How do people work best together?

It’s fun to think about. You may know some things about your own work style and productivity preferences—for example, do you prefer solo or team projects? Being in the middle of many tasks or finishing one before going on to the next?

Now, take all those unique factors about how you work and multiply them by 50, 100 or 1,000. Figuring out how to get teams working together optimally is an insanely big job.

It’s one we’ve been working on recently at Buffer as we’ve grown quite a bit larger and faster than ever before.

Here’s a look at how we’re evolving one of our teams—Buffer’s product team—and creating a blueprint for the future of teams at Buffer.

how product works

The evolution of our product team

Buffer is a product company at its heart, so it feels fitting to tell the story of Buffer’s team structure evolution through the product team.

Version 1: One team for everything

Not too long ago, there was only “the product team.”

They did everything: Every Buffer plan, every Buffer platform, all the extensions, apps and extras. They had no choice but to move fast, and there were few enough team members that there was plenty of room to maneuver.

“It’s been quite fragmented in the past,” said Joel. “We spent a lot of time putting out fires and keeping things from falling through the cracks.”

As we’ve grown larger and started exploring different types of management structures, we’ve been able to experiment with various team styles.

Version 2: Decision maker model

Based on the decision maker structure, we first created holistic teams (made up of many different members of Buffer from various areas and specialties) that looked like this:

product teams 1
This version of teams included teammates from many different cross-sections of focus and specialities.

This version of team organization was promising! Asking for advice kept the teams’ members in communication, and distinct areas of development and responsibilities began to take shape.

As we began to journey deeper into self management, though, we wanted to move toward an emphasis on opening up any area to any teammate and being less prescriptive about what roles might belong to whom. (You can read lots more about what we learned from this experiment.)

Version 3: Fluid task forces

As a result, we next experimented with task forces. These were fluid, dynamic teams formed for a specific purpose (for instance, developing Buffer for Video)that could be proposed or joined by anyone at Buffer, regardless of role.

For example, someone could be an engineer in a few product development task forces, but could equally be part of a customer service task force or a hiring task force. Here’s a list of some task forces that were on our list during the time these were our organizational default:

Buffer task forces
Task forces could be created and/or joined by any teammate and disbanded when the task was completed

Over time, we began to crave a more sustainable way to work—one that would allow us to focus in an area and become specialists, with ownership and accountability.

“Especially as a distributed team, we have to be a lot more disciplined that other companies,” Joel said.

How we work today: squads and chapters

Meanwhile, Joel had discovered the innovative way that Spotify organizes its teams—with autonomous, collaborative squads, each aligned with a unique purpose.

What we had naturally building toward had a track record, and a name! This concept has proved to be the winning way to look at things for our journey so far.

Version 4: Goal-focused squads

Today we have a variety of small teams with many different priorities within the Buffer product. Here’s a look at all the different areas in which we’re working in, each of which has its own devoted team:

product teams

Each team generally comprises 1-2 engineers, a product specialist, a designer, a customer development teammate, and oftentimes a growth analyst.

The teams are organized according to the squad model, as explained by Hudl in a super handy post:

squads

Together, this group has its own syncs at least once or several times a week. Here’s a look at the full team working on our social media visuals tool Pablo as an example:

Pablo squad

And for a bit of a different looking squad, here’s the happiness version:

happiness squad

On the product side, this new structure has allowed each squad to move quickly and produce lots of cool new features in a relatively short amount of time.

“It’s been fun because we’re doing better in each area and moving things faster,” Joel said. “It’s better for discipline and focus. We’re learning it’s better for each part to move quickly.”

Plus role-based chapters

Defining each squad’s makeup so specifically has also allowed us to dive deeper not just into Buffer’s various pieces but also each role’s speciality. Designers get together, engineers sync up and learn from one another across their squads. Hudl calls these groups “chapters.”

chapter

If squads are about goals, chapters are about roles. Cross-squad chapters can go deeper into their specific area and keep learning.

“Sometimes I drop into the design circle and it’s crazy to hear the specifics of what they’re talking about,” Joel said. “What should the color of the primary button be, spacing between the elements. It feels great to form a design culture.”

(When we get a bit bigger, we might see tribes and guilds also. Exciting!)

Evolving the rest of the team

Not only does this arrangement help us create specialists with great ownership of the challenges they’re working on, it also shows us exactly where we need to grow the team in order to be at our most effective.

