How to avoid playing “collaboration catch-up” as your team scales
Hint: It’s not about the technology
When I raise the topic of Process with my scaleup clients I typically get one response: “I thought we were talking about leadership — why are you asking me about our operations?”
Of course, operations are critical when scaling your business — but I’m thinking of a different question. One that relates to people and the way they work together — the mechanisms that fuel progress such as collaboration, delegation, decision making and autonomy.
What processes will your team use to work together as the company grows?
In my experience, ensuring that people processes move in step with growth can present a significant personal challenge for founders. Thinking about the evolution of a company’s success, often it’s the passion, decision making and accountability shown by founders in those early stages that produce their success. As the company scales, hanging on to that accountability and decision making is likely to create blockages and slow progress. Defining your purpose as a leader as ‘removing blockages and enabling your people to move at speed’, means that retaining decision-making authority just doesn’t make sense.
Letting go and trusting your team to make decisions is fundamental to the scalability and sustainability of your company.
In fast-growth companies, there is a tendency for the evolution of collaboration, delegation and autonomy, and decision making processes to lag behind the growth of the team. These dynamics are far easier to see when you’re an outsider looking in than when you’re in the eye of the storm. Commercial success typically means bringing more people into the team — often at a very fast rate — and the new people are onboarded with information about “how things get done around here”. The trick is to recognise that with the introduction of the new people (and as the roles of existing team members inevitably change) the way things get done needs to change too. Without this explicit adaptation, you risk inefficiency and friction amongst team members as their old ways of working no longer support the speed, scale and complexity of the decisions they must make.
So how can you avoid playing ‘collaboration catch-up’ as your team scales?
Here are 5 of the most critical considerations…
- Demonstrate trust — Trust in the team is the basis for sustainable growth. It is the most powerful enabler of speed and efficiency. At the same time, as I‘ve mentioned, it can be the most elusive. The key is to identify, for you, what it really means to trust someone’s judgement — and explain it to your team. This means getting specific about what you need to see and/or hear from each of them in order to trust them (hint: be prepared to find that you’re already getting everything you need). It also means giving verbal feedback as they demonstrate (or don’t) what you’ve been asking for — and when they do, loosening the rope and giving them more opportunities to show you what they’re capable of. Just watch, the benefits will multiply over time.
- Keep listening — One of the pitfalls in fast-growing teams is that at some point information stops flowing upwards. As a sense of hierarchy emerges, people tend to stop speaking openly to leaders. At the same time, some leaders, as they focus less on the day-day and more on the longer-term future, stop listening. Listening carefully creates opportunities to hear when and where friction is occurring in the team. The earlier you know about it, the sooner you’ll be able to help the team identify and address the root cause of the problem. Even if you still consider yourself to be a good listener, I encourage you to consider what you’re listening for. Often we get caught up in the machinations of the content and miss some of the process-related issues — in this case, it’s important to listen for both.
- Decide about deciding — It might sound obvious to say that, on any project or issue, it’s important everyone understands who is empowered to make decisions. You might be surprised to read (or perhaps not…) than in many fast-growing teams people aren’t sure who actually has the authority to make the decisions. This leads to confusion and slows things down significantly as members of the team try to figure it out. But who should be making the decisions? And how should they be making them? Management literature since the 1990s has advocated decentralising decision making. In other words, pushing decisions down to the lowest possible level while balancing risk exposure. The trick here is to understand the different types of decisions you’re likely to have to make, agree on what you need to consider when making them and then assign accountability for those decisions to the most appropriate people. In other words, delegate. The team at First Round have done a good job of summarizing decision making frameworks for founders in their article: The 6 decision-making frameworks that help startup leaders make tough calls. One additional point to note here is that it is important to revisit your decision-making norms as new members join the team. Much work is done to revise job descriptions and redesign org charts — but don’t forget to consider how it needs to work in practice.
- Assign collaboration characters — While understanding your decision-makers is critical, let’s not forget that in cross-functional efforts you also need clarity around all the other roles in the team. Without that clarity, you tend to find large numbers of people attending meetings and not really understanding why they are there. Should they play the role of subject matter expert? Are they there to represent your customers? To be the creative ideas person? Or to play the ‘black hat’? Can they stop the project from progressing if they don’t agree with its direction? All of these ‘characters’ can play an important role, as long as the roles are clear and they are assigned to the people with the right skills to execute them. Frameworks such as RACI and RAPID can be helpful in assigning and explaining the roles you need on any piece of work.
- Recruit experience — For those with a growth mindset, doing things for the first time has an alluring magnetism. In fact, it’s why many people gravitate to the startup world in the first place. There comes a time in a company’s growth where they face a decision that goes something like “should we hire someone who has done this before or do we give one of our people the chance to do it?”. There are many considerations that factor into that decision — like risk, opportunity cost, team retention just to name a few — and there is no easy answer. As the need to collaborate cross-functionally at scale increases, so does the benefit of hiring someone who has ‘been there, done that’. The key is to find someone who can help design a way of working that is fit for the size and complexity of the team. Someone who can recognise when it’s not working and who knows what to do to fix it. Someone who can teach other members of the team too.
Here are the links to the previous articles in this series
Introduction: The hard truth about soft skills
Purpose: Why does your company exist?
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