Scale teams at breakneck speed — without breaking necks

“When an organization grows in size, things that were previously easy become difficult.” — Ben Horowitz

Getting people to work together is harder when they can’t all fit in the same room anymore.

This is a big problem for high-growth startups: the rate at which teams change is so extreme it is difficult to keep up.

Doing something about this involves changes to processes and roles, which is tricky — according to the Harvard Business Review, the standard failure rate for change management projects is 60–70%.

In a former role at a successful IT software startup, I worked with a number of different departments as well as senior leadership. I observed many different solutions employed to deal with the substantial change we went through — from spinning out of a parent company, undergoing leadership change to being acquired ourselves.

In this series, I’d like to share what I’ve learned.

Managing yourself

M.C. Escher — Hand with Reflecting Sphere 1935 Lithograph

People are not robots: we don’t think and act differently just because someone tells us we should. If we’re trying to implement change in an organization, we need to be able to use persuasion to change the way they think and act.

Maintaining a positive mental attitude and setting a clear example with your behaviour are crucial.

Maintaining a positive mental attitude

No matter how well-implemented, change is stressful. Letting it make you disaffected or negative is entirely unproductive — everyone avoids such people. This makes it more difficult to maintain the healthy relationships you need to be able influence people.

The good news is that there is a lot you can do to manage stress. While finding what works for you requires experimentation, “How much exercise are you doing?” is the first thing I ask.

One of the common side-effects of overwork or disruption is reduced exercise. As stress is chemical and exercise flushes your system of stress hormones like cortisol, it is vital that we maintain a basic exercise regime.

This was a hard-learnt lesson for me. During a time of substantial upheaval, I found I was getting seriously distracted thinking about the future of my team — getting to the stage where my sleep was being affected. Unsurprisingly, this also affected the way I was communicating — including, crucially, new senior management. This all changed after I took up Brazilian Jiu Jitsu. The physical release this gave me translated to an almost immediate improvement in how I felt, which greatly improved my ability to advocate for my team, and was ultimately reflected in my appraisals.

It is also important to have the right perspective on what you should focus on — namely those things which matter and are within your sphere of control. If there is nothing you can do to change something from happening, your energy is best spent reacting in the most appropriate way.

Stress management isn’t a panacea of course — there may be misalignment between your personal goals and where your job is currently taking you. If after reflection you conclude this is the case, you should figure out the necessary steps to change your role (or your employer).

Setting an example

The people around you take cues from your behavior. Our former CEO was the hardest working, most enthusiastic person in the company. The fact that he was in the office earlier than anyone else in the morning was a daily reminder that what we were doing mattered. These sorts of signals help keep up the energy and momentum needed to drive change. It’s important for you to ask the question: “What can I do to help motivate and provide clarity to my co-workers?”



Internal communication is the glue that holds an organization together and should not be treated as an after-thought. Without it, a company is just a collection of disconnected individuals each working individually at his or her own job. With it, a company is a unit with power far beyond the sum of its parts.

Conor Neill, Senior Lecturer at IESE Business School

While we know that healthy internal communication is vital for organizations to be effective, discussions around the topic tend to be somewhat superficial. “Poor communication” is a common complaint on websites like Glassdoor (bringing up 465,000 results at last check), but reviews rarely go into any detail.

Sample “poor communication” review

Businesses can only benefit from taking retrospectives more seriously, spending more time thinking about the process of communication rather than tools, encouraging better meeting etiquette, and ensuring good manager-managee feedback.

Retrospection needs to be non-negotiable

Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it

George Santayana

A reliable indicator for team performance improvement is the execution of retrospectives. These should be iterative and incremental to fix current problems rather than post-mortems at the end of a project which are too late to help.

With the constant stream of new tasks and crises, it can be very tempting to skirt doing these, but this is a big mistake — busy people can’t afford not to review — the improvement in performance is too significant.

In the team I was part of, we took a pretty disciplined SCRUM approach with our retrospectives. This enabled us to incrementally improve the way we worked together sprint by sprint, getting to a stage where we able to completely transform the quality of work we were delivering. Instead of “finger biting” every time there was a new release, regular unexplained downtime, and team members taking time off due to stress we ended up with deployment of new features being on-time and on-spec, high stability, and amongst the best team morale in the company.

