The problem of scaling a team is tough to crack. How do you add more members without breaking the spirit of the existing members? At what point do the old ways of doing things stop working? How can you be sure that the team is scaling at the right rate and in the right way? Success can turn on a small detail, such as a personality clash or one outdated process. What should a team leader do to avoid messing up?
Because every organization is different, it's impossible to prescribe a one-size-fits-all solution for scaling a team. We can however identify five strategies that have a very high likelihood of sustaining performance while you grow your team.
#1: Create Team Pods
Research suggests that, for most tasks, four or five is the optimal team size. Once teams grow to 10 members or more, performance starts to suffer. This happens because of cognitive overload - it is much tougher to handle the moods and quirks of 10 teammates than three or four. Members stop feeling like a tight-knit family, and schisms develop due to a lack of accountability to one another.
Team leaders can overcome these problems by redesigning the team into pods, or sub teams, ideally of four or five people. What these teams do depends on the goals you're trying to achieve; for example you might keep one pod focused on the original product, goal or service, and dedicate a second pod to a new product or service. Make sure that pods are relatively stable and co-located to encourage trust-building among team members.
#2: Establish Formal Processes
Small teams work because they're agile; they don't tend to follow a defined process. As a team scales beyond its first four or five members, the free-wheeling approach won't work anymore. You need to start following some sort of structure, otherwise there's a risk that pods and individual members will drift toward the dreaded silo, and quality standards will suffer.
Hierarchy, rules and process are sometimes treated as dirty words, but a by-the-book process can fuel communication, provide transparency, and stop one rotten apple from ruining the whole barrel. When everyone on the team follows the same process, observes the same rituals and has the same game plan, they become clear on what to work on, how their work benefits others, and when to put in extra effort - without excessive hand holding.
#3: Revisit the Team Culture
Adding new team members can break an existing team's cohesiveness and sense of shared purpose. Manage this poorly, and suddenly you have weaker performance because of personality clashes, friction, and a breakdown of established norms. Adding the wrong sort of people, or the right sort but too quickly, can result in an "us versus them" mentality, which hampers collaboration.
The solution here is to get back to basics and redefine the team's core values. Why does the team exist? What are its goals and ambitions? Use broad concepts such as mission and purpose to manage the onboarding process and also as a hiring filter to test new members for cultural fit. Make sure that people understand what is important before they join the team.
#4: Scale Up the Feedback Loop
How do you ensure that by going from a small team to a larger team, you maintain speed, quality and reliability of communication? For day-to-day communication, it's essential to choose the right tools for team collaboration, for example:
- Web-based document and spreadsheet tools such as Google Docs for the easy sharing of documents. These tools allow simultaneous editing and will track comments and editing history
- Simple group chat like Slack, Skype or Google Hangouts. Organize these programs by project and add only relevant people to reduce noise.
- Trello for weekly to-do lists, which can be distributed to pods or individual team members for follow up
- Conferencing equipment with video capability
- Face-to-face meetings where all pods share their accomplishments and plans
- Multi-pod project post-mortems.
Scaling a team is a big change and difficult to do effectively unless everyone in the team is willing to communicate and help each other. This is a good opportunity to upgrade your collaboration tools and replace legacy tools that are no longer working.
#5: Allow Space for Autonomy and Creativity
While it's imperative to have defined processes and streamlined collaboration strategies in place when dealing with numerous sub-teams, it's also important to reduce the number of handovers to an absolute minimum. Large teams work more productively when pods are permitted to work autonomously and take ownership of specific tasks.
To foster autonomy, allow team pods to create and adapt the organization's processes and rituals in such a way that allows them to deliver their best work to the project. It's also a good idea to reserve at least half a sub-team's time for self-sufficient work that the team can fulfill without dependencies on other teams.
Wrapping Things Up
Scaling anything is tough since it requires a series of subtle shifts to take place. It changes the way you hire, onboard, collaborate, communicate and do things, and it also changes the way you measure performance (for example, based on process steps instead of simply the closure of a task).
Team dynamics get really hard when you scale a team, and honestly, there's no silver bullet that can help all teams to grow successfully. The five strategies outlined above should help. Be sure to review them, and take the necessary steps that will positively impact your team's performance as it grows.