Anyone who has experienced managing a team will be familiar with the headaches of growth. One day you have a motivated, tight-knit team perfectly attuned to one another, working purposefully towards a clear goal. The next, everything is falling apart at the seams. And all you did was add a few more people!
I’m exaggerating, but this is sometimes what scaling can feel like if not done right.
As we explained at length in the book, Scaling Teams (written with David Loftesness), there are two vital parts to ensuring successful scaling. The first is taking a proactive approach to putting in place the initiatives and approaches you know will encourage productive team dynamics at scale. The second is recognizing the warning signs that will start to present themselves once your team starts growing — and getting the balance right in your reaction.
What can I do to Avoid Scaling Pains?
As I’ll address later, it’s rarely possible to avoid scaling pains completely. What you can do is work proactively to mitigate as many potential problem areas as possible by introducing initiatives and defining goals as early as possible — or at least before specific issues become a problem.
Some proactive measures are initiatives you might have considered already. They include defining your company values, establishing company culture, and setting up a scalable management structure, where each team member has regular one-on-one meetings with a manager.
Implementing initiatives to help smooth the scaling process should be your first step in growing your team. However, you need to be wary of the risks of asserting too much control, over-engineering team dynamics, and micromanaging. Additionally, during phases of high growth, leaders will be overloaded with tasks, so taking a proactive approach becomes impossible.
Recognizing Warning Signs
No matter how comprehensively you’ve implemented your proactive scaling plan, it’s likely there will be some things you’ve overlooked. Even in the most well-planned scaling operation, there will still be issues from time to time. Every company is different and has its own unique set of problems, but in my time building and managing technology teams I’ve noticed some common warning signs that pop up again and again.
Here are three examples that frequently occur:
- Factions start to form within your team, with some groups insulating themselves and not participating in company activities.
- Transfers between teams don’t work out, resulting in the person who is transferring feeling uncomfortable in their new team’s processes or culture.
- There’s a notable shift in internal communications, with team members making small (yet snarky) comments at an all hands meeting or in a group chat.
Not every instance of these warning signs indicates a widespread culture problem. Some could simply be a single employee affecting their coworkers, perhaps due to factors outside of the work environment like a relationship problem or a sick relative. But they each warrant investigation in case there might be deeper dysfunction causing these symptoms to appear.
Often, you’ll be able to work out the possible causes without too much difficulty. When factions start to form, to take one example, it’s likely your new hires do not embody the right values — something you might have overlooked in your hiring process. Or, perhaps you’ve allowed team cultures to diverge. Whatever the case may be, the solutions to such issues will likely seem obvious — i.e. start hiring for your values and work on defining a strong company culture that encompasses all of your teams (if you haven’t put these initiatives into place already). By addressing these issues as soon as you become aware of them, you can effectively nip the problem in the bud before it gets any bigger.
A good way to monitor warning signs is to incorporate a regular slot into your leadership meeting where you can check for warning signs as they present themselves and take action to address them before simmering problems boil over into a crisis.
Come up With a Scaling Plan
To give yourself the greatest chance of setting yourself up for success, I recommend putting together a scaling plan, documenting the good and missing parts of your company’s hiring, people management, organization, culture, and communication.
Once you’ve identified what’s going well and what you don’t have in place, introduce initiatives to address your issues. These initiatives can be proactive or reactive depending on the issue, and you should try to keep a good balance between the two.
An example of proactively dealing with an issue would be introducing one-on-one meetings between engineers and managers even if you don’t recognize a specific warning sign in terms of communication. An example of reactively addressing a problem would be introducing quarterly ‘hackdays’ for engineers to explore new ideas if you receive feedback that they don’t feel part of innovation at the company.
Scaling teams is never easy. It takes constant monitoring, implementing, and evaluating. You can take a more proactive path, implementing a scaling plan ahead of time. Or, you can take a more surgical approach, tackling one dimension at a time and finding ways to make your team resilient to the challenges ahead. It’s up to you. What is vital is that you’re aware of these issues, and that you recognize the warning signs and take a considered approach to addressing them.