How Specialization Sparks Innovation & Makes Companies Stronger

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Specialization is the key to the kind of innovation that drives growth and a nimble company. Here’s how to steer your team toward specialization and create a business culture that generates its own success.

The goal of most companies is to succeed, and to succeed, you need to grow. As companies learn and iterate, they discover that what worked on day one won’t work on day one thousand, and what worked with employee #1 won’t work with employee #100.This is why innovation is so important to successful companies like Apple and Google. They define their industries because they are leaders of change. Let’s take a closer look at how to make specialization work for you.

Why specialization matters and how to achieve it

Brand new companies are usually made up of people who wear more than one hat. By necessity, the CEO is also an engineer, the marketing manager doubles as customer support, and the product manager also dabbles in sales. This organization is simple, it’s flat, and it works in the early days when companies are still evolving.

A flat structure is effective when everyone’s roles are clearly defined, as Wistia found out when they adopted a flat organizational structure when they launched. Because everyone was a jack-of-all trades, it made decision-making complicated. The lines of responsibility and ownership started to blur because everyone wanted to be part of the entire process, and every decision took a lot longer.

Wistia realized that companies are constantly evolving, so they made the switch to an org structure where roles and ownership were clearly defined. If Wistia hadn’t made the change, project momentum would decrease because there were too many cooks in the kitchen.

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[Source] The solution to this problem is to let your business evolve the same way your product or service does. Products and services change in response to external factors like customer preferences, technological improvements, and competition. As your business grows, it needs to adapt, too. You can make the transition from a flat org structure to specialization gradually and smoothly if you build it into your company culture. Here’s how:

  1. Embed the idea of specialization early on so that evolution happens naturally. This gives teams a chance to find opportunities to specialize naturally.

  2. Give team members room to grow so that they can find these new opportunities This makes room for team members coming up behind them and exposes newer team members to the growth potential that exists in your company.

  3. Keep the momentum of team member growth and productivity going by keeping the lines of communication open. Because specialization is an ever-changing process, use communication as a way to make sure teams stay connected and productive.

Now let’s see how you can put these ideas into practice in your company,

Start early and embed specialization in your culture

For specialization to be effective, it has to be part of your company culture. Teams have to embrace specialization, and that starts by setting the expectation early on that there will be opportunities to explore new areas.

The goal is for these expectations to become hardwired, so that team members are always looking for opportunities to specialize. If a team member discovers a new interest during a project, let them explore it by shadowing someone with experience in that area or attending a workshop. The more team members are able to specialize using their own initiative, the better off your business is in the long run.

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[Source] What’s great about specialization is that you can design it to meet your needs.  At Yammer, a social networking service for enterprises, they split the engineering team into smaller specialized teams whenever a new feature was introduced. This meant that each specialized group focused on one part of the new feature.

As the engineering team grew, specialization became more functional and specialized teams like back-end, front-end, and mobile development formed. They were able to make that happen smoothly because they allowed open discussions that gave team members the chance to define how they could specialize.

Create a culture that’s right for you

To encourage specialization, you should choose whether you want to create teams that have a specific focus like Yammer’s engineering team or allow individual team members to specialize. For example, will you have a back-end development team where one person focuses on Ruby on Rails while someone else focuses on SQL queries?

Whatever you choose, part of your team member onboarding process should include a discussion on growth potential and the freedom to decide how and when to specialize. When a team member first starts, pair them up with an experienced team member who will not only walk them through training but will also highlight examples of times other team members found opportunities and acted on them.

Give some thought to how long you want team members to learn the ropes before they jump into specialization or receive mentorship from a more experienced team member. Also, think about the types of programs you’ll offer to support team members as they transition. The goal at this point is to lay out the steps team members have to take for specialization and how they’re expected to interact with other team members.

Give team members room to grow

Location Labs is noted for its tool that helps users protect personal data, but also because the company boasts a 95% team member retention rate. When people start working there, they stay for the long haul. The secret to Location Labs’ success is hiring people who value the work that they do and the challenges that come with it instead of being motivated by a fat paycheck. Joel Grossman, the former COO at Location Labs, explains it this way,

“I made plenty of mistakes along the way, but [Location Labs] is a place that understands that and appreciates that.”

