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Scaling Fault Lines
When you grow your team, fault lines develop in your organization. Here is where to look and how to spot them.
Building something new is extremely hard, and if you are lucky enough to find success your reward is another hard problem: scaling. Scaling is difficult because the things that got you to the point of scaling are not the same that will help you scale. Some of the things you did to get there have to stop, and you need to learn an entirely new set of skills to scale.
One of the most common problems with scaling are breakdowns in your organization, processes and communication. I call these Fault Lines, and they rob you of speed when you need it most. If you develop Fault Lines then you start to move slower the larger you get, which means you are on track to hit the Plateau of Death.
Here are some common Fault Lines, how to detect them and what to do to fix them:
Fault Line #1: Team Communication
When your team is small (2 to 5 people), communication is perfect. You know and speak with everyone on the team every day, and you can have a deep understanding of what everyone is doing.
As the team grows, it becomes a team of teams and communication becomes imperfect. Now you have people on different teams that need to communicate, and they might do so infrequently and have a limited understanding of what the other teams are doing.
When the team gets even larger, fault lines can develop in the communications between teams. The people on those teams can be so far removed, and communicate so infrequently, that they lack the common foundation necessary for effective communication.
For example, when you have one person in marketing and one person in sales their communication can be perfect. When there are 50 people in marketing and 50 people in sales, you start to develop problems in communication. Sales blames Marketing for not giving them the materials they need and marketing blames sales for not handling leads correctly. In truth, these teams are working as hard as they can but their communications are failing them.
You need to watch for these issues as you grow. They manifest as conflict, where one team blames another for issues, or process failures where each team was waiting on the other to do something. These are warning signs that you’ve developed a fault line.
The solution is the same as the prevention, which is to build more structure into your team communications as you scale. Instead of relying on informal communications (email, slack), set up scheduled meetings where the teams cover key issues together. Instead of sending things directly to one person, use internal tools like Google Docs or Notion to post information where everyone can see them. Make sure that you repeat important information many times, and you set up training on new tools or messaging so that everyone is educated at the same time.
Sometimes your teams will complain that these structured communications “feel too corporate” for a small team, but you’re not a small team anymore. If you don’t scale your communications with your team, they won’t be able to work as a team anymore.
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Fault Line #2: Process Overload
If people are the foundation of your business, then processes are the glue that hold them together. These processes are constantly changing and evolving as you grow, because processes only work at specific scales and times.
For example, when you are a small team you might have a shared inbox for customer support requests. When you get a handful of support requests a day this works well as whoever has free time can jump on and resolve issues. However, when you are getting dozens of support requests a day this process breaks down as you have trouble keeping track of who was helping who with what and when. You might upgrade to a customer support system and that helps a bit, until you are getting hundreds of customer support requests a day and the process breaks down again.
Process breakdowns almost always happen when a process that works well is overwhelmed by high volume. When this happens, things start to get missed, people get unhappy and things grind to a halt. It’s like an assembly line that goes haywire and products begin to fall on the floor everywhere.
You can usually see these fault lines developing if you track the efficiency of your key processes. For example, with customer support requests you would see an increase in the average time to resolve requests or a drop in the number of requests served by each representative. Consistent increases in these metrics tells you that something is breaking down and you need to take action before it gets worse.
What do you do about process fault lines? You need a new process. The best time to introduce a new process is well before the old process fails, since any new process will have issues when you first deploy it. By anticipating fault lines in your processes, you can upgrade to more scalable processes early and work out the kinks before it becomes a real crisis. You don’t want to upgrade too early since it’s a waste of time, and one of the hardest parts of leadership is timing these transitions well.
Living on the Fault Line
There are many more types of fault lines, and some might be specific to your business. As a leader, you need to anticipate them when you can and catch them early when you can’t. The key to effective scaling is to ensure you never stop accelerating and you can’t afford for fault lines to rob you of momentum.
The good news is that all companies encounter fault lines. If you can efficiently overcome them, it is a competitive advantage since your operations will be better than your competition. That might not seem like a big deal, but small advantages in operations will multiple over time since they will slow down as you speed up. That speed will be why you’ll win.