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Richard Wadsworth

Contino’s Unique Operating Model: How We Scaled Our Company at Speed

How do you scale a company at speed without sacrificing the qualities that catalysed your success?

Without diminishing the quality of your work, lowering the hiring bar or watering down the culture that nurtured your growth?

At Contino, we have been fortunate enough to experience 100% year-on-year growth over the last four years. It’s been hard work and a lot of fun, but this kind of growth comes with a unique set of problems particular to a people-focused company like Contino.

In this article I will outline the core challenges we faced and how we developed a unique operating model to successfully scale our company.

Challenges to Growth

The key challenge is that of scaling a distributed workforce that is growing rapidly and under considerable pressure to maintain our record of delivery excellence. 

Disconnected and Siloed Teams

The majority of our workforce consists of engineers and consultants who, in most cases, need to be on site with our customers.

With most of our people spending a lot of time away from the office, the biggest problem is the potential for siloed teams and the disconnect from the core company that this creates.

Collaboration and Knowledge-Sharing

Collaboration and knowledge-sharing is critical to growing our company.

But how do you ensure collaboration with a largely distributed and potentially siloed workforce? This is a major challenge! 

Relationships and Support

As well as requiring broad software engineering skills, the work is emotionally and intellectually challenging.

Everyone in Contino (regionally and globally) needs to collaborate effectively to support each other. And our consultants would be nothing without support from the back office team!

The distributed nature of our work, coupled with our need to collaborate, magnifies the importance of human relationships and support.

Communication and Information

Finally, meeting all of the above challenges is predicated on successful communication. When communication breaks down, then collaboration and relationships decline with it.

We reached our tipping point in 2017 when we hit around 125 people: communication channels became too complex to maintain. We collectively reached the point where we no longer knew everyone by name and, as a result, we stopped forming as many relationships across the business. This quickly manifested as consultants feeling isolated from head office and our office staff feeling isolated from the core of our business.

Our Solution: The Contino Operating Model

Our solution to this communication problem is the Contino Operating Model. It is known internally as the ‘Squad Model’. 

The central plank is the ‘squad’: a fully cross-functional team that is aligned to each customer. The key characteristics are as follows:

  • Cross-functional: each squad consists of a representative from each area of the business - finance, operations, marketing, HR, talent, sales, delivery and management
  • Autonomous: each squad has a mandate to operate—within guardrails—in whichever way is most appropriate for the customer 
  • Open: our squads meet frequently and regularly and use structured agendas that leave nothing to chance 

We also divide our global business into regional tribes (EMEA, APAC, AMERS) from which we manage the squads geographically.

Finally, we have technical practices, each with their own regional director, that promote knowledge sharing, reusable assets and thought leadership.

Our Squad Model:

What the Contino Operating Model Gives Us and Our Customers

The model gives us:

  • An organisational structure that puts communication and collaboration first
  • Roles and responsibilities that recognise and values the contributions of everyone in the company
  • Decentralised governance that enables decisions to be made by those with the most up to date and accurate information
  • Lightweight tools and assets that allow for the nuances of every customer project
  • Incentives and key motivational drivers the support our mission statement
  • A culture of accountability that surfaces everyone’s contribution

All of the above results in transparent communication where everyone in the squad gets to talk about the things important to them and that they need to fulfil their part in delivering excellence for our customers.

While our projects still carry risks, most risks are treated before they turn into issues, leaving more time and energy for everyone to focus on our customers’ success. If someone on the squad does need support, they know exactly who to ask and that they will have an opportunity to speak to that person face to face within a couple of days, if not before. Collaboration is not left to chance.

In addition, this regular face-to-face collaboration across all business units in the company results in many instances of staff-led innovation. Ultimately, we all share a common goal and can all contribute to the overall success of our customers.

Our start-up ethos and flat structure has enabled us to continually pivot and refine the model as soon as we identify a need. We have created a sustainable operating model that will allow us to continue to grow our business predictably, responsibly and effectively to ensure our long term health and future.

Our customers reap the benefits of our approach and we are working with a number of them to help them understand how they might adopt a similar model!

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