right, because it's very easy to overload those people with getting them holed into every working group and every decision circle and so on. So that's going to be difficult there. And we have to work on distributing this expertise to more shoulders, create tandems, knowledge, tandems and so on. And we are working on that, but it's still a challenge for us as well. 

Tim Butara: Yeah, I mean, it does sound like one of the most challenging things from both ends, right. As you just said, it's not just knowing who to include in which process, but when you have a person that has so much expertise that it's a high risk of them getting spread too thin, then you also have to consider very deeply about which specific process or project you want to include this person in without burning them out or something like that. So that's, I guess one challenge that a lot of business businesses will have to solve. And how are you solving this? How are you tackling this? 

Mirko Swillus: The ultimate answer for me is to get all the ownership into the team that owns the service. So our teams, like with every scum situation, you have those teams of seven people plus minus two or something, and that team owns a service, a specific domain. 

And when you really get to the point when you decoupled all your services using, for instance, a microservices approach or something, then those bottlenecks that oversee a whole lot of domains and so on would automatically decrease because the team would own the service and there wouldn't be those experts that are responsible for a lot of things at the same time. Right. 

And that's something we're working towards, like decoupling things. As I said before, we grew very fast in the past and we also piled up a lot of technical depth as well. And one of these structural architectural debt is that we modularized our architecture too late, I would say. So it was a balanced decision as well. So it was a conscious decision. 

So we have to grow, we have to deliver features to our customers. The market is very demanding and we have this historic opportunity now and we are not able to go into a pretty much major optimization now, like building a lot of microservices, with a demand that is not already there. But now we have it and we have to work on this to decouple things, like on a structural architectural side of things. But that would lead, with team topologies and so on, that would automatically lead also to having more autonomous teams. 

And also for the decision making processes, it would be more easy to decide things because the decision could stay within the team and would not be dependent on like three other teams or something because you have so many interfaces between the services and dependencies between the services. Right. And that is, I think, the ultimate answer, to get into autonomous teams and decoupled systems in the end. 

Tim Butara: Yes. I was thinking while you were telling me how to address this, how to tackle this, I was just thinking that I guess probably the best approach is this team based approach, even though I would assume that would pose some additional challenges like the higher risk of silos emerging or something like that. 

But I guess this is why we're discussing this in an episode that’s exploring new trends and new topics, because obviously this isn't an area that has all the best practices and all the standards super specifically fleshed out yet. So I guess that we are right now in the role of setting these standards, I'd say. 

Mirko Swillus: Yeah, what you said for the silos is very interesting for us as well. From the Spotify model we have those chapters, like overlaying organizations, where you would be in the team, right? Let's say you would be on the team being the back-end developer or something, and then there would be a back-end chapter where all the back-end engineers from the other teams are also in there and you would discuss things that are specific for the back end and for your stack, for the things, how you deploy things on the back end. Maybe about APIs as well. About all the specifics. Right. That would be discussed in the chapter. 

And that's still something that we use as well to overcome those silos and stay in contact with each other and create those groups of expertise and of experts in the end. That's very interesting for us. Now that we scaled so much, we have to think about how to break those chapters down a little bit as well again, right? So we have now different product units and within those units we have a thing that we call Streams, which is a collection of teams. And one big chapter for everything would be just not handy anymore, it would be too complex, there would be too many people in there so we have to split it down. 

And also from the unFIX model, from Jurgen Appelo, there's this nice idea of having super chapters as well where you would have a chair from your lower chapter into the chapter, that is the super chapter and it works a lot with delegation and so on and it's a thing that I find is very interesting and I think we are going to implement those things as well. 

Tim Butara: I'll definitely have to include links with more information about all of these models in the show notes so that listeners can access everything directly. But Mirko, this has been a fantastic conversation. I think that we discussed a lot of very important stuff, important stuff for leaders, for managers nowadays. So just before we finish, if our listeners like to reach out to you or maybe learn more about Staffbase, where can they do that? 

Mirko Swillus: So for Staffbase we have a website, so it's a new thing on the internet. You can open your browser and type in an address and then it's staffbase.com. It's very new, don't know if it works out in the future as well, but for now it's a shiny new technology. The Interweb. Yeah. And then obviously LinkedIn, so you can reach out on LinkedIn to me. So that's my platform for every kind of conversation and network as well.

Tim Butara: Awesome. I'll make sure to also link both of those. Thanks so much, Mirko, for being our guest today. It's been a pleasure. It's been great. 

Mirko Swillus: Thank you so much. It was my pleasure. Goodbye. 

Tim Butara: Bye. And to our listeners, that's all for this episode. Have a great day everyone, and stay safe. 

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