How to scale teams by building a growth-oriented structure
Scaling the teams can be done regardless of their organizational structure. The key is in efficiency. The less growth-oriented the structure is, the overall effects will cost more and deliver less value added. So how to start building the team with growth in mind?
It is rare to start a company without a team - usually, it is the direct opposite. The group of people decides to run a business together, bringing the team before the establishment of the company.
With three arts of management mastered (or at least started as a path to perfection), the company needs to follow some general rules that will greatly influence the effectiveness and efficiency of both teams and project delivery frameworks.
This text covers:
- Why do you need a framework for your team
- The importance of trust
- The importance of decentralization
- The importance of tracking the work
- The importance of organization
- The importance of replicability
Why do you need a framework anyway?
Building a team can be compared to building a house or a block. The building is built using bricks, mortar, and steel.
And glass, yet the investor rarely asks about every brick or every glass panel. The number of chambers, functionality, and design is the true purpose and function of the building.
In Human Resources, the framework can be compared to the project, where the skills and roles are mapped, shown with interdependencies, and proven to support the company goal. Having a team without structure and framework to work with can be seen as trying to build the house when having all elements yet lacking the project.
Advantages of a framework
- Information sharing - every framework, including Kanban or Scrum, has a set of rituals to follow, be that a daily scrum meeting, a retrospective after every sprint or feedback sessions. Following them unjams many communication bottlenecks and facilitates the information flow both vertically and horizontally
- Role-mapping - every framework comes with a set of predefined roles and responsibilities. Having them mapped encourages to map the rest of the company to fit into the framework
- Process-shaping - last but not least, a framework comes with a predefined process to be followed. One process mapped and followed encourages to do so in the rest of the company
Principles of scaling a product team (or any other team)
So what are the team building best practices one can use regardless of the team's goal or the company specifics? How to scale an organization effectively? Despite the intuitive response that "every company is different," there are best practices to follow.
Choose people you trust
Some companies see the work as a constant struggle between the employer, who wishes to drain the employee dry, and the employee, who looks at how to slack as much as possible. This is a clear leftover of the XIX-century management culture, unfitting for the modern workplace.
The key is trust. The employer should work with people who he or she trusts - be that regarding the quality or timely delivery of the work.
According to the Edelman Trust Barometer 2022 report, the situation is not that bad - 78% of employees claim to trust their employer, and 79% declare to trust their coworkers even more than managers, HR, and CEO.
To-do this week:
Think about the way you control the team. With scaling it up - you will have to delegate the control and just let things go. Ask yourself questions as following:
- How do I verify how the team is spending budget? What is the level of spending i NEED to control (and why this particular level?)
- How do I ensure the quality of the job done? Do I really need to ensure it, or I just trust people I work with to the level of “letting things go”?
- If something goes wrong - what are the procedures? Do I expect someone to blame, or do I expect solution? Having these answers, the key question to ask is following: Do I trust my team enough, to let it do the job without supervision?
If the answer is “not”:
What would make me trust my team more? What should I do to trust them and what sould they do to make me trust them?
The logical step forward with the team one trusts is to NOT control every aspect of the job to be done and delegate what can be delegated. Leaving the programming to the programmer, writing to the writer, and designing to the designer saves a lot of time and energy for the business owner and management team.
- Assign projects, not tasks - the teams work in a more efficient way when provided with the liberty of choosing tasks to deliver and the responsibility of getting the job done. Also, without centralization, the job is delivered in more realistic timeframes and cost estimations - the person responsible for the delivery is closer to the management layer of the project and has an impact on the overall project.
- Avoid micromanagement - as a result of what's above - The management needs to avoid micromanagement as possible. While sometimes it may be tempting to micromanage the work in the team to make the result more fitting with the vision, the end result will be catastrophic.
- Cut the unnecessary work - there is a good deal of work that is done "because it has been done so before." Building a successful company is all about improving profitability by cutting unnecessary work and shifting the workforce to more profitable tasks.
Decentralized teams have witnessed a spike in popularity due to the pandemic and the spike in popularity of remote teams. Yet there are good practices and a history of successful implementation of this principle. According to Sage Journals, there have been attempts to analyze this approach since 1986 - long before Zoom and Google Meet. And Google itself.
To-do this week:
Review your time and answer two questions:
- How often my team asks me (or the manager) about the details of the job to be done?
- How often do I ask about the details of the job to be done?
The answers to these questions are basically the information of the level of the job centralization. If the team asks too many questions, it may be either unskilled or trained to ask about everything to please the manager. If the manager asks too many questions, it may be the unwillingness of delegating the work.
If it is so:
What would convince me to pass the control over the part of the business? Do I know the cost of my lack of work decentralization, for example the excess time spent on management? If not - measure it using a time-tracking device and get the monthly cost of your OWN time spent on managing details. And later - decide, if you can afford it.
Track work in an organized way
Gathering data and tracking the progress is necessary to build an effective company. Yet the challenge is doing this right. The ideation, planning, and tracking are full of pitfalls and assumptions one does even unknowingly.
The tasks are multiplying as the project grows - the bigger the project and the more complicated the workflow, the estimations, and assumptions get increasingly misleading. The tasks tend to multiply along the way, with the hidden challenges overtaking the previously chosen course. That, the art of setting deadlines gets even more important, with the necessity to include the unexpected task inflation rate.
