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Q&A on the Book Scaling Teams

| Posted by Ben Linders Follow 25 Followers on Feb 07, 2017. Estimated reading time: 10 minutes |

Key Takeaways

  • Learn about the new book ‘Scaling Teams’ by Alexander Grosse and David Loftesness
  • Get to know the five core dimensions of scaling teams
  • Similar to the agile principles there are principles for building successful product development teams
  • Introducing formal people management is necessary when you notice specific warning signs
  • Hiring more employees is not always the solution during hyper growth

The book Scaling Teams by Alexander Grosse and David Loftesness provides strategies and practices for managing teams in fast growing organizations. It explores five areas which often pose challenges when organizations need to scale -- hiring, people management, organization, culture and communication -- and gives solutions for recognizing and dealing with those challenges.

InfoQ readers can download an excerpt from Scaling Teams.

InfoQ interviewed Alexander Grosse and David Loftesness about hiring people in fast growing organizations, preferred qualities of a first recruiter, when to formalize people management and introduce structure in a growing organization, the main challenges for scaling culture and how to deal with them, and what can be done to identify and define the core values and desired culture.

InfoQ: Why did you write this book?

Alexander Grosse & David Loftesness: Leading a fast-growing team is uniquely challenging. You’re never sure if you’re about to hit an inflection point that will require you to evolve or completely overhaul your approach. Looking back on our own careers, we wish that we had been given a practical guide to those inflection points, to help us see the warning signs of dysfunction before they grew into full-fledged crises. Rather than pivoting rapidly in response to scaling problems, we’d prefer to have used proven solutions from successful companies, adjusting them to the unique challenges of our own situation.

InfoQ: For whom is this book intended?

Grosse & Loftesness: We wrote this book for leaders of technology companies, particularly those involved in product development and maintenance: software and hardware engineering, product management, design, QA, and so on. Our advice will be most helpful to teams ranging from 10 to 250 members, either in the context of a startup company, or a newly-formed team within a larger organization.

Our suggestions are primarily focused on the needs of fast-growing teams, those experiencing a dramatic increase in size over an extended period.

InfoQ: How do you define fast-growing teams?

Grosse & Loftesness: A phrase we use fairly often is “hyper-growth”.  While there is no strict definition for what separates “hyper” from normal growth, it’s most often used to describe increases greater than 50% in a 6- to 12-month period. During times of hyper-growth, scaling challenges are amplified, with less time to react and craft solutions. Our book is focused on the needs of such teams, but we expect that teams with slower growth will be able to apply our suggested strategies as well.

InfoQ: What are the key principles for hiring people in a fast growing organization?

Grosse: We identified five key principles for hiring. These are also valid for organizations that don’t grow fast. The key difference and challenge is that it is more difficult to follow these principles during hyper-growth. But this is exactly the situation is when they are most important.

  • Hire for talent: You want to hire the best employees you can. By “best”, we mean the employees that can contribute the most to team success over the long term.
  • Hire for the team: Every team is different, and in larger companies, so is the organization that surrounds them. The best person for your team may be very different than the best person for your friend’s team at a nearby startup.
  • Minimize bias: A biased interview process is a flawed interview process. Besides the inherent unfairness to the individuals involved, bias reduces the chance of finding the best hire for your team by allowing irrelevant factors such as race, gender, or age to influence the hiring decision.
  • Don’t cut corners: A rigorous interview process is analogous to a rigorous code review process. Finding bugs in code review is much less expensive than finding them in production, and similarly, rejecting a candidate that is wrong for your team during the interview process is much less expensive than hiring them and dealing with the resulting problems later.
  • Treat candidates with respect: It shouldn’t surprise anyone that candidates talk to their friends, family, and colleagues about their interview experiences. A great experience can enhance your chances of landing the candidate you want. A bad experience can not only lose you a candidate, but can prevent their entire network from interviewing with you!

InfoQ: You mention in your book that the first recruiter you hire will set the tone for your future recruiting efforts. What are the preferred qualities of a first recruiter?

Grosse: Strong emotional intelligence is the most important quality of a recruiter. Recruiting is the face of your company in the talent pool. You want a recruiter who understands people—they should be someone you enjoy talking with, who you can have an interesting conversation with, who puts you at ease, who you look forward to working with. Someone thoughtful. If you feel that way about someone, it’s very likely that candidates will as well.

A recruiter is the only person that many people outside the company will communicate with—they represent your company to many talented and connected people. The recruiter’s initial note of outreach may be thoughtful or a carbon-copy. A rejection letter may be constructive or tactless. An offer may be pleasant or tone-deaf. Your first recruiting hire will set the tone for your company’s employer brand.

InfoQ: When should a growing organization start formalizing people management?

