Building a Peer-Accountable Culture with Agile Methods

Photo of Geonetric's sales team attending their first Scrum standupIt’s been said that a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step. We took our first step toward Agile in 2008 with our development team. We’ve taken hundreds of additional steps since then. But by 2013, we felt like we had taken all of the easy steps we could take. The next steps looked tougher.

So we decided to take a big leap instead.

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Building for Operation Overnight

Operation Overnight 2012 came and went quickly. It was a huge success! We had 24 hours to build four websites. A daunting task, surely, but not one that we wanted to shy away from. That wouldn’t have been the Geonetric way! 50+ volunteers, lots of coffee, soda and food, and an all-nighter full of fun and we produced some great results!

My team was assigned to build from the ground up. Unlike the other three teams, 365ride came into Operation Overnight without an existing Web presence and very little source material (brochures, etc.). In the end, both our team and our client were very happy with the finished product.

The site’s purpose is to be a place for people seeking information. Before the site, information was scattered across many places on and off the Web. The Frequently Asked Questions section was a high priority and the team did some really cool things to keep information flowing through the site, only duplicating it where necessary. The end result is a destination that the community can use to get information about public transportation options throughout Cedar Rapids and the surrounding area.

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Value-Based Service: Not Just another Client-Facing Business Model

On day two of the SHSMD Annual Conference, Ari Fleischer spoke about his experiences as the former White House Press Secretary for George W. Bush.  Ari’s compelling comments reinforced my belief in an action-based commitment model to serve our clients. Understanding that each client shares a different expectation for how their level of service is fulfilled.

Now I know the very mention of Ari Fleischer automatically triggers opinions of our own political beliefs. Understandable. However, I am not here to debate politics. So please take off your political glasses for a moment as we explore a few of the many powerful examples of service-based efforts.

Take for instance a recent conversation I overheard in our booth (808) where Toni Donina of Baldwin Publishing  graciously offered a guest who was accompanying her, this statement ‘… and Geonetric is one of the 4-5 players in this space whose clients actually like them.’ Talk about a powerful message. What great evidence reaffirming what we at Geonetric strives for every day.
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“Wow! That Was the Most Productive Meeting I’ve Ever Seen!”

Photo of Post-its describing the agile software development cycle for VitalSiteAs we continue embracing Agile in the software team, we’ve also started carrying the behaviors and cultural changes to other teams. To be fair, we have a few teams that have adopted some of the tools and techniques, but we’re in the process of figuring out how to do it more formally and more aggressively.

So my first step has been to simply introduce others within the company to the ideas. Last week, I invited two team members to simply observe a retrospective. (And yes, I asked the software team in advance if it was OK to have observers.*)

You’ll have to imagine this: I’m sitting in the back of the software development team’s workspace with the two “outsiders.” The team – about 20 people – begins the process of describing what went well, what needed improvement, and what they should do differently in the future.

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Agile Behaviors vs. Agile Culture

Photo of a yellow street sign with an arrow pointing upThere are lots of companies that use agile software development methods like Scrum to varying degrees of success. Just getting the hang of the techniques is difficult for organizations steeped in traditional development approaches. It has taken us years to master these behaviors, and to be honest, there’s still more we can improve upon.

But this past year, I’ve witnessed a dramatic transformation at Geonetric: Agile has become something much, much more than a software development technique. Within that same software team, Agile behaviors (daily standups, sprints, retrospectives) have evolved into an Agile culture.

Most company cultures are, frankly, aspirational claptrap derived by overzealous HR departments: they’re imposed from the outside. An authentic culture comes directly from the team itself, from its attitudes and beliefs. And those attitudes and beliefs can and do change over time.

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Life Happens – Don’t Miss It Between 8 to 5

If you ask me what one of the best things about working at Geonetric is I won’t hesitate with my answer. Flexibility.

Flexibility in my work schedule and having the technology to work almost anywhere allows me to work from home if my daughter is sick or if I need to meet with the washing machine repairman. I don’t worry about missing a dentist appointment or a school concert.

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Exclusive Interview with Our Guest Product Owner

We work hard to ensure our VitalSite content management system is the best on the market. And we’re lucky enough to work with experts in many disciplines – not just software development. We routinely reach out to our internal experts to get advice and recommendations to ensure our software meets evolving needs.

For one of our recent development sprints we invited Casey Hansen, Geonetric’s expert on all things Google, to join the VitalSite team as a guest product owner. Casey brought a backlog of ideas for enhancing the search engine optimization features of VitalSite. I sat down with him to find out how it went.

DS: Thanks for being part of the development team this sprint. Could you explain which part of the development process you were included in?

CH: I was involved in the planning process and the daily standups to see how the product team works through a sprint and overcomes obstacles. It was eye-opening to see how all the different pieces affect each other.

DS: It’s a constant process of prioritization. Were there other surprising aspects of the development process?