- Make metrics serve your goal - there are dozens of metrics that are possible to be tracked. While tracking by itself is valuable, sometimes it is not reasonable to include all of these metrics. Metrics need to serve the goal - not the way around, with setting goals only to fit the metrics we are able to measure. If gathering a fitting metric is impossible, there is either the need to find a new tech solution or the goal is ill-defined.
- Stay grassroots, and listen to feedback - it is common for management teams to get disjoined with the day-to-day reality of the company. If the team is built of trusted people, gathering the feedback down to the top is one of the greatest ways to track the progress and the general state of the company without overpaying for consulting companies.
- Use modern tools - last but not least, there was great development done in both the project and company management team and the management techniques alike. Gathering knowledge on the modern approaches to the work and tracking the progress and development saves a lot of time and money in the end.
To-do this week:
Make a review of the metrics, goals, and measurements used in the company. There should be a solid database of past metrics and performance analysis. Having all that, ask yourself the following questions:
- Is there a central point where one can check the metrics’ interconnectivity and map the dependencies of each department’s performance on the rest of the company? For example - is there a way to connect marketing efforts with sales?
- Are the metrics stored in an actionable way? Is there a way to export them to the external tool and deliver a meta-analysis?
- Do you recall situations where the metrics, goals, or KPI’s were used as a basis of a business decision? If yes - how often is that so?
If the answer is “not”:
Talk to your team about the way they would measure their work and performance, They are closest to the work done, so they know what pushes the company further and what is only noise. Having the metrics and KPIs on one plate, start measuring them and after collecting a solid dataset - explore it. There may be dragons.
Organize by structure, not person
The structure is basically the abstract reflection of the company, with all unnecessary information cut. Its sole purpose is to define the relationship between every abstract entity in the company to support all processes and project delivery.
The holacracy framework takes this to the extreme, assigning roles to people and roles to circles that can be compared to departments. By that, the processes and structure of the company are people-agnostic, with much clear distinction between a particular employee and the set of his or her skills. There is no need for one employee to be assigned to one role or a single circle. Thus, the employee can be replaced or promoted, or the need for a particular skill (or role) can increase, yet the structure still delivers, and the key is to find a role-filler.
Holacracy is not a panacea for every business challenge, and there are multiple challenges coming with it, yet there are several good practices to follow, which clearly shows.
- Track the orphaned tasks and analyze them - if there are tasks in the company where are no clear skills or assets required to tackle them, there is a clear gap between the goals and capabilities of the company.
- Map the interdependencies - a project is not a lone island in the calm sea - the company is full of internal connections and dependencies that are hard to see at first glance. Yet to make the work as efficient as possible, it is crucial to map all the bottlenecks and blockers, including the non-obvious elements. Making all the processes clear and transparent significantly enhances the optimization possibilities.
- Batch tasks - last but not least, a smart move is to batch tasks to keep a whole team in a particular context. Batching time is a powerful self-organization tip that reduces the struggle with switching focus from one task to another.
To-do this week:
Check the structure of your company. Like not the people who are working for the company, but the structure. Roles, responsibilities and dependencies. Now, take the processes that the company is built around and check:
- Are there clear connections between roles and processes? How many times you answer “you should ask Mark about that” and not “You should ask the chief engineer about that”?
- Are there processes or tasks without a clear information of a role responsible for it? How many tasks or processes float in limbo with “someone shoutd take care of that” or “to-do” with no clear timeframe or assignee? Or at least someone responsible for finding an assignee?
If the answer is “not”:
Take only processes and tasks. Dissect them into a flow of tasks. Now you have information about things done on-the-way. What role in the company should do the tasks? Not a PERSON but a ROLE or a POSITION.
Now you have it. It takes time and can be challenging, but it is worth doing for sure.
Build the replicability
Assuming that all the points above have been implemented, the company has hard data gathered on the performance, required skills, internal connections, and workflows. Also, these are handled in a decentralized and distributed manner, effectively reducing.
By that, the management, using the data and the experience regarding the company's day-to-day operations, can spot the points where replicating a certain pattern brings the greatest advantages.
Without diving into a more detailed view, this may sound confusing. So to name a few examples:
- When will the current number of leave management specialists be overwhelmed by their job? How many people can we hire to not lose the grip?
- How long does the bench ensure redundancy in teams without over-employment?
- How much back-office work every new technical team member generates?
- How much to invest in marketing to not exhaust the capacity of the product teams?
The idea of replicable teams capable of delivering new features and working on a product in a repeatable way was emphasized as one of the key elements of Basecamp's ShapeUp approach.
The answers are in the mapped and replicable patterns of management, seen in the data the company gathers and the way it works. The problem is in the inability to reach out of the comfort zone and see the truth hidden in plain sight.
To-do this week:
Take historical data from the company and analyze them for the connection between growth and the changes in the structure. The key questions are about the point where the existing team is not enough
- What was done and was it actually a good idea, or there was turmoil in the company to manage after?
- If you had to repeat the experience - what would you change?
- Are you ready for the next upscaling? Do you have a plan? Roles ale planned and processes mapped, or will it be about “adding just another engineer to the team”?
If the change was tough:
Don’t feel intimidated. Every change is tough. The key is embracing it and getting ready. And that’s what you have been doing for last few weeks (assuming you followed this guide).
Team scalability is, in fact, nothing about the team itself. It is a frame and a background that enables people to reach stars and make their work easier to manage. Also, "managing" is not about telling someone how to do something but rather building the environment that makes him or her do the job in the best way possible.
With that, scaling a startup, the team and business is natural and smooth.
How easier would it be to work if employees could check information about their colleagues and how to work with them at any time?
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