Scaling Product Development (for Startups)

Another re-post of direct email advice. Other posts in this series include Prioritizing Without Level of Effort, and Should We Have Deadlines?.

This shift is a common shift when teams/orgs scale beyond a certain point.

At first, founders and product leaders are intimately involved with decisions. Passionate team members support that involvement because there is momentum, and they also sense the urgency/excitement. Close relationships form.

With growth, feedback loops begin to strain. With that strain, trust sometimes falters. With faltering trust — and increased demands — there is more risk of “swoop and poop” from leadership. With extra demands, planning becomes more reactive and less disciplined which gives rise to high profile “misses”. People feel perpetually out of the loop. There is also growing resentment at the involvement (“you don’t get the situation on the ground”) which causes divergent expectations, causing unmet expectations, which loop back into the dynamic.

Purely systemic reasons mean that the dynamic spirals.

It is the shift from one level to two levels is relative *easy* as there is only one hop. The shift from two levels to three level is major because now you have a hop through middle managers, informal leaders, more experienced team members, etc. The role of informal leaders who both occupy the front-lines AND that have influence further complicate things… because they influence, but have no authority.

Anyway, all this is to say that this happens. And the dynamic is such that you see symptoms that feel like problems. Focus on the problems.

When working with teams at this level, my approach tends to focus on:

  1. Clarify “the work” at a new, broader resolution.
  2. Force rank it.
  3. Base near term organizational decisions / structure around a list of what is valuable. Nothing will stay constant. You will need to adapt regularly.
  4. Very aggressively lower utilization rates, work-in-progress, etc. Don’t worry, a growing organization always has things to do to support people and the work.
  5. Get a cadence going for planning / decomposition / introspection / adaptation.
  6. Do whatever is possible to support people who have to manage up/across/down/diagonally . Clarify the middle-manager role.
  7. Really make an effort to start together on new missions.
  8. Make a huge effort to reflect/adapt after missions are complete.