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The Alchemy of Scaling Teams in Fast-Growing Startups

An insight into the challenges behind successfully growing a team — and 4 key strategies to tackle them
by Temi Adeniyi | Nov 12 2019

Anybody who has been part of a small company, or on a small team, and witnessed it as it grew — quickly, sometimes messily — knows that it feels like alchemy. Alchemy: an explosion of new people that brings in its midst a rush of new names to learn, different personalities, new ways of doing familiar things, and curious skills employed in unknown but needed arts. And, most of all, you’re wondering how to adapt to this change and what, if anything, will remain the same.

Before we dive into that further, I should start by introducing myself. I’m the Director of Design at Blinkist — the mobile learning platform that transforms non-fiction titles into compact, accessible key takeaways in text and audio. Back in 2018, I wrote an article about design here at Blinkist. That article details our beginnings from 2015 and our mission to build a notable brand and product experience for Blinkist’s life-long learners.

We were a team of five when the article was written last year. Today, we’ve more than doubled in size to 14. Are you wondering if anything changed compared to 2018? It would be crazy to say that everything remained the same.

The thing that no-one really tells you when you’re one of the architects of this change (also known as a manager, team lead, Head of…) is that it can feel like opaque magic to you, too. When you’re scaling a team in a rapidly growing company for the first time there’s much unknown to you, such as how team members new and old will gel together and how to provide the best environment for this larger gang.

More than a year on from that article, we learnt a lot about what it’s like to scale a small team in a company that’s growing like wildfire. In this update, I want to share our story of how we grew, four key insights we learnt during this process, and how you can prepare and successfully overcome those growing pains as your team expands.

#1 Kill your darlings: Adapt and revisit your processes as the team grows

Imagine trying to organize a potluck dinner with five friends; it takes some coordination, to be sure, but it’s relatively easy to discuss, align and decide on things together. And if you’ve done this before then you probably have your certain routines, like who makes dessert, down pat.

Now, try to organize that potluck having invited an additional six friends. These new additions may have their individual ways of doing things that look a little (or a lot) different from existing ones. As numbers multiply, adapting routines and processes so that things goes off without a hitch gets tricky. That’s the challenge of scaling a team.
In 2018, our five-person design team had its habits, culture and general ways of doing things. Some of these things were happily adopted by new joiners but other things made no sense at scale. When we invited more people to the party we had to rethink those existing routines.

Here’s what to do:

Accept that those established ways of doing things will change. As a manager and a team, embrace that — quickly.

Newcomers take in everything with fresh eyes, which longer established people may stop doing once things become familiar. Cultivate an environment where it’s encouraged for people to ask questions about anything: from why that thing was designed that way back in 2015 to when it’s time to start working on a new illustration style.

What this means in practical terms is truly listen and observe when new people come across stumbling blocks. Sometimes these stumbling blocks are of your own making (as a manager) and sometimes they exist because a previously unknown need has become clear.

One small, yet pivotal example of this related to our team stand-up ritual. For years, we had a living Trello-style board as a way for us to be in the loop on what everyone was working on. It came as a direct solution to a problem we had as a four-person team.

Yet, as new people joined and the team size increased over the past year, the purpose of it was questioned. Did we really need to meet everyday? Did it still add value for everyone’s tasks to be reflected on this board?

Over time, we went from having a board and daily stand-ups to simply the daily stand-ups, then eventually twice weekly stand-ups. We even evolved out of that, too. In short, we killed that particular darling.

Now, each team meets individually at their weekly syncs to stay in the loop at a level where it makes sense. We also bring all teams together every two weeks. Throughout this evolution, the underlying need for everyone to be connected and have transparency on ongoing work still remained. However, the solution continually adapted to fit our new reality.

Give newcomers the space to ask questions and, most importantly, listen. They’ll feel part of the team more quickly if they have direct ownership in helping shape processes, standards, practices and culture as you scale.

Things might get a little messy as they’re in flux but that’s the nature of a living system. Our teams are constantly evolving; bringing shape and guidance to that evolution is your design challenge.

#2 No, we can’t all just get along: Make peace with conflicts and disagreements in your team

Our first hires are crucial. We want people we’ll work harmoniously with; people with mindsets and working styles that are highly compatible with our own.

However, we risk ending up with a like-minded homogenous group if teams scale in this way. By doing so, we close the door on having a room full of unique voices with different experiences and perspectives. If we want to grow strong, high performing teams then hiring talent with varied strengths and backgrounds is major key.

