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Scaling Teams to Grow Effective Organizations

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When organizations are growing fast it can be a challenge to keep them sane and to achieve what you actually want to achieve by hiring more people: getting more done. Alexander Grosse, vice president of engineering at issuu, talked about how you can scale teams to build an effective organization at Spark the Change London 2016. In his talk he explored what he calls the five domains of scaling teams: Hiring, People Management, Organization, Culture, and Communication.

When Grosse was vice president of engineering at SoundCloud, the organization started to grow quickly. At one point in time the number of employees tripled in one year. Some of the problems they had due to this included too many meetings, a lack of focus or confusing focus, and uncertainty about the future. They needed a way to scale the operation, an approach that would help them to grow and deal with the problems caused by growing so fast.

Scaling is not about increasing the size; the goal should be to increase the output of the teams and deliver value. The focus from leaders should be shifted from product development to team development, looking for ways to prepare and develop their teams so that their output scales with growth, said Grosse.

A proactive approach using a scaling plan only works for a few things when organizations are growing rapidly. You also need a reactive approach with an early warning system to scale teams. An example for a warning sign could be when it takes longer and longer to deliver features.

Hiring is the foundation for everything. The failure mode is hiring too many of the wrong people too quickly said Grosse. What’s lacking often is a hiring process. There are lots of processes available that you can use to define your own hiring process argued Grosse. You have to invest in onboarding people, explain what the company is doing and arrange for new people to meet their colleagues.

Onboarding is usually improvised in the beginning: some short introductions, and then the idea it is learning by doing. The next step is that new employees rotate through the existing teams to get to know the variety of work happening on the company. As soon as this is not doable anymore as there are too many teams, companies have to create a real onboarding program.

One of the challenges when scaling people management is introducing a management layer without screwing things up, said Grosse. He warned against hiring new managers externally: "The more senior someone is, the more damage they can do to a company." His experience is that people who are promoted internally perform much better, therefore he suggests to be careful with hiring managers externally. Grosse also advised to allocate enough time to have one-on-ones with employees.

Grosse stated that from a culture perspective, the failure mode in scaling is that it can result in "us vs. them", which hinders collaboration. The solution he proposed for this is to define the core values. Make sure that people understand what is important.

Management has to live the core values. As an example, if one of your core values is "Constant Improvement", and the management team doesn’t perform any retrospective or post mortems, then they aren't living the core values.

As organizations grow, communication fails with too many emails and too many meetings, Grosse claimed. You need to consider the impact that the increased communication needs will have on the organization. Aside from the impact the correct team organisation has on communication, it can be very useful to create a communication policy, which for example says, "We expect employees to read email within x business hours". This leads to the right use of communication channels and avoids situations where somebody comes to your desk and says "I sent you an email 5 minutes ago and haven’t received an answer".

Exploring the organization domain in scaling, Grosse stated that the failure mode is when projects get bogged down by communication overhead and cross-team dependencies. You want to find ways to reduce the amount of communication and coordination that is necessary.

In their InfoQ article Growing Agile… Not Scaling Andrea Tomasini and Dhaval Panchal argue that applying agile principles to the whole organization requires significant changes in communication and work coordination:

An organization which supports value delivery, and time to market, needs to reduce to the minimum the amount of handovers as well as the waste in coordination and alignment. For this reason, most agile teams organize themselves as cross-functional and end-to-end teams, the same should happen at an organizational level. This has huge implications on existing structures and power plays, as everything which is coordination, synchronization and communication changes radically in favor of a more focused and value driven approach.

Grosse referred to Daniel Pink’s book Drive and stated that for scaling teams, the following organisational design principle should be applied:

As a rule of thumb, Delivery Teams are truly self-sufficient if they can deliver the vast majority (~95%) of their backlog items to production without dependencies on other teams.

Allow teams to own their actions and see the effect their work has on the company. Management needs to define how they give autonomy to the teams, argued Grosse. He stated that at least 50% of a team’s time has to be reserved for autonomous work like working on features, reducing technical debt, or anything else that the team thinks is necessary.

Suzie Prince explains in The Right Way to Scale Agile why teams need autonomy:

To foster agility, teams should be autonomous and take ownership of how they work. This means they should be allow to create, inspect and adapt their our processes. They should be encouraged to learn best practises and continue to create a process that allows them to deliver their best to the organization.

If a team is self-sufficient and has a certain degree of autonomy, it also needs to know how they can contribute to the success of the company and what goals they aim for when deciding on their work focus.

Scaling teams is the ability to do basic things well in the face of rapid growth, argues Grosse. You have to design an early warning system and measure things to detect a failure to scale as soon as possible. This should give you warning signs on which things you should act upon. You then need to dive into issues and find the root cause in order to act properly.

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