#159 - Managing a Team During Rapid Growth, Part 1
Plus: Operational discussions in one-on-ones; don't skimp on alignment; helping introverts in meetings; managing up is essential (and good, actually)
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Sorry for missing last week - we ended up making some last-minute plans to enjoy the holiday weekend last weekend here in Canada.
If last weekend was, or this weekend is, a long weekend for you, I hope you enjoy it!
In the research world, we dealt with subtle and complex challenges, but rapid change wasn’t typically one of them.
In particular, rapid expansion of our research teams happens pretty rarely. Certainly labs, groups, and collaborations grew larger and smaller over time, but phases of doubling our team size over the course of a few months almost never happens! (Heck, we probably couldn’t hire that fast in academia even if the opportunity presented itself).
In the teams and organizations many of us are in now, however, it absolutely does happen.
It’s great when our team is experiencing success and growth! But managing that growth puts a lot of pressure on the people managing or leading the team. Managing a team is hard enough; managing a large team is harder; managing a team that’s getting large through a period of rapid change demands a lot of us.
There’s basically seven big challenges during rapid growth we need to deal with. They’re related, but different:
Onboarding effectively: onboarding is essential (#132) and labour intensive when done well. When there’s a lot of onboarding happening, it’s tempting to cut corners here to “save time” - don’t do that! This is the worst time to onboard poorly!
Communicating (and updating?) expectations in the team: People usually describe this as “maintaining the culture” of the team, but that’s too vague, and anyway the team’s culture isn’t necessarily something worth preserving in and of itself. However, the team does need to know how to work together.
Keeping the team’s work moving smoothly: Not only do the team members need to be onboarded to the team, the team needs to adjust to make sure the new team members can be effective. That means documenting and updating processes, building collaboration “connective tissue” with the new team members, and more.
Managing stakeholder expectations: “But you just hired five people!” - stakeholders are going to need to know that people and teams don’t ramp up instantaneously, and things are going to be slower for a while before they can get faster.
Supporting individuals through the change: The new team members are going through a transition, but so are the existing team members. They might be losing some previous responsibilities that someone new is taking on, or gaining mentorship responsibilities - their place in the team is changing. That’s worth keeping an eye on.
Supporting the team collectively through the change: The team is speed running the team forming/storming/norming stages (#58). The team itself needs some Management 201 work.
Handling the new management work: managing more people means more, well, managing. That’s going to mean more delegation for you, to get other things off your plate, and perhaps the deputizing of team leads.
Juggling all of these challenges at once is a lot of work. Our tools for this are the same tools we use for all our other work: one-on-ones, feedback, delegation, basic project management, retrospectives, and peer one-on-ones.
Let’s describe how to handle these challenges one by one. We’ll cover the first four this week; next week we’ll do the last three.
Onboarding well is an essential part of the hiring process (#126). It’s arguably the whole point of the hiring process, what everything else was leading up to. It isn’t optional. It’s the how new team members get integrated into the team culture, expectations, and workflows. It’s the way we get teams up to speed and contributing effectively as part of the team. It's essential for setting them up for success and making them feel welcome and valued. Doing it poorly will mean that the new team member underperforms for months longer than necessary. Doing it very poorly can easily end with you having to hire again.
So how do you onboard effectively during rapid growth? Here are some tips:
Treat it as a project, because it is - especially if you’re doing several simultaneously. If you’ve followed my advice, you already have an onboarding plan to work your team member up to success. Turn that into a checklist. I have a 140+ item checklist for onboarding an intern (note to self - do the staff version); turn these into a portfolio of projects and track their progress.
Learn and take notes. The nice thing about doing a bunch of onboarding in quick succession is that you can learn and improve rapidly. The final onboarding can go significantly better than the first. Repeatedly check in with new hires for input onto what can be improved.
Assign buddies. Make sure that new hires have someone besides their manager or mentor to show them the ropes, how things get done here, and who to go to for particular questions. But also:
Involve everyone. Growing the team is a team sport, and everyone has a role to play. Mentoring on particular task, pairing, shadowing, answering questions - it takes a village to incorporate a new villager.
Create venues for new hires to chat amongst themselves. The onboardees can help each other onboard. Relatedly, new hires can often make the best onboarding buddies.
Give them chances to succeed at steadily increasing scope. The faster that the onboardee is doing something (almost anything!) productive, no matter how tiny, the more chances they have to see how things are done in the team and the more successful they’ll feel.
Communicating (and updating?) expectations in the team
Teams are groups of people that are accountable to each other, where team members have expectations of each other. That’s what distinguishes a team from officemates.
Expectations are the unwritten rules that govern how people behave and interact on a team - things like:
What are the roles and responsibilities of each team member?
How do we communicate with each other and with other stakeholders?
How do we make decisions and resolve conflicts?
How do we collaborate and share information?
How do we give and receive feedback?
How do we measure and celebrate success?
How do we assess the work of the team?
Infuriatingly, expectations are basically invisible until violated. It’s our job as managers to, as much as possible, make these rules explicit and clear for everyone on the team.
Team expectations are best made by the team as a whole - the expectations are really about how the team works together. The questions above are great starting points. Ideally, clear team expectations come before the hiring - even more ideally, they were communicated through the recruiting and hiring process - but it’s never too late!
Document them - have something that can be referred back to, that you can share with the new team members and discuss in one-on-ones, and can evolve.