We used the following basic process:

  1. Thank top contributors — which helped build morale by demonstrating appreciation for individual contributors
  2. Highlight what went well — which again was good for morale but also helped make sure we preserved the progress we were making sprint to sprint
  3. Highlight what did not go so well — which was a socially accepted way to identify where we were falling down
  4. Determine actions to improve working processes — where we made sure to convert the issues that people raised into constructive change

Process before tools

There are many software companies with great marketing. They will tell you inspirational stories about how using the awesome power of AI/Machine Learning/Natural Language Processing/etc. will transform your organization and make it more competitive than you ever thought possible. The team behind the product all have incredible pedigrees from well-respected universities and market-leading businesses. There will be glowing testimonials and case studies from people who look just like you who work at businesses which seem very similar to yours. The weight of all this makes it seem as though this product will solve all of your issues.

It is important not to get carried away with the hype — while there are certainly some solutions out there which can be very helpful, the most common bottlenecks we face with communication at least are rarely technological.

It is much less important whether you use Slack, Email, IRC, or Yammer than knowing what communication you plan on managing. If you don’t know which groups should know which things & what the most important communication paths are, you don’t have the necessary information to evaluate whether a particular technology is right for you anyway.

However you decide to manage this, it is good practice to make the designated process as explicit as possible so that all employees can understand how communication is supposed to work. The more specific these channels can be the less employees are inundated with correspondence. Also, expectations regarding feedback and response times should be explicit so that people are able to contribute to decisions which affect them.

Meeting etiquette

Meetings are very expensive. If you have 10 developers in a meeting at $100 p/hour, that meeting costs $1000. This could be worth it, but all too often meetings are far from organized.

It is easy to lapse from good meeting etiquette, which ends up wasting a lot of time and energy, so it is important to remind ourselves to be disciplined about how these are run.

Every meeting must have a clear purpose, attendees should be punctual and do the necessary preparation ahead of time, and notes should be taken including follow-up actions. Everyone knows this, but unfortunately, these rules are not always followed due to lack of enforcement. While some of us may balk at openly confronting non-contributing meeting attendees like Elon Musk, requiring attendees to provide the points they want to discuss ahead of time is a good start.

Manager-managee feedback

Employees often leave managers not companies, so getting this communication path right is especially important. One of my managers was great at this. In particular, there were three things from a communication perspective that other managers should emulate:

  • Treat one-to-ones seriously (see meeting etiquette section).
  • Understand the personal goals of the people in your team and align their responsibilities as far as possible.
  • Avoid always acting as the intermediary between your team and other members of the organization.

Common knowledge

Common knowledge refers to the shared norms, values and expertise that enable employees to do their jobs and work together with minimal friction. Without these, it is difficult to create a productive work environment. For example, someone who is extremely direct will inevitably cause a lot of friction in a team that prides itself on sensitivity. This friction can easily become a distraction from getting work done.

Company values

Company values clarify the direction an organization is trying to go in. Unfortunately, in many organizations there is a gap between aspiration and reality. This can lead to distrust of leadership and poor morale. To stop this from happening, leaders need to consider the “cost” of proposed values before sharing them with the company, and to think about the necessary mechanisms to bring about alignment.

“Cost” refers to the downside of having a particular value. To illustrate, we can look at a sample value from Amazon:

Customer Obsession

Leaders start with the customer and work backwards. They work vigorously to earn and keep customer trust. Although leaders pay attention to competitors, they obsess over customers.

Amazon Leadership Principles

Most businesses would agree that caring about their customers is important. However, few would be willing to pay the same cost as Amazon. If Amazon pledges to deliver products which it doesn’t have or can’t find in its warehouses, employees will actually buy those products from rival storesrather than fail to deliver on its promises. This is unprofitable in the short-term, but helps maintain the reputation that has propelled Amazon to become one of the biggest companies in the world.

