Denys Skrypnyk, CEO and Founder at The Gradient on the structure of the agency and growing talent within the team.
When we first started thinking of starting our own business with Oleg and Olena about 3 years ago, we’d been truly inspired by companies like Work&Co, Pentagram, and Instrument. The Pentagram model has been of special interest to us, so we kept researching and discussing the ins and outs of what that might look like for our own company.
This model had been floating around many discussions between the three of us. We were continually having a conversation along the lines of …’What if we started our own version of Pentagram?” says Olena Zanichkovska, Partner at The Gradient.
The Pentagram model implies a collective partnership of discipline leaders working together towards the common goal of the growth of the company’s brand and business. We knew we wanted to do great things with The Gradient and that we could build a strong company brand and contribute equally to a partnership.
The Partner Model
Today, The Gradient operates by three Partners: Olena, Oleg and me, who are running fairly autonomous teams and projects.
A key benefit of this model is that Partners work both independently and in collaboration, each Partner can make his or her own decisions but we all share the same vision, values, and approach to the work.
If we talk about work approaches, each Partner builds her or his small, self-contained team for each project. Each project is assigned a team of two to five people, depending on the type of work. The Partner in each project is responsible for the general strategy of working on the project and cooperation with the client, as well as for the project outcomes and deliverables. The Partner participates in all strategic workshops with the client and the discovery process, sets up a team and all work processes within the project, and generally stays very hands-on.
To date, this model has proven to be effective for us. Now that we are planning to expand the company and bring on new Partners. We consider both the opportunity to grow talent within the team and attract Partners from outside who can bring their additional expertise to our team.
Product team composition
From the very start, we had a very clear goal for The Gradient to build an engaged team that would be able to do outstanding work.
We formed a set of values that we believe helps us deliver the best work to our clients and move fast and be effective. Those values have direct implications on the way we build our team, they translate into our approach to work and our processes.
At its core The Gradient is — and always will be — about doing great work. Our team is obsessed with producing quality work.
We compose a product team of people with different competencies and focuses that are necessary for each particular project. Each project is usually assigned a team of one or several product designers, a business analyst, and a product marketing manager.
When setting up a product team, we primarily look at the type of client and the type of problem that we will be solving. Currently, we mostly work with two types of clients — enterprises and startups, for which we solve two types of problems:
1. Transformation of an existing product.
When there is a working product and it needs to be modified because, for example, business goals or the market has changed. In these types of projects, there is more emphasis on the technical side and design, so the team will consist of a product designer and a business analyst.
2. Designing a new product.
When the client comes to us with just an idea and we need to turn it into a working product. In these cases, when we help to launch a totally new product, we give a lot of attention to marketing and a marketer is required on such a team.
That is, a product team is formed depending on the required competencies and the type of problem that we solve. Today, our core competencies are Product Design, Business Analysis, and Marketing.
Growing talent within the team
Attracting and retaining great designers is something that we think is critical for building a sustainable business.
Great product teams are composed of individual contributors with complementary skills, so we’ve set up a specific system for hiring and talent management at the Gradient.
As we build our design team, we think not only of the talents of the individual but how all the individuals will work together. First of all, we want to see professionals with a diverse set of skills in our team, so-called T-shaped people who have deep practical knowledge and a set of additional skills.
The term “T-shaped person” was first popularized by Tim Brown, the Chief Executive of IDEO , a world-leading design firm:
“T-shaped people have two kinds of characteristics, hence the use of the letter “T” to describe them. The vertical stroke of the “T” is a depth of skill that allows them to contribute to the creative process. The horizontal stroke of the “T” is the disposition for collaboration across disciplines. T-shaped people have both depth and breadth in their skills.”
All competencies in the company are built with a T-shaped approach in the core. This means that for more senior levels it is required to have skills from other competencies. For example, a senior product designer must also be able to tackle tasks in business analysis and understand the basics of product marketing.
After the senior level, a person has the prospect of moving on inside the company and becoming one of the Partners. At the moment, we have two levels of Partners:
Associate Partner is a senior specialist with entrepreneurial ambitions, a person who wants to not only engage in his main craft but also to participate in business development, in working with clients, in sales and who has ambitions to develop further. An Associate Partner would lead his own clients and receive part of the profit from his projects.
A Senior Partner is a person who has proven his competencies and ambitions as an Associate Partner and is ready to work at the business level. He would be more involved in the development of strategic business areas, such as sales or delivery, and must be able to control his own projects and contribute to the profits of the firm.
Each team member, regardless of his professional level, understands and knows about his prospect of becoming a Partner.
We have developed a system that allows everyone to see how he can grow to this position:
1. Competency Matrix
Competency Matrix shows what skills are required to achieve a certain level within the company. Each team member can clearly see at what level he is now.
Objectives and Key Results (OKRs) is an effective framework that helps to set ambitious goals and track the progress of each team member. We have 4 three-month sprints in a year when we set out 2–3 smart goals for each person.
For example, for a product designer, OKRs are connected to his long-term professional goals, the Competency Matrix, and the context of the projects he is working on. At the end of each sprint, we sit together and look at the results and plan his goals for the next three months. Once a year in June, we set more serious and long-term goals in accordance with the Competency Matrix.
This system helps us grow the expertise both of each team member and a team as a whole. Matrix assessment gives us a clear vision of the strong and weak spots in the company. It is especially important to clearly see and identify the weaknesses so we can work harder on those. There are two ways to do that:
The first approach is to focus on developing individual expertise, for example adding goals on specific skills or areas of expertise to individual OKRs.
The second approach is to direct internal learning processes to specific points at the company level. We have internal Labs in the form of workshops where we work out certain topics. For example, now we are working on improving our design deliverables and the next few Labs will be devoted to this topic.
In general, the idea with Partners was the core of our work model as we wanted to show our people their growth opportunities within the company. First, we introduced OKRs to streamline the professional growth of our people in the team, and later launched the Competence Matrix which gives us a higher perspective. Now our goal is to scale this model adding other Partners to our executive team.
And how about further ahead?
All three years that the Gradient is running, we have been working on refining our own model for building and scaling our business. Just like we strongly believe in the benefits of the iterative approach in our design work, we’re also iterating on how our company works: the process, the practices, the approach, the communication style.
We think we’ve never going to reach that point where everything is ‘done’. There are always fresh challenges for us and ways to improve the quality of what we are delivering and our clients’ and our team’s satisfaction.
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