At MYTOYS GROUP, a European online retailer of toys, clothing, books, and media, Steffen Heilmann has transformed IT to focus on products, not projects.

MYTOYS GROUP is a leading European online retailer within the family segment. One of our unique selling points is that we have an innovative combined shopping concept where customers are able to make purchases simultaneously from several of our different online stores using a single shopping cart. The purchased goods can also be delivered to customers in one package.

In the past, one of the most often heard complaints about IT was that it was only an order taker, delivering exactly what was asked for by the business. It was not seen as a real partner for the business, actively shaping the future of the organization.

So when we started the process of building our integrated store platform, we decided to take the opportunity to review everything about how the IT organization was set up. The clearly stated goal was to enable IT to become a partner for the business, on equal footing.

New IT vision and mindset

Previously, the different IT departments each had their own goals and focus. There was no clear common goal across IT organizations, which resulted in misalignment, especially between the development and operations departments.

In order to get the IT teams working together, we established a goal for the whole of IT, made up of both a vision and a mindset. The vision described how we wanted to be perceived by the rest of the organization. The mindset described our expectations for ourselves and individuals and teams; how we wanted to act.

In a series of offsite workshops with the management team, we developed an initial version of both the vision and the mindset. Subsequently, we used town halls with the entire IT staff to communicate them to the teams.

The IT vision

  • We provide the stable foundation for MYTOYS GROUP
  • We offer space for flexible development
  • We actively shape the group strategy based on our technological expertise

The IT mindset

  • Work together and for each other!
  • Actively take ownership!
  • Be proactive and learn from experience!

The leadership team was a key element to making sure that the vision and mindset were implemented, agreeing to actively work towards these goals, and setting an example for their teams to follow.

product-based-IT

Product focus replaced project focus

The second step towards a better partnership with the business was to encourage a sense of ownership within the teams. Talking to the teams, we realized that in the past we had been overly project focused. The IT teams would come together to work on a new project, and at the end, the teams were disbanded to work on a new project. There were only rudimentary hand-overs to operations team members. As a result, when things went wrong, they only had limited ability to address the root cause within the software.

Additionally, all projects had been on very tight schedules. Therefore, the teams were encouraged to focus more on go-live dates than on building systems that would be easy to operate and maintain.

In order to change this, we changed the IT org structure. We wanted to move towards more stable teams within IT that would hit milestones, but also care for a product long-term. This includes both operational aspects of the products and also refactoring to reduce the required maintenance efforts.

IT teams needed to include every role that is relevant for full ownership: requirements engineer, developer, tester, architect, and operations. An architecture group ensures that the architect roles are aligned across the teams, and they help the other team members to better understand architecture. We use the same approach for other cross-team roles.

One key to making this setup work is the role of the product owner. They are part of the business and therefore also part of the project world. Together with the requirements engineers in IT, their task is to break down projects into individual user stories and tasks, which are allocated to the product teams. They take a holistic perspective when implementing user stories and actively engage with the business as required.

Aligning tactical moves with our long term strategy

In order to achieve the overarching goal for IT to become a respected partner for the business, we needed to setup a clear vision and mindset for IT. This could be seen as the long term IT strategy. In addition, we also had to enable the teams to take ownership. This was implemented by moving from a project-based to a product-based organizational setup. This could be seen as tactical. In order to be successful, we needed to align the strategy with the tactical moves.

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