How To Grow Your Team Sustainably: More Isn’t Always Better

insights Jul 20, 2022

I used to think that more people would automatically equate to more impact. What I have learned over the years is that you need a clear plan so the growth can translate to impact as quickly as possible.

I noticed this first when I worked on a small team. We could rapidly iterate on user problems and ship fast. Then, the team doubled in a quarter. We had to devote a lot of time to coordination, bringing people along, and ensuring execution. It took us six months to assimilate the new folks.

The same pattern repeats when you are growing large organizations. What could be resolved quickly with a discussion between two people turns into an argument between two teams that needs you to step in. For a period, less gets done than before because the strong performers are burdened with ramping up others, or they are unhappy with getting layered.

The answer isn’t to not grow - ultimately, a big productive team can and should accomplish more in proportion to its size.

From my mistakes and some very scrappy leaders I worked with, I learned to:

1. Pick an appropriate pace of growth.

It’s tempting to keep hiring, especially if you have the resources. However, it’s imperative to think about your mission and your 6-month roadmap. Question how many people are truly needed to accomplish that. Are you making the hard decisions about priorities and matching hiring to that prioritization?

2. Evaluate the current team.

Are you utilizing your existing strong performers well? Often there are people on the team who want to step up and do more, and people with deep context and a sense of loyalty are indispensable.

Do you need a few people with specific skills, e.g., database experts? Sometimes, adding a small number of experts is what’s needed to unblock higher productivity.

Are you adding capacity in the right place? If the infrastructure is broken and you add people to the product team, will it make a difference or cause more pain?

3. Create an effective team structure.

There are a lot of handy frameworks to think about team structure. However, the simplest things to judge its effectiveness are - do all the teams have a clear charter, what services do they own, how much overlap do the teams have, for launching something, do too many teams need to work together?

4. Spend a lot of time on leadership hiring.

If you are hiring senior folks, managers, or ICs, they will have an outsized impact on team culture and health. It is harder and time-consuming to hire senior folks. Investing in hiring the right senior leaders sets you up better to grow sustainably.

5. Set up the missing processes.

You now need processes, e.g., formally onboarding engineers, all hands for bringing people together, surveys to gather feedback. Communication that felt organic before needs to be structured and repeated often.