Informal doesn’t scale

Did you know that a fly doesn’t scale? If you shot a growth ray at a fly until it was the size of your car, that fly would crush under its own weight. Its exoskeleton can handle only so much mass.

Beetle bug (crop)
A fly as big as a Volkswagen would be pretty intimidating.

It’s a good thing flies stay as small as they are. But if you’re at a small, startuppy company, of course you hope your company grows. It’s what we all want, right? But meanwhile, there can be so much goodness, so much energy in a young company. You can wear so many hats! You can shoot from the hip! The hierarchy can be so flat! Everybody fits into one room! Communication is so easy! Everything and anything feels possible!

But much like the fly and its exoskeleton, your company’s light, informal structure will keep it from scaling. One day everybody won’t fit into one room anymore. You won’t be able to know everything that’s happening just by being in the room and on Slack. Stuff that used to happen organically just doesn’t happen well or at all.

That’s when meetings may creep in where there had been none. When the first process steps may start to be added. When software tools may augment or even replace simple face-to-face communication. When company-wide fun events may start to drop off because it’s too hard and expensive to include everyone.

The place starts to feel …corporate.

People sometimes fetishize startup smallness. It feels so good! But clinging to it will limit your growth trajectory. Like the overgrown fly, lack of process will crush your company. You need to change your ways of working to fit the company’s size. But this doesn’t have to be terrible. It totally can be terrible, if you do it wrong. Even if you do it right, it will change and even get rid of some of your company’s original goodness. But it enables new levels of goodness that you can’t imagine yet.

The tax of size simply must be paid. But don’t pay one penny more than you need to. At every step, add just the minimum process to keep things running smoothly. If you’re an individual contributor and thus probably not making the process decisions, perhaps you can (kindly, respectfully) ask if you can offer feedback, and if so, suggest changes to size the process to where you are now.

This is a bumpy road, and there’s no map. You have to feel your way through. But here are some questions you can ask that might help you.

What’s the least possible amount of process we can add to solve our current problems?

How can we break our organization into smaller units to keep the goodness of small?

How can we put light communication, visibility, and accountability systems in place that help the small units stay connected and deliver strongly for each other and for the business?

To the extent you’re able to successfully evolve your company’s exoskeleton of process and culture, you’ll smoothly adapt to the pressures that come with growth.

 

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