We feel really good about this team framework for the future of Buffer, and we’re slowly building toward this type of squad-chapter makeup across the rest of the Buffer team.

It’s a more modular way to build teams, and it’s been really instructive as we figure out what the future of Buffer looks like—and how big it might become.

Here’s a look, for example, at a snippet of how this structure might look in the Happiness area in the future, from our in-progress hiring blueprint.

happiness blueprint

A journey in progress, not a journey completed

Could things change again as we grow? Yup, it’s pretty likely! We’re constantly learning more and evolving. As Spotify puts it, this is a journey in progress, not a journey completed.

“There was a point where I thought, ‘We just need to grow so fast,'” Joel said. “But you can’t switch to the perfect setup in one day. It’s just part of a process.”

It’s exciting to keep going with the process and discover where it might lead us.

How do you work best in a team? Would you prefer to be involved in lots of projects or know one area very deeply? What do you think of the squads and chapters model? We’d love to hear from you in the comments!

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Written by Courtney Seiter

Courtney writes about social media, diversity and workplace culture at Buffer. She runs Girls to the Moon on the side and pets every dog she sees.

  • Matt Aunger

    Squads and chapters seems like a really interesting concept. I have to say that I’m very impressed at how you’ve been able to move away from the aspects of Teal that weren’t working, to create your own organisation structure. A sort of ‘pseudo-teal’! It’s great to see.

    I think both being involved in a range of areas, and focussing on a single one hold equal merit. Personally, I have always had a desire to learn and develop my knowledge in a range of areas. That said, this has generally revolved around ‘creating things’ in some way.

    • Pseudo-Teal is a great way of putting it, Matt! I think we’re still in the midst of finding our balance (and perhaps always will be!). Keen to keep sharing as we figure things out!

  • I’ve long been impressed with Buffer, the app. So much so, I converted to a paying user. Over time, I’ve also come to appreciate the company culture, too. This product team approach to goals and roles looks worthy of emulation.

    • Oh wow, thanks so much for taking the time to share that, Mark! It really means the world to us!

  • Loved the Spotify explanation of their Engineering culture and I’m happy Buffer is evolving in a similar way. It seems to be the right balance between agility and coordination. Would love to see it up close!

    • Spotify has been a huge inspiration to us here; the video embedded in this post was super helpful for me!

  • That team dashboard (from “version 4”) looks pretty neat. Would like to use it for my own company. Could you open source it?

    • That’s an awesome idea, Stefan! That’s our Buffer HQ; we’ve gotten a few requests to open it up! Hopefully we can soon!

      • Christopher Maneu

        Hey Courtney,
        Of course, opensourcing it can be a great thing. Meantime, I would love to see a post explain it a little bit, and also maybe explaining what tools you’re building internally an why :)

  • Jesse Redmond

    I the wonder if you are solving the wrong problem. Jim Collins might ask, “do you the right people not the bus?” Have you refactored recruiting and hiring? How have people mistakes impacted your success? I realize these are large topics, and understand if you wish to address them in another format, or not at all…Thanks for your continued open dialogue.

    “Leaders of companies that go from good to great start not with “where” but with “who.” They start by getting the right people on the bus, the wrong people off the bus, and the right people in the right seats. And they stick with that discipline—first the people, then the direction—no matter how dire the circumstances.”(http://www.jimcollins.com/article_topics/articles/good-to-great.html)

    • These are great questions to reflect on, Jesse, thank you!

  • Terlihat & Ditemukan

    I really want to Join Buffer, and learn also share to Indonesia This Efficient Methods for Organization and Business.

    email me if theres a Hiring for Indonesian TerlihatDitemukan@Gmail.com

  • This is such a neat concept and from all I’ve seen and read, it’s perfect for Buffer. You guys are so inspiring to watch as you aren’t afraid to try out new things to discover what works best for the organization and the individuals that make it up.

    For me personally, I like to be involved in a lot of different projects at any given time. That’s my natural inclination and the variety of projects allows me to avoid burnout or boredom with any one specific topic or idea. I like when there’s a unifying theme between the various projects, but they’re all still unique.

  • Sylvia

    This is a bit off-topic but related, Courtney, how would you say that the transitions between the different team structures occurred? Was it right away and did people self-congregate? Also, who made the decisions to switch? Was it a group decision or by a few stakeholders? :)