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Scaling Human Systems: From individual achievement to teamwork

This is part 4 in a series on organizational design and growth.

What it means

Getting things done together, as a team, achieving more than the sum of our individual efforts.

Why it’s important

Once a company reaches a certain size, perhaps with a substantial customer base and ambitious goals for the future, it takes a lot more momentum to move it forward. No one person can do it alone. From product delivery, to strategic decision making, to customer service, no single individual has all of the knowledge, skills or time necessary to perform these functions at the scale and velocity necessary to make real progress. Cooperation is not just a good idea: it’s essential to success.

The most important system we’re building is the company itself: a system of people working together to achieve common goals.

Old status quo

In a startup, everyone embodies the spirit of the pioneer: passion, fortitude, individualism, daring, and the willingness to do whatever it takes to reach the goal. Individuals wear many hats: engineering, product management, marketing, customer support. We often don’t even think of them as distinct disciplines. Projects often depend on the resoluteness of a single Jill-of-all-trades to drive them to completion, and the culture may reward this kind of heroism. Thanks to the relatively small scale of the company and its customer base, one person working independently can effect significant change without much risk. If what was delivered wasn’t good enough, it could be discarded with no great loss.

New status quo

In a growing company, we still need a variety of different disciplines in order to reach our goals, in fact more than ever. A successful product needs to be conceived, validated, designed, built, documented, adopted, supported, and we need to confirm that it satisfies customers over time.

These elements are all essential, and each requires deep knowledge, expertise and practice. Good engineering + mediocre product management + inept marketing = total failure. It’s not realistic to expect one person to do all of these things and deliver consistently good results, but consistently good results are exactly what we need. The solution is to organize for individuals to do what they do best, and cooperate effectively together.

We also need to manage risk more carefully: our customers are depending on us. We have a lot more to lose now, and need to learn how to maintain forward progress while continuing to meet our customers’ expectations. Delivering sub-par products would damage our reputation and erode their trust.

Most of all, we need to be getting better at all of this over time, faster than our competition.

Behaviors that help

  • When embarking on a new project, recruit others to your cause instead of going it alone. In particular, consider which other teams you may need help from, and ask for their support from the beginning
  • Make your work visible to others (for example through a shared work board like Trello). Push context out of your head and into a workspace where others can see it.
  • When you run into trouble, make a point of asking for help early. Not only does this help build relationships, it also gets problems solved faster.
  • Agree on explicit shared priorities with your immediate teammates, and stick to them until the team agrees to change. Make sure that you’re working on things that matter to the people around you, and that they know that’s important to you.

Obstacles that stand in our way

  • Heroism. There is a place for heroism in growing organizations, but save it for responding to exceptional problems. Day-to-day work and objectives should not depend on one person’s heroism
  • Attributing too much credit to individuals. Feedback and praise are invaluable, but be careful not to excessively recognize and reward individuals for what are fundamentally team efforts. Few things will erode team spirit faster than rewarding someone for other people’s work.
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Written by Matt Zimmerman

July 10, 2013 at 17:09

3 Responses

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  1. […] Part 4: From individual achievement to teamwork […]

  2. Thanks for an interesting read. Yes collaboration, co-operation, team work and diversity are essential for success!! Thanks again

    Kym McGregor

    July 11, 2013 at 02:42

  3. […] Part 4: From individual achievement to teamwork […]


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