“Mechanisms to bring alignment” refers to incentives and processes within a organisation aimed at ensuring everyone in the company works according to the same company values. A famous example of this is when Zappos offered to pay people to quit after a philosophical change/reorganization of the company — and 14% took up the offer. This is a big sacrifice — having such a large percentage of your workforce leave couldn’t have been easy to handle. However, in the long run this will mean Zappos will find it easier to move forward, as the the people who would be tempted to go would likely have created friction for the radical change that Zappos was undertaking.


The process of getting new employees up and running provides an excellent opportunity to instruct new starts not only what to do but how they should do it and why it matters. This is clearly a really important focus with 1 in 25 employees leaving due to poor onboarding.

It doesn’t need to be complicated — Google found that they were able to improve the time taken for an employee to reach full productivity by 25% simply by sending the hiring manager a reminder checklist just before the new hire started.

Google splits its onboarding into two parts — a centrally organized corporate phase which lasts for around three days, and the team-based phase led by the new employee’s new line manager.

Rather than inundate the manager with lengthy emails and content, the HR team simply provide a simple checklist of five critical tasks:

Have a role and responsibilities discussion.

Match your new hire with a peer buddy.

Help your new hire build a social network.

Set up onboarding check-ins once a month for your new hire’s first six months.

Encourage open dialogue

Work Rules! by Laszlo Bock, Former SVP of People Operations at Google

This is smart approach because it emphasises the importance of new starts understanding how to answer their own questions. If candidates are expected to “pick it up as they go along” by themselves, they take considerably longer to gain the necessary context they need to do their jobs effectively and generally settle in better.

There is of course plenty you can add to this — for example in the onboarding I had in my team there were objectives around directly communicating to customers and passing exams which demonstrated product-knowledge, but this really is icing on the cake if all of the points in the Google checklist have been met.

Decision making

Jean-Pierre Dalbéra from Paris, France — Le penseur de la Porte de l’Enfer (musée Rodin), CC BY 2.0

When a company is small, it is easy to reach consensus, carry out consultation of stakeholders, and for one person to get all of the necessary information to make a decision.

This changes as team sizes get bigger. To best manage this, it is a good idea to distribute authority and be specific about decision making processes.

Distribute authority

While it can be difficult to loosen the reins if you are used to being in control of every decision in your team, failing to do so will lead to you becoming a bottleneck. Better then to empower more junior employees to make decisions themselves even if you don’t always agree. Figuring out how to do this will also help clear up friction-generating fuzziness around roles and responsibilities — job descriptions tend to be overly general, providing a breeding ground for unhealthy office politics.

Be specific about decision making processes

In order to make sure that everyone is on the same page, it is important that there is a clear method for making decisions, especially when they are high profile.

Deciding on company/product names is an example of one such decision that is often highly contentious. Naming is emotive, so there is real danger of getting stuck in a loop of endlessly generating ideas in a misguided attempt to reach consensus. Better to commit to a process that everyone will respect, where stakeholders “disagree and commit” even if they are not fans of whatever the outcome may end up being. You won’t get perfection, but especially in fast moving companies, perfection doesn’t exist anyway.

To illustrate what such a process may look like, here is a basic outline:

  1. Purpose

Select new company and product names

  1. Measures and Constraints

must be in-line with company values

.com domains must be available

name must be no longer than 4 syllables

Decision maker not able to contribute own ideas to avoid self-preference.

  1. Timeline

Week 1- 2: Company wide email to contribute/vote on ideas, review measures/constraints

Week 2–3: Marketing assistant review of submitted ideas, excluding those which are ineligible. Stakeholder panel votes on preferred ideas, generating shortlist of top 10 ideas

Week 3–4: Decision maker reviews shortlist. If happy with one of options, selects. Otherwise, requests additional round of suggestions from stakeholder panel.

Week 4–5: (If necessary) Stakeholder panel send new shortlist. Decision maker chooses best of options supplied.

  1. Roles

Decision maker: B Baggins

Marketing assistant: G White

Unless measures and constraints are specified ahead of time, it is difficult to to keep them unbiased and data-informed. Without a timeline, the decision is unlikely to happen in a reasonable amount of time.

Being clear about roles and timelines is vital to make sure there is accountability for different stages in the process. Unless this is done it is easy for employees to become cynical and habituated to dysfunction.


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