Loftesness: Every organization is different, so there is no universal answer to this question. But we’ve observed a set of warning signs that leaders can look for to indicate that a more formal approach to people management is needed:

  • Failed 1-on-1 meetings: Team leaders no longer have time for 1-on-1 meetings. They may be too busy putting out fires and doing “real work” to meet with the team. Or perhaps they spend too much time on 1-on-1 meetings. Because of urgent personnel issues, team leaders are failing at other critical tasks like strategic planning and fundraising.
  • Confusion about the direction of the work and team: Team members become bogged down in disputes about the path forward or confusion about priorities and increasingly need leaders to step in and make decisions to unblock progress.
  • Declining product quality and productivity: Product quality is slipping—there are more bugs, customer complaints, downtime, and rollbacks. Or team leaders feel that engineering productivity is slipping and wonder whether the team is working hard enough or getting distracted by non-essential tasks.
  • Conflict between groups or individuals: You might hear “We couldn’t hit our milestone because Team X failed to adequately support us.” Or you might notice a lack of collaboration between certain groups.
  • Morale trending lower, attrition trending higher: Team members see increasing examples of poor morale—grouchy emails, antisocial behavior, and cynical talk around the water cooler. A noticeable shift to later arrival times, earlier departure times, or more frequent last-minute “work from home” days. More talk of “I’m not progressing in my career” or “The work isn’t interesting anymore” or “I’m feeling burned out.” And employees are leaving the company at a noticeable rate.

InfoQ: How can you introduce structure into a growing organization?

Grosse: Ideally by following some organisational design principles from the beginning. We propose five design principles (marked in Italic) in the book:

Teams should be composed as self-sufficient teams, which are able to deliver the vast majority of their work without dependencies on other teams. We call these teams Delivery Teams. They should have a clearly defined Purpose, which shows them how they contribute to the success of the company and they should have enough Autonomy so that they are intrinsically motivated. Then we also propose that the teams use two standard techniques -- Continuous Delivery and Continuous Improvement.

Based on these principles you can build your organization. The often-discussed Spotify Model can be seen as an implementation of these principles.

But you can also change your organisational setup later to follow these principles. The later you do it, the more difficult this transformation will be.

InfoQ: Which are the main challenges for scaling culture? How can you deal with them?

Loftesness: Rapid growth is the enemy of team culture. Even if you have spent the time to identify and articulate your team’s core values and culture, growing quickly will challenge your ability to retain that culture, for a variety of reasons.

  • Diverging values: you may hire new team members that don’t share core values with the existing team, leading to conflict.
  • Culture ignorance: new hires may not understand the team’s core values or culture.
  • Culture divergence: entire teams may adopt their own ways of doing things that don’t mesh well with each other.
  • Culture stagnation: leadership may fail to adapt the team’s cultural practices to team growth.
  • Culture clash: leadership may fail to address conflicting values or culture.

Each of these have different possible solutions, such as interviewing for values fit, educating new hires about values and culture in the onboarding process, and making sure team leaders react appropriately when culture problems emerge. But the starting point is to build a common understanding of the team’s core values and define the desired work culture.

InfoQ: What can you do to identify and define the core values and desired culture?

Loftesness: We’ve outlined a four step approach in the book:

Step 1: Discover the team’s core values

We like the term “discover” because core values should already be present in the members of the team. Your first focus should be understanding what they are and surfacing any areas where they may be in conflict, rather than trying to change them or impose new beliefs on the team.

Step 2: Draft your team’s culture statements

Next, find a way to communicate what was learned in Step 1 to the rest of the team. Be sure to listen if team members express concern or confusion -- you may need to incorporate their input and iterate a few times before you can define a set of “culture statements” that truly resonate with the team.

Step 3: Practice what you preach

For culture statements to be motivating, they need to be broadly understood and reflected in the actions of the team. If they aren’t, they will be rejected as “corporate bullshit” by the team and the effort to create them will be wasted. The need for actions to match the words is especially true for team leaders. Nothing undermines culture statements more quickly than a leader whose actions contradict them.

Step 4: Build culture into the environment

Fast-growing companies are full of distractions: customer demands, late-night bug fixes, training new hires, and so on. Unless leaders make the time and effort to knit culture statements into the work environment and ensure that they are consistent with each other, the culture might change in unforeseen and possibly undesired ways. The book contains examples of what different companies have done at each of these steps.

InfoQ: Any final advice that you want to give for scaling organizations?

Grosse: A commonly observed pattern in technology startups is that they try to solve every problem through hiring. Instead of understanding why productivity has slowed or product quality is slipping and crafting an appropriate solution, many companies simply crank up the hiring machine and “throw people at the problem”. Unfortunately, the complexity of managing a larger team often makes the problem worse, or introduces new ones.

Loftesness: If you truly need to grow quickly, you should follow what we call ‘Scaling Essentials’. These are a few recommendations that you should apply regardless of the size and state of your company. For example, every team should try to implement the organizational design principles described above, even if they decide to go in a different direction. And all fast-growing teams should have a basic onboarding program for new hires and make sure everyone has a regular 1-on-1 meeting with their manager.

. We also recommend creating a “Scaling Plan”, which is like a Product Plan but focused on the needs of the team rather than the product. A Scaling Plan should include expected changes to the five dimensions of scaling (hiring, people management, organization, culture, and communications) as well as any warning signs that team leaders should look out for as the team grows.

About the Book Authors

David Loftesness navigates scaling challenges at tech companies in the San Francisco Bay Area. He formerly managed engineering teams at Twitter, Xmarks, A9, and Amazon.

 

 

Alexander Grosse has led and been part of various team scaling challenges. He built a whole department at Nokia and managed the rapid growth of SoundCloud’s engineering team.

 

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