CH: The biggest surprise was to see how something that seems simple can actually be quite complex. What will that change affect here? There? Across the product? What do we do if this happens? What do we do if that happens? When you’re the one with the idea, you don’t think about all of the details. The simplest little feature can have waterfall effects. It’s really enlightening to understand the process.

DS: One of the features that you worked on was an enhancement to encourage authors to provide good metadata for the content they create. How do you think the feature will boost search engine optimization?

CH: It’s going to help make sure that some of the basics are on the pages, that they don’t get left out, and that they conform to standards. In my experience, clients have multiple people putting content in and it’s easy for pages to get published with no metadata, or inconsistent metadata. This feature is going to help guide that process.

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New Geonetric Website – Our Turn to Show Off a Bit!

We get to celebrate client website and portal launches all the time – it’s a fantastic milestone as we work together with our clients to build the best in eHealth. The vast majority of our efforts around here goes to our clients, as it should.

But yesterday, we also launched a complete overhaul of our own website, featuring a number of innovative new capabilities and tons of content useful to our industry.


  • The site runs on the latest release of our award-winning VitalSite software – making it incredibly easy for our team to update and manage over time.
  • The new site is a fully responsive design that beautifully adapts to any platform: desktop computer, laptop, tablet, or mobile phone. Check it out!
  • We’re committed to discussing and promoting innovation in the eHealth industry, so we’ve provided a plethora of resources, all available for free to our prospects and clients (or competitors)  to learn from, including:

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Team Geonetric Reporting for Duty!

Last weekend, ten members of the Geonetric team got down and dirty by participating in the first annual Squaw Creek Army Challenge. If you know Geonetric, you know how we always like to push the limits – and this was no exception. The Army Challenge was a three (but it felt like ten!) mile obstacle course that tested our endurance and strength – complete with hauling sandbags, a swim through ice water, and plenty of crawling through mud. We definitely take our company wellness initiatives seriously here at Geonetric! Developers, project managers, contract writers, and CEOs alike were pushed to the max.
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No Hiding Here: What We Do with Client Satisfaction Feedback

Yesterday I posted the key takeaways from our quarterly client satisfaction survey. Some questions we hear about it is: where does the data go? Who sees it? How do you use it?

It’s an interesting set of questions, because the answers have evolved a lot in the past few years.

It used to be that we’d collect the data and then just a couple of us would pick some action items to be done and distribute them through the organization. This had the advantage of letting us hide anything we didn’t want everyone to know about, or we didn’t want to deal with yet. But now it’s a bit different. We’ve matured a lot as a company, and we’ve been eschewing top-down management methods and empowering teams to solve problems. Sharing the data widely forces us to face candid feedback even if it’s uncomfortable. Therefore, we share the data very widely within the company, and only in a few cases make it anonymous when we feel it must be.

Who Sees it and Takes Action Based on it?

The data from the client satisfaction survey is:

  • Viewed in its entirety, verbatim, by the entire Geonetric leadership team – 12 people and discussed and debated for a couple of hours. We want to make sure that the team charged with guiding Geonetric forward is 100% clear on whether we’re accomplishing our mission to “Wow!” clients. We identify trends and propose possible ways to address shortcomings or pass along kudos to teams doing things right.
  • Client-by-client scores and most client comments are shared with the Account Managers and Project Managers to give them feedback on areas they’re excelling or failing to meet expectations. AMs and PMs tend to have the closest relationships with clients and often can best address issues. In almost every case, the surveys are confirming what the AMs and PMs already know, but the survey helps us stay focused on resolving any outstanding issues, or illuminating exceptional work that might otherwise have gone unnoticed.
  • Teams, like our software development team or design team, are given the scores for their respective areas of influence through the company meetings, where we present the aggregate scores in each of 12 categories in front of everyone. Depending on the feedback, they might choose to take action within their realm of control.
  • The monthly company meeting after the survey closes includes a discussion and rank of every client from best-scoring to lowest scoring: everyone knows where every client stands at that point.

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Giving Back: Operation Overnight

Geonetric has been building some of the most advanced websites and digital campaigns in the healthcare industry for over a decade. We’ve done all kinds of neat things for our community, and this year, we made community involvement one of our highest-priority company goals.

But what’s the best way for a bunch of software engineers and strategists and designers and project managers to give back to our community?

We first considered doing something like Habitat for Humanity to build a house for someone in need, but a quick review of the typical construction skillset of our team made it clear that we’re not ready for something like that. Here’s an example of a toothpick-and-marshmallow bridge constructed by one of us* at Bring Your Kid to Work Day, slowly falling over:

No, we should not build a house.