By giving team members a chance to explore new opportunities and learn as they grow, you increase employee satisfaction and retention. When team members stay, you don’t have to spend time and effort hiring, onboarding, and training new team members.

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[Source] But how do you know which team members are ready to take on a new challenge and specialize? The answer is to start by identifying your high performing employees (HPE). These folks are valuable because 76% of HPEs say they value the work vs. just putting in hours every day. HPEs also have a few things in common:

  • They actively seek out new opportunities and don’t shy away from a challenge

  • They want to improve their skills set

  • They value quality and they’ll put in the time to make sure things are done right

  • They want to know how they’re performing so that they can continue to grow and excel

Help high-performing employees specialize

Once you’ve identified your HPEs, help them narrow down their focus by creating a program that encourages specialization. One option is to introduce a team rotation program where team members can work with different teams over the course of a few months to get exposure to different areas of interest. The rotation program could look something like this:

  1. Decide which teams to include in the rotation. Not every team will need an area of specialization, so choose what makes sense for your business. Consider teams like marketing, sales, product or customer success.

  2. Figure out a timeline. Start by deciding how long each rotation will last so rotations are long enough for team members to learn something, but not so long that teams start to lose the excitement for the opportunity.  One option is to make each rotation last one month.

  3. Define which areas will be explored. If the marketing team is part of the rotation, areas to explore can include ad campaigns, email campaigns, website development and data analysis, for example. For each of these areas, rotating team members will dive in deep and work on a project from start to finish. With data analysis, team members would work with the data team to learn how to request data queries, then learn how to use the tools available to analyze the data. Finally, team members would learn how to report their findings.

  4. Debrief after each rotation. Because team members are new to the area they focus on during their rotation, they’re more likely to see opportunities where others haven’t before. Make sure you follow up after each rotation so everyone gains the benefit of the knowledge they have.

  5. Ask what areas piqued their interest. At the end of the complete rotation, ask team members what interested them the most about what they saw, then match their work with their interest. As the team member learns more, move them into a specialized role and start to hand over more responsibility or increase their expertise.

As team members move onto new roles, don’t forget that you have to fill in any gaps that these shifts create. Not everyone has to have a narrow focus, so make sure you still have people with a wider perspective to help connect teams. For example, if your product team has five people, one could specialize in roadmaps and another on product launches while the other three team members will focus on everything else product-related to make sure projects run smoothly.

Keep the ball moving on productivity

Specialization helps teams solve problems quickly and innovate over time. If you launch a new feature or introduce a new product, HPEs know the subject so well that they can offer insights others might not have thought of.

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[Source] When new trends emerge, specialized team members are poised to do data analysis and act on them based on their expertise. These teams can dive into a level that team members without a specialized focus might not have the time and expertise to explore. The key to this level of momentum is communication. 

Open the door to communication

To encourage effective information sharing, you should make it standard practice for other teams to discuss ideas with your specialists when new projects get started. This helps to make sure everyone is aware of key considerations.

For example, if the marketing team wants to roll out a new ad campaign, part of the process can include a discussion with the person who’s an expert in email campaigns. Depending on the target audience for the campaign, the marketing team can get insights into the types of content that connect with the audience, or what types of subject lines get the most opens. From there, teams with specific focus and experience can help the marketing team set up and run A/B tests to decide on which campaign to feature. Instead of the marketing team guessing or following general specs, team members with the most experience become a go-to resource to boost effectiveness and efficiency.

Because the benefits of productivity and engagement are so high, some companies have incentivized it. Industrial manufacturing giant Siemens created a points system for their employees so every time someone shares information with the team, points are added to the ShareNet system. When team members take the initiative to learn something new, they also receive points. By adding an element of gamification, Siemens encourages employees to share their knowledge openly.

The program helps to keep communication flowing and makes the information a small group of team members has available to everyone at the company,

Keep learning, keep growing

When you utilize these key ingredients of specialized innovation — team member training, retention, and efficiency — the results are a team that functions like a well-oiled machine and a business that enjoys sustained growth.

Identify which employees are most likely to be excellent specialists, and then invest in their ongoing development. As they learn, provide opportunities for them to share their knowledge with the entire company so every team and department can respond effectively to trends.

Using this approach to specialization will not only create more focused, engaged employees, but your company will be poised to respond quickly to any potential opportunity for growth in the marketplace.

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