How to Cope with Growing Pains of a Scaling Culture

Don’t Get Turned Into Spaghetti By Tidal Forces As You Approach The Event Horizon

Opinions about ‘scaling’ and ‘change management’ that flood expanding companies can pose as much a challenge to healthy growth as the intrinsic problems. One may liken it to the pressures put on teenagers in the form of ample commentary about their growth and development.

Look at you! You’ve gotten so big…becoming a man/woman/real company. Now you’re going to have to XYZ!

We all remember how helpful that advice was, especially from people not going through that experience.

But for all the wisdom of our antecedents, the transformation they underwent became the status quo into which we were born. We did not need to discover that new world; it was already there for us.

We had only to adapt.

Now it is our time to depart from the trend line established by our forbearers…

And an entirely new world is waiting for us.

Inflection Point

Long gone are the days when coordination of who’s bringing the kegs and what time the crawfish boil starts belonged in #announcements in Slack. The proverbial shoulder-taps and economy of favors that galvanized a team supporting and relying upon each other become explicit requests, accountability and commitment deriving from process instead of the other way around. “Important” becomes a relative term, and the distinctiveness of individual leadership yields to distributed, hierarchical modes of disseminating information.

We rely on peer pressure and trust to ensure that behaviors that are corrosive to our culture will be inhibited. This sparks the question: what do you do when the team grows suddenly and the peers you look to for guidance are no more familiar with the principles than you are?

I call out when I’m doing something which I don’t really know is “how we do things.” Then, after no one makes any objections, someone else asks me a “how we do things” question.

I will tell them, “I did this and nobody complained,” which they may take as a recommendation that they do that thing too.

Maybe…

someone would have objected to what I did and just didn’t have the chance.

Maybe…

they were preoccupied, or they thought someone else would do it.

Maybe…

they thought it would be okay as a one-time thing, but not as a rule, and…

maybe they missed it when I happened to make it one.

Oops.

Side Effects

Not all processes scale.

In a business, certain people have the authority to tell other people to drop what they’re doing and do something else. Typically, when organizations grow, this authority will be metered out bit by bit. That creates opportunity for culture to fragment. People get comfortable with the fact that, “Well, as a whole we try to do that like this, but for this project/on this team, it’s not really the whole picture because because because.”

How can an organization mitigate the risk of cultural drift when individual questions from newcomers will increasingly be answered by more and more different people, who can’t always stay in sync and have to sometimes give answers as a final authority?

The trouble with organizing leadership in a centralized, top-down manner, is that very few things innately require the involvement of directors and C-levels. What plenty of things do require are the decisions that senior leadership would make. That means everyone needs to have the tools necessary to lead, and know how to use them. Leadership is not a person or role. It’s a thing that happens. It is championing the truth. As long as it happens, we don’t care how it’s done or who is doing it. Still, there is such a thing as being a leader. How do we do that?

Leadership Tools

batons

Leaders for different activities use different tools–often literal, physical ones. Sometimes it’s a big hat, sometimes a fancy outfit. Since we really love marching bands, we’ll call our leadership tools batons.

For a drum major, the baton is used to keep people in sync, keep the band moving in the right direction, and give onlookers something simple to appreciate. That’s a lot of responsibility. Let’s break it down so we don’t all need to be drum majors, but can each play our part to make sure our endeavors have the leadership they need.

Here are four different batons that distinguish different aspects of leadership, and are easy to pick up and use so that everyone in the band can be a leader.


Baton of Asker

question baton

Overcome the limitations of a specific project or task.

Be open minded with the asker. Remember that the right questions are sometimes more important than the right answers.

Ask questions! In wielding the simplest and perhaps most essential baton of leadership, you must believe that you are entitled to understand everything. As much as we like to believe that our colleagues have thought through what they’re doing, we must challenge that assumption.

Caveats:

Exercise some care in using this tool. It’s a pretty safe one, but doesn’t make sense in certain contexts. Respect progress. There are no dumb questions, but there might be less than ideal times or places to ask them. Once the ball is rolling, at a certain point, you have to let it roll.


Baton of the Researcher

magnifying glass baton

Overcome limitations of how well the problem is understood.

What we’re discussing needn’t be always feasible or appropriate, so long as we’re on the same page.

When you hold this baton, you are volunteering to receive all the questions, and contending that you shall unravel their mysteries. Leave no stone unturned, no facet uninspected, and when the time comes to reveal the truth, practice clarity and discretion. Your path towards understanding had many landmarks, but you can’t describe all of them. Instead, make cairns.

Caveats:

This tool can be misused. Go deep, not broad. The answers you are seeking may address more than one question, so map out the domain of your problem, and stay there. Otherwise you end up trying to save the whole world.


Baton of the Architect

baton rope

Overcome limitations of the status quo.

One step at a time. Be patient. Sometimes one step will traverse a great distance.

There are many questions, and many answers, but within all of them, there is one ideal, and one reality. As the architect, you need to pare them down to the fewest answers that resolve the most questions. Focus on the solution that is embedded within the system. The solution is there, it just might need to be carved out.

Caveats:

This can be a difficult baton to wield. It requires caution, patience, and decisiveness. Properly employed, it frees you from the fear of losing progress, but misused, its result is disastrous. Ensure the foundations are solid enough to support the grand design.

Conductor Baton

dream catcher baton

Don’t get bogged down by problems that haven’t been solved yet.

Remember the dream, even when it’s time to wake up.

Focus on the impact. When someone says, “Wouldn’t it be cool if…?” don’t jump straight to “but we only this and can’t that”. Just say, “Yeah. That would be cool.”

Caveats:

When time is short, stakes are high, and values are in conflict, necessity demands compromise and sacrifice. Set priorities and ask bottom line questions. Good ideas don’t always win out in the end.

More Posts by Stuart Ballard:

Kubernetes, Delivered

Deploy your first app within 24 hours. Book a demo to get started.