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We’re a Bit Obsessed with Feedback: Client Satisfaction Q2 2012

We’ve been having a great year at Geonetric and we’re making huge strides in a number of areas. One thing we hold constant is our focus on client satisfaction. In fact, though we’ve consistently surveyed clients every quarter for about five years, we recently updated our mission statement to include “To ‘Wow!’ our clients.” So as you can imagine, we don’t just strive for average. Mediocre survey results simply won’t do.

We share the compiled results every quarter with our entire team. We pat each other on the back for successes and talk candidly about opportunities for improvement. We also share the results with our clients – especially in instances where we changed a process or enhanced a feature due to their direct feedback.

We don’t always post the scores publicly. But every once in a while something interesting comes out of the survey that makes me think… this is blog worthy. This is one of those times.

Overall Score

The primary measure we watch is the overall satisfaction score. This quarter’s overall average client satisfaction improved slightly over last quarter, with score of 5.06, up from 5.00 in Q1. This is on a scale of 1.0-6.0, and our goal is to be at 5.0 or better – intentionally a difficult measure to achieve. For example, we need to be getting a bunch of 6.0s – perfect scores – to keep ahead of our 5.0 mark in the event any individual client ranks us less than 5.0.

In short, the Geonetric team has been working exceptionally hard this year to ‘Wow!’ clients, and the scores reflect that, overall, we’re doing very well by our clients.

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It’s OK to Have Fun at Work

I am not a mathematician by any means, but I have figured out a very valuable formula with our employees here at Geonetric. We have tested and retested it in many iterations and find that it “equates” to success each time.

Fun during the work day = Happy Employees

Engaged Employees = Happy Clients

An atypical equation you may say, but at Geonetric we believe that fun is a core ingredient in our culture. We frequently make a point of intentionally stopping the day-to-day work to not work. Notice I said we intentionally stop work during the work day.

Geonetric events are not planned by stuffy human resources people locked in an office, but are instead collaboratively designed by our team to encourage and promote creativity. Our planners know that event timing doesn’t always work for everyone all of the time, so “fun” is completely voluntary. If someone has a tight deadline or needs to take care of a client they can choose not to participate, but we strongly encourage 100% involvement.

And we know that what is fun to one person isn’t fun to another. So that’s why we create lots of different types of activities through the year. Just last week we had a good old fashioned tug of war and relay race. But that’s not for everyone. Maybe the annual chili cook-off will appeal to them. Or perhaps they’d prefer the semi-annual H.O.R.S.E. basketball tournament or the Halloween pumpkin carving contest. We work hard to make our events are as unique as our employees!

We’ve also learned that devoted fun time allows our entire team to get to know each other. And our team has no problem coming up with some crazy ideas that definitely foster healthy competition and build team morale.
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Innovating, Geonetric Style

To do lists. We all have them. And we all have those projects that – although really cool – seem to get pushed farther and farther down the list.

At Geonetric, we came up with an inventive way to tackle some of those projects. It’s called innovation time, and roughly modeled after Google’s famous 20 percent time and Atlassian’s ShipIt Days. But like everything we adopt here, we Geo-fied it a little bit.

Innovation time gives each team a set amount of time every quarter to focus on whatever we want. Pretty cool, right? Here’s eight hours. Go innovate.

So off go the project managers to bring efficiency to a process in need. Off go the designers to set up a fun photo shoot. Off go the interactive marketers to make infographics. And then everyone shares their innovation time deliverables at a company meeting and we all ohhh! and ahhh!

One of the best parts about innovation time is that cross-department collaboration is encouraged. I’m all for breaking down silos, so when I was invited to join our content strategists and content writers for their innovation time I said sign me up. And I’m so glad I did.

I think we’re kindred spirits because at our core, we’re all writers. But at the same time it’s a little like Jane Austen having lunch with Kurt Vonnegut. Content strategy and MarCom – where my background is – isn’t the same. We’re both all about engaging the reader and bringing order to the printed page… but while they’re talking content audits, I’m thinking about the benefits and features of content audits.

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Why We’re Here: Updating Our Mission Statement

Mission statements are usually written early in a company’s history, then put on a plaque and promptly forgotten by everyone.

At Geonetric, we use ours a little differently. For example, the mission statement is the very first slide of every monthly company meeting, because it’s just that important. I put it there to remind us every month why we are here, as a company, doing this – rather than something else.

Up until last week, Geonetric’s mission statement was:

To build an exceptional team of experts to do revolutionary work for our clients.

That may not sound very exciting to you, but we thought carefully about those words and the placement of those words. As you can read in the statement, we focus first on the idea of building an “exceptional team:” amazing, smart people that work well together. It is pretty common for new team members to be a bit dazed the first few weeks as they adjust to the idea that there are so many brilliant people under one roof. The people here care about where the company is going. They’re engaged. They want Geonetric to succeed. If the new hire just arrived from the typical corporate world, it’s a bit shocking, actually – and that’s the point. Building an exceptional team is hard, and it’s the most important reason we’re here.

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