Remember when you’d sit down together as a team in a brightly-lit conference room to hash out misunderstandings or communication challenges? For many of us, those conversations are now happening over Zoom or Slack and a lot of the non-verbal cues are missing from the interactions. If you add a fast-growing team and a multitude of business challenges to solve into the mix, you’ve got a recipe for communication breakdowns that can stunt growth if ignored. When everyone is moving quickly in different directions, product and morale can suffer. Unsurprisingly, I’m highly motivated to avoid these pitfalls and have been thinking a lot about ways we can identify cracks before they turn into full-on breakage.
There are 3 big buckets of activity and “crack detection” I’ve been tackling most recently. I know this list will continue to evolve, but it’s been helpful to think about effort and energy aligned with these areas: Using the “Multiples of 3 and Powers of 10” rule to get in front of challenges, Working Norms and Communication Architecture, and Listening vs. Hearing when it comes to feedback.
1) Everything Breaks at Multiples of 3 and Powers of 10
Hiroshi Mikitani of Rakuten famously created the “Rule of 3 and 10” to help predict and prevent breakage in systems and communication as companies grow quickly.
It seems a bit arbitrary, but it’s proven out time and again: What works with 10 people doesn’t work with 30 people. The tools and processes set up to work with 10 people are broken when you grow to 100 people. We grew from ~ 10 to 30 in a year, so everyone internally has experience with that particular breakage milestone. The tricky thing is it’s not just communication that feels the pressure, it’s EVERYTHING. Decision making, payroll, benefits, meeting culture, leadership structure, marketing, business systems – you name it.
And, while I caught some of these cracks ahead of time, some didn’t get attention until they became painfully obvious. Having since learned more about this powerful heuristic, I feel better equipped to get ahead of the curve as we grow.
Case in point: Goal alignment was easy with 10 people sitting together every day, but more challenging with a team of 30 working remotely. In order to better support transparency in the organization this year, we’ve spent A LOT of time talking about company and team goals and making sure that those are transparent and accessible to everyone as part of our (newly minted) OKR process. The accessibility also means that we’re having weekly conversations about dependencies and confidence levels in achieving goals. While we are early in the OKR lifecycle, I have heard from many team members that the increased visibility into goals and priorities has fostered some great (albeit hard) conversations and vastly improved their ability to prioritize.
2) Working Norms and Bringing them to Life
Team working norms are the basic ground rules for how we show up, communicate with each other, and work together holistically. Examples include meeting rules, interpersonal communication, technology usage, and decision-making processes. I took a first pass at documenting our team norms 6 months ago and got very helpful feedback from the group. Then they just sat there in a Google doc untouched (so sad and lonely).
So now the question is: how do we put these into practice and evolve them so they are truly serving our needs?
After talking to several founders that are seeing high adoption and satisfaction from their teams around their collective norms, I’m revisiting our approach and focusing on the steps below.
Communicate them (again) to the team and revisit anything that doesn’t make sense now that 6 months have passed. Whether a startup or an established business, things can change quickly as the team grows.
Ask for some accountability. If we’re all bought in on the agreement, then let’s hold each other to it (respectfully).
Spend time with new employees discussing the norms as part of their onboarding. Simply sharing a doc and assuming they’ve read it isn’t enough.
Keep the norms front and center and revisit them at least 2x per year to make sure they are still serving us.
3) Don’t Just Ask for Feedback. Listen to it and Take Action.
In a growing startup the team, the company culture, the product, and business processes should be continuously improving. A consistent feedback loop is critical if you are serious about optimizing the business and the employee experience. There are 3 key components to creating a quality feedback culture: Asking, Listening, then Acting.
Asking – we recently conducted our first eNPS survey and the feedback was insanely valuable. Continuing to get a temperature check on employees and solicit qualitative feedback on a regular basis is mission critical for me. Additionally, we’re asking managers to incorporate feedback more systematically into their regular 1:1s and implementing easy automated polls in Slack to assess how folks are doing more frequently.
Listening – This step is harder than it seems for most individuals and organizations. You have to create a safe space for sharing feedback, which means quick, defensive reactions have to be abandoned. It’s always best to listen, then give yourself time to digest and think from a less reactive place about the feedback that has been shared.
Acting – The only way to keep people engaged in the feedback process is to show them that the input really matters and can affect change. Not every suggestion has to be implemented, but they do need to be recognized. We’re shaping many of our employee experience initiatives for the first half of the year directly from the eNPS feedback and will continue to do so over time.
Building and creating a solid team is the most important part of growing a business, and we take it seriously. We’ve got an incredible group of talented people shipping product, supporting customers, telling stories, and creating partnerships every day. My job is to create a company culture where highly skilled, innovative people can thrive. Transparent goals, clear communication channels, and a safe culture for feedback all contribute to building that space. While each stage of growth brings new challenges and potential breakage points, I’m hopeful that our focus on evolution and optimization will help us stay a step ahead.
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