This can bring forth a lively group full of contrasting personalities and quirks. For example, let’s ponder adding introverts to a small team of extroverts. These passionate extroverts may contribute their ideas at meetings without hesitation, whilst the thoughtful introverts may take more time to ruminate on their thoughts before speaking up.

Introverts in this group may feel a sense of pressure to contribute more quickly and more often than they are used to. Meanwhile, the extroverts may be confused as to why these new team mates rarely contribute and thus assume that they’re not as engaged.

This clash could create disharmony and a team that feels anything but unified. You may be surprised to find out that this is normal. It’s called ‘storming’.

Here’s what to do:

Psychologist Bruce Tuckman identified four stages of team development: forming, storming, norming, performing. During the storming stage, the gloss of shiny new team members has begun to fade. Differences in personality, working styles, and other things like communication come to the fore and can seriously start to annoy people. It may be unclear to team members how to work and relate to each other, which can cause misunderstandings and even conflict.

This piece of advice might sound contradictory: accept it. As a manager that can be hard to take as your instinct might be to fix things. It took me some time to realize that a good group of people, who are motivated and excited to work together, can and will resolve many of their issues once they become more familiar with each other. Assuming you have faith that you’ve hired the right people¹, there’s largely nothing additional you can do but to trust in your team.

With this realization in mind, there are some ways to facilitate the bigger team into settling into its new shape.

Firstly, make expectations clear. It’s been described that during the storming stage, team members begin to compete for their ideas and ways of working to be heard. You’ll see people jockey to establish their role within the team and the wider organization.

A way to mitigate this is to make sure that role expectations are clear, as well as the impact their role will have in the organization. In our case, designers and researchers have straightforward and accessible role descriptions at each level. These standardized descriptions also make obvious what team members can expect of each other when it comes to things such as work standards, communication and even contribution to team processes.

During on-boarding, new team members have the opportunity to get clarity on each accountability to make sure it aligns with their understanding of the role they originally applied for.

In addition to reviewing accountabilities on day one, new designers at Blinkist have a one-week and one-month check-in. This gives them an early opportunity to openly ask any questions and air out any concerns that they might have. Since designers are informed of these check-ins during their first day, they’re encouraged to raise anything — positive or critical — on their minds.

A friendly early check-in gives that introvert new joiner the space to mention they feel like a fish out of water in a meeting full of extroverts. Allowing you to think about how to establish an environment that feels equally nourishing for your quieter and more vocal members.

Checking in with newbies doesn’t mean forgetting about your more established members. All of these new changes may be hard to adjust to and you’ll want to be aware of that by directly asking for their perspective on recent changes. Their unique view can give you a sense of how to assist the team through this stage.

Storming isn’t a stage that lasts forever but it lays the groundwork for ‘norming’. It’s here where the team begins to bond, appreciate each other’s individuality and strengths and settles into the new rhythm. Make sure to set the team up for success and a positive working experience together.

#3 Implicit knowledge for old heads is hidden information for newbies

In our early days as a team we had an ‘implicit’ understanding of how things worked. Things such as where to save files and ingrained knowledge of stuff like previous design decisions, who worked on what and why. As the team increased, it became evident that this embedded knowledge was actually hidden information.

Hidden information is difficult to access; it puts newcomers at a disadvantage and creates an unbalanced environment. Established members will seem like the old guard without even meaning to. This challenge can create a gulf between newbies and old heads that will make the team feel rigid.

Take our example from last year. Some new joiners wanted to understand their colleagues better. What was everyone’s career story? What about individual workflows? Newbies found it hard to know what motivated their team-mates and feel like a connected team. For established members this information was ‘implicit’ from working together over the years but it shut newer people out.

It doesn’t have to be that way. Think about what information is ‘implicit’. This can be anything from what is used for documentation to the preferred way of giving feedback and what everyone’s role is on the team.

Here’s what to do:

Take a step back and put yourself in the place of a new joiner: what would you want to know on day one? How about by week four?

Great on-boarding will think about how and when to help people uncover more about their role, their team, their work and the wider organization. There’s a theory in user experience design called Progressive Disclosure, which refers to sequencing information and actions across a user’s journey in an application. Progressively disclosing information in the right amounts, at the right time and in the right order to make achieving an end-goal more manageable. You’ve probably already encountered it online, like when you complete a purchase.

We can borrow this theory when we think about how we help people onboard. During a designer’s first day at Blinkist it’s all about overviews and introductions: to their team, our tools and expectations. We know that they’ll already have a ton of new information to take in — from where the bathrooms are to all the new names they’ve just been bombarded with on the office tour. Our design on-boarding aims to be mindful of this and only requires a level of cognitive load (mental effort) that we think is appropriate.

