Cultivating Corporate Culture by Thinking Small

Geoff Wilson started his company 352 Inc. from his college dorm room in 1997.

Since that time, Geoff has survived and grown the business through several economic downturns and fundamental shifts in technology, a feat in itself. But the most impressive accomplishment is found in 352 Inc.’s ability to cultivate a corporate culture of dedicated teams embraced by Geoff’s employees across 3 offices and a slate of large customers.

I’ve discussed the topic of scaling corporate culture with many CEOs, there are countless books and I have my own experiences running similar service-based companies like 352 Inc. The use of dedicated teams for primarily project-based work is nearly impossible to create, manage and sustain.

Years ago on my radio show, Geoff shared how he and his team successfully cultivated and extended an innovative (and iterative) culture into an agency spread across 3 geographically dispersed offices. Now these lessons are still relevant today.

Culture is Easy When Your Small

Before its successful restructure to dedicated teams 3 years ago, the company culture was traditional and employees were organized by department.

Geoff found that when the company was small, it was easier to maintain a consistent, startup-like culture across a traditional organizational style. When you’re small, there is still opportunity for everyone to interact and for the founder to remain heavily involved.

“Culture can be consistently extended throughout the corporation regardless of how you’re organized. However, it begins to fall apart when you scale and grow,” Geoff admits. “After 20 or 30+ employees, it becomes difficult to manage and be consistent.”

To Get Bigger, Think Smaller

When 352 Inc. attempted to grow, it hit that familiar issue where culture hit a wall.

Morale was down, and work quality suffered. Employees were siloed workhorses, churning out elements of a digital product as if part of an assembly line, not fully understanding how their part of a project impacted others or fit into the overall strategy.

Project ownership was non-existent, so employees reported to multiple “bosses” across multiple projects with competing deadlines. This structure made communication extraordinarily difficult and drastically reduced output, ultimately slowing delivery of completed work.

Guided by trends in the software development world, Geoff decided the agency needed a team-based structure. In order to get bigger, they had to get smaller–not downsizing, but rethinking the company as small team-based units.

He divided the company into teams of 5-6 people as part of cohesive cross-functional groups. This approach allows each team to work as a small company within the company, keeping the passionate startup culture alive.

Better Together

Many companies like 352 Inc. create ad hoc teams based on a signed project, but this new dedicated, permanent team model allowed teams to continue to work together, project to project. Team members forge strong bonds with each other and work more efficiently. They are more in sync, know each other’s strengths and weaknesses, and understand how to work together.

More importantly, each team develops its own micro-culture, its own work patterns and accountability systems. They’re simply better together.

It Took Experimentation (and Failure) to Get it Right

The company experimented with two test pilot runs with subsets of the larger team.

Geoff first tried to organize by skill set but quickly realized that having A, B, and C teams was not good for employee morale–it would ultimately lead to teams that could only handle certain projects or teams that felt they weren’t good enough.

“We tried to balance the skill sets as much as possible so that all teams were relatively equal in terms of skill and capability. We wanted to provide a unilateral experience across the board –meaning no hierarchy amongst the teams,” Geoff said.

To further empower the new teams, the 352 leadership team surveyed everyone in the company privately to ask who they thought they might work best with, and who they wouldn’t.

As president, Geoff knew implementing this new structure would be a messy transition, but he bet on himself and his company, rather than sticking with the status quo. The first 4-6 months were incredibly difficult and challenging for both employees and clients.

Some employees moved off long-time client accounts, requiring a major transfer of knowledge. On the client side, some were assigned to new teams that had never touched their project before.

The Change Required Sacrifice and Focus

As 352 Inc. continued down this path, it found itself turning away potential new clients–in addition to losing some old ones–that couldn’t move fast enough without several layers of approval.

Because 352 no longer allowed clients to dictate the process and workflow, it empowered teams to build their own values and create strong client relationships without managers getting in the way. It was clear the commitment to a new way of working is more important than just winning new business.

The Experiment Worked

On paper, stripping down management and putting employees in charge of client relationships shouldn’t work. Yet, the agency–and its culture–is succeeding, even thriving.

Geoff made a bet on the smart, passionate people he works with, and that bet is paying off.