Optimize Your Team for Impact over Speed

5 lessons we learned to work smarter, not just harder

As a startup, the odds are stacked against you from the get go. You’re resource constrained, time constrained, and constantly faced with a seemingly infinite number of problems. If leveraged appropriately, however, these challenges can actually become your team’s biggest assets. With fewer stakeholders, minimal bureaucracy, and a smaller user base, your team’s lack of organizational and product inertia allow you to move much faster than any of your competitors.

At Skillshare, people often ask us what we do to effectively ship product. They’re surprised to learn our Product and Engineering teams are just 9 people total and assume we have a team of at least 50. The key for us has been optimizing for impact rather than just speed. We realized early on that moving quickly was meaningless if we weren’t working on the right things. As a result, we invested heavily in making impact our team’s ultimate competitive advantage.

Here are 5 of our top learnings as a Product/Engineering team that have allowed us to maximize impact:

Know where you’re headed

Before you can even begin to talk about impact as a team, it’s critical that everyone is aligned on what you’re building towards. You must constantly plan ahead, paint a clear picture of the overarching strategy, and articulate your team’s top objectives. This allows every person on the team to understand why what they’re working on is important and how it ladders up. As these objectives are reiterated and internalized, you’ll start to see your team executing with faster decisions, fewer miscommunications, and a stronger sense of purpose. That unsexy feature or bug fix now has much more meaning because of how it impacts the overall strategy. You’ll also dramatically cut down on endless cycles of debates around the merits of isolated ideas with no sense of how everything builds towards a cohesive whole, furthering your team’s ability to move together in a common direction.

Invest in tools and automation

Some of the best investments a team can make are in any scripts or tools that automate repetitive, manual tasks. Doing so not only reduces the amount of time spent performing these tasks, but also cuts down on human error and the associated overhead. These investments may seem like delays to “real features” at first, but the gains compound over time and easily pay for themselves. With your team’s limited bandwidth, you want everyone devoted to solving that next impossible problem, not wasting hours each week doing something that could have been automated.

Scope relentlessly and ship in chunks

When working on features, an easy trap to fall into is over-inflating scope and overcomplicating solutions. It sounds like a good idea at the time because “it won’t be that difficult to add.” In reality, the true cost isn’t in the initial implementation, but the overhead of maintenance and complexity. The ramifications are felt in the long run because complexity grows exponentially, not linearly. Deadlines start slipping, releases get pushed back, and pretty soon progress slows to crawl in spite of your team’s hard work.

At Skillshare, we avoid this trap by obsessively breaking down every project into smaller chunks and forcing ourselves to ship. This means a feature that may take 4 weeks to fully complete will be deployed to production 5–6 times. A lot of these deployments won’t even be noticeable to end users, but they allow us to stay extremely focused and constantly cut out unnecessary parts of builds. Shipping has become an internal joke because of how frequently we’re asking ourselves, “What’s the next shippable chunk?”

Empower your team to lead, not just execute

Your team’s potential for solving problems is directly proportional to the number of people who can lead projects, so it’s incredibly valuable to devise a culture where everyone is empowered to lead initiatives rather than just execute them. In an execution culture, individuals are expected to implement predefined tasks, but the bottleneck will always be whoever defines those tasks. A leadership culture empowers individuals to take ownership over projects and proactively solve problems. You should invest heavily in mentoring your team and gradually give each person more and more responsibilities to greatly amplify your team’s impact potential.

Hire for culture fit

Ultimately, your team will only be as effective as the individuals you hire and the culture you cultivate. You can create the world’s best processes, but if the individuals don’t embody the culture and stage of your company, there is nothing you can do to fix it. You should create a set of non-negotiable values for your team and hire aggressively against them. It’s most important to build a high functioning team, and that only happens if every person buys into it. These values may evolve over time as your team’s needs change, but being cognizant of that at all times is crucial.

Creating a high impact team is difficult and something we’re constantly iterating on. What are some lessons or tips that have worked well for your team?

p.s. Want to work with us? Our Engineering team is hiring.

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