By the end of the first week, on-boarding shifts to getting in some quick wins by introducing milestones focused on output, such as presenting first work for feedback to peers. It might seem scary but there are no surprises here. New joiners always know their next milestones as our on-boarding process is documented and shared.

As our team grew, we were able to improve on-boarding further by introducing a buddy system. Buddies guide newbies through existing processes and act as a go-to person for any specific work or company-related questions. This can help to smooth out any kinks that might usually appear and build bonds more quickly.

Ultimately, well designed on-boarding provides the opportunity for newbies to feel like they have everything they need to be a solid member of the team. And when that on-boarding process is documented, you have a replicable system that helps to ensure every new person has a great start to their journey on your team.

#4 Build stronger bones after the growing pains are over

So you’ve made it out the other side. The team has adjusted to its rapid growth and has found its footing despite any challenges and bumps along the way. Hopefully, this challenge brought with it some positive moments of reflection and bonding for the team as it establishes a refreshed identity. Welcome to norming.

Norming, one of the four stages of team development we touched upon earlier, details the stage where any differences within this newly formed team have been resolved, members feel secure and trusting of each other and they collaborate easily. The support between members is high and everyone is unified and focussed on their common goal.

Once stability has been achieved, this is a great time to take stock of what issues might still exist and identify processes that could improve further.

Here’s what to do:

One essential way that we check-in on team health has always been with quarterly team retrospectives. If you’re familiar with technical retrospectives, then this concept should be familiar.

As a team, we discuss what went well (good), what didn’t go well (bad) and what was downright terrible (ugly). We then collaborate on solutions and distribute the accountability of those next actions amongst the team. This process gives everyone a safe environment to discuss any tensions or highlights from the past few months in a setting where no-one will be judged or criticized for their experience.

Allowing everyone to zoom out, including yourself, on how things have been going on the team and within the company in general, creates a sense of shared investment for the overall health of the team. This process can help identify things that need to be addressed (e.g. — company-level issues that affected people on a team level) or processes to introduce or change.

Earlier this year, our team had undergone a few changes by the time we all sat together for our quarterly retrospective. Firstly, we were too large to be seated together and our product designers moved over to tables with their cross-functional product development teams. For the first time since our formation, we no longer sat together or even in close proximity.

As mentioned, we also changed from being a single team to a three-team organization. What this means in practical terms is we were large enough to undergo some organizational (re)design. People were organized into teams by shared function and purpose; today, these self-contained units do most of their work and collaboration together. Although this change made logical sense and ensured we could scale, it impacted how everyone aligned and communicated.

At Blinkist, we’re organized in ‘Circles’ — a concept adopted from the Holacracy framework.

Fast forward to our quarterly retrospective. As a collective, we noted our highlights were work quality and supporting each other. However, these new changes made everyone feel disconnected. Introducing our biweekly Design All-Hands, more regular team events and creative sessions were introduced as solutions. Without some collective introspection and communication, the opportunity to address these needs would’ve been lost.

A retrospective is but one way to listen to the needs of your team. As teams grow and connections increase, understanding how to talk and listen to each other effectively might be one of the most critical things to learn.

A message from the future

As the Director of Design at Blinkist, I went head first into scaling our team without knowing that adding more people was simply one side of the story. The addition of brilliant new minds, melding them with an existing gang of great people, evolving routines and how we operated brought with it bright moments and many unforeseen challenges.

Once the smoke of that alchemy cleared, I was able to look behind our transformational process with fresh eyes. Here’s what I wish I could’ve known before our team doubled:

  1. Know when your team’s processes no longer scale; your team is a living system that’s always evolving, listen actively to know how to adapt your routines and rituals
  2. Level the playing field by making information accessible; solid on-boarding is a great way to make your new joiners feel truly part of the team
  3. Trust in your team to untangle conflicts during this adjustment period; fires are normal but you can help give your people the tools to extinguish them

These are things my future self would’ve told my previous self. And these are the things I want to leave with anyone with scaling a small team for the first time. Be ready to embrace it.

[1] It’s wise to be aware that if we don’t have the right mix of people or made a bad hire, conflicts, disagreements and/or other issues may not be consequences of ‘storming’. Hiring the right people as your team is growing quickly, especially for the first time, is a very particular challenge. Unfortunately, we may not always get it right as we face this challenge. I’d suggest Shopify’s article on hiring for scaling teams for an insightful look into this topic.

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