Pods – a Step Towards Self Management

Managers are the people everybody loves to hate, but there are things a good manager will do which will hugely benefit those who report to them. About a year ago, the technology department at TIM Group started an experiment to flatten its organisational structure by making everyone self managed – i.e. no line managers. However, there needed to be some way of replacing the positive influences that line managers had previously.

One of the responsibilities of a line manager is to schedule regular 1:1 meetings with their reportees to make sure that they are happy with their current work and the progress they are making. It is an opportunity to air grievances, get feedback, or just to have a nice chat. A typical 1:1 would answer the following questions:

  1. Are you happy?
  2. Are you doing work you’re proud of?
  3. Is there anything you’d expect to be happening that isn’t?
  4. Can the organisation do anything to support you in what you’re trying to accomplish?

Without a line manager, there would be no one left to ask these questions, and so TIM Group proposed a solution: Pods.

A pod is a group of around five members of the technology department who meet as frequently as they would like, to talk about anything and everything. It is a circle of people with whom you can build up a level of trust, and who can help and support you in your work life. It is, in part, to replicate the opportunities given to you in a 1:1, but allows you to sit at both sides of the table – you can be the person giving or receiving advice.

I am in a pod that meets weekly for an hour each time. This is quite a large time commitment, so we all tried to identify what value our pod meetings gave us, and why we were willing to take this time out of our schedule. Here is what we came up with:

  • They give us a chance to reflect on how we’re feeling and what we’re doing
    I realised shortly after joining the company that I was getting very drained at work because I was learning so much and didn’t have time to process it. Being an introvert, I also wasn’t enjoying constantly working with someone else without any sort of down time. I was able to raise this in the pod, and came up with the solution of taking some time out to look back on the things I’d learnt, or to do some work on my own.
  • They are a forum to discuss personal work-related issues and brainstorm solutions or get feedback and perspective on things
    We had an individual in our pod who was facing some resistance from his team when suggesting new ideas. The pod was able to provide him with ideas on different things he could do to try to rectify the situation – such as volunteering to take on a team lead role, or proposing his ideas in a different way. We were also able to try and provide some perspective on why his team members may have acted in the way they did.
  • They give us a chance to see if we can help others enjoy their work life more, and we feel like we have a personal interest in the well being of the other members in the pod
    Part of the value we get from the pod system is being able to come up with creative solutions for other people. Helping others gives us a sense of satisfaction, and creates more cohesion across the department.
  • They allow us to build up trust with people we wouldn’t otherwise work with
    When I joined the company, there were many people I’d not really met before, and the pod was one of the ways that I got to know other people better.
  • They are an opportunity to see how things are going in other teams across the organisation
    We had three different teams represented in our pod, including someone from the infrastructure team. Without the pod meeting, it is unlikely that we would ever hear about what was going on in infrastructure but this gave us a good opportunity to share information.
  • We get feedback from people without a vested interest in the status quo, so we feel listened to rather than having to debate our point of view
    Have you ever tried raising an issue where it feels like you’re trying to defend how you feel rather than someone just listening to you? This can be the case in a team retrospective, or even a 1:1 with a manager, where the person you’re speaking to feels the need to defend the current workings of the team/company. The pod is a closed circle of unbiased people who can simply listen to how you feel and give you feedback without forming any sort of judgement.
  • They allow us to experiment with different meeting structures where we have the ability to float different ideas
    In our pod, we reflect on whether the pod is working and like to try different things. We have organised 1:1 meetings with each member of the pod, especially those we may not have known well beforehand. I found doing this made me trust and understand those individuals more, so that the next time we met as a group I felt comfortable sharing things I probably wouldn’t have previously; and when they had something to say I could appreciate their point of view a lot more than before.

Another outcome of reflection was that some individuals don’t ever think they need to talk about something, but in a 1:1 setting when they had time to talk and explore things, they uncovered issues which they would like to talk about. To try and address this, we tried a “spotlight” – where we dedicate half an hour to asking one of the pod members the questions above.

Overall, the pod structure feels like a good replacement for 1:1s with line managers. It’s one of those things that I didn’t know I needed, but if it were to go away I think I would miss the support structure! I have built up a level of trust with the people in my pod, and am now comfortable talking about personal issues and even enjoyed being put under the spotlight (an idea which I wasn’t too keen on when it was raised!). I particularly like that my pod has a mixture of people, both from my team – so they can support/sympathise with some of my points – and those from other teams – who are more distanced from the problem and can provide perspective.

There are a few ways it may fall short – it can sometimes feel like the others in the pod are sympathetic to the issues you face but are not in a position to directly help you solve them, whereas a line manager would be. It is also difficult to raise more sensitive issues such as salary, or personal development/performance, which pod members may not have the information that your line manager would. Here at TIM Group, we supplement pod meetings with optional 1:1s with other members of staff to address these kinds of issues, and with team feedback meetings which allow us to keep track of how we are doing, and the contributions we’re making to the team.