Contrast them with something - “We perform the highest quality work” is good and no one would ever disagree with that, but it’s not clear where the tradeoffs lie. “We perform the highest quality work, even if it means some deadlines slip” is much stronger, if it’s true. If it’s not, we should have an expectation about meeting deadlines instead, since clearly that’s what this team values. Either is defensible! But team members, especially new team members, need to know what is most important.
Communicate these expectations often through the onboarding process and in team meetings.
Use them in feedback, and encourage team members to use them in their discussion with each other.
Be consistent about using them. A team expectation that’s only applied occasionally isn’t an expectation. If there’s a particular expectation you and the team frequently find yourselves unwilling to call new people out for not meeting, maybe it’s not a real expectation of the team? That’s ok! Junk it, or be consistent about it. Anything else will just confuse the new people.
Don’t preserve them in amber. As the team’s work change - and after the team has grown - expectations might reasonably shift. That’s good! Teams should evolve. Discuss it with the team, and update the document.
Keeping the team’s work moving smoothly
Not only do the team members need to be onboarded to the team, the team needs to adjust to make sure the new team members can be effective.
That means documenting and updating processes, building collaboration “connective tissue” with the new team members, and more.
When a team grows rapidly, it can face some challenges in keeping its work moving smoothly. Some of these challenges are:
Coordination: As more people join the team, it becomes harder to coordinate their tasks, resources, and dependencies. There may be more bottlenecks, delays, or conflicts in completing work.
Communication: As more people join the team, it becomes harder to communicate effectively with everyone. There may be more noise, misinformation, or gaps in sharing information.
Quality: As more people join the team, it becomes harder to maintain quality standards and consistency in delivering work. There may be more errors, rework, or complaints in producing work.
So how do you keep the team’s work moving smoothly during rapid growth? Here are some tips:
Document and update processes (#139): Clear, explicit, shared, updatable processes are documentation for the team. These known-good recipes for getting common tasks done save time and effort. You can also use feedback loops such as reviews, retrospectives, or tests to monitor and improve processes.
Build collaboration “connective tissue” with the new team members: #156, helping collaboration happen, may help here. Pairing, explicit knowledge sharing, making sure new people are assigned to projects with senior people - ensure that as new people are getting things accomplished, they’re getting them accomplished as part of the team, sharing their wins, and getting feedback.
Managing Stakeholder Expectations
Managing stakeholder expectations means aligning their needs and wants with your capabilities and constraints in delivering work. It helps avoid disappointment, frustration, or conflict in achieving results.
When your team grows rapidly, it can create some challenges in managing stakeholder expectations. Some of these challenges are:
Unrealistic demands: Some stakeholders may expect you to deliver more work faster or better because you have more people on your team. They may not understand or appreciate the complexities or difficulties of scaling up your work. They may also have conflicting or changing priorities or requirements for your work.
Reduced visibility: Some stakeholders may feel left out or ignored because you have less time or attention for them as you focus on integrating your new team members. They may not know or trust the new people on your team. They may also have less access or insight into your progress or performance.
So how do you manage stakeholder expectations during rapid growth? Here are some tips:
Communicate proactively: Don't wait for stakeholders to come to you with questions or complaints - reach out to them regularly and update them on your plans, progress, and challenges. Use clear and consistent messages that explain the rationale and benefits of your growth, the impact and risks of your growth, and the expectations and timelines of your work. Use multiple channels and formats to communicate with different stakeholders, such as emails, reports, presentations, meetings, etc.
Manage scope and priorities: Don't let stakeholders overwhelm you with unrealistic or unreasonable demands - negotiate and agree on the scope and priorities of your work with them upfront and throughout the project. Use tools such as project charter, scope statement, work breakdown structure, or MoSCoW method to define and document the scope and priorities of your work. Use techniques such as change management, issue management, or escalation management to handle any changes or issues that arise in your work.
Involve and empower stakeholders: Don't treat stakeholders as passive recipients of your work - involve and empower them as active participants and partners in your work. Use methods such as stakeholder analysis, stakeholder mapping, or stakeholder engagement plan to identify and understand your stakeholders' needs, interests, expectations, and influence. Use strategies such as co-creation, collaboration, consultation, or feedback to engage and empower your stakeholders in your work.
We’ll continue this next week. Are there gaps you see? Anything you have struggled with or succeeded with at the past? Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Before we get to the roundup, I really want to hear from you about what you’d like to read more of in this newsletter, what challenges you are facing or you find other managers from the research world are facing, and what tradeoffs you’re considering. I want to make sure this newsletter and occasional resources are as valuable as possible for our community!
You can always email me, but I’d love to have a reader input chat with you if that works better - we could talk about what you’d like to see more (or less!) of, what you think would be most valuable for managers like us, or just ask about things you’re seeing. Feel free to schedule a quick free chat!
And now, on to the roundup!
Managing Individuals ,
People talk about one-on-ones a lot, which is good - they’re important! There’s a bunch of good rules of thumbs about what makes for a good one-on-one, and unfortunately sometimes those rules of thumb get repeated so often that they start to sound like commandments.
Don't throw out the rules of thumb, but remember, those rules of thumb are in service of having a good one-on-one, which itself is in service of developing a good working relationship between a manager and a team member.
As Visinoni tells us, firmly ruling out entire areas of conversation like operational questions (“how are things going on the X project?”) doesn’t serve us:
I think we're doing ourselves more harm than good by taking such a narrow and dogmatic view on what is in scope for 1to1s. The result is that both employees and managers are not getting the best out of them.
One-on-ones aren't the place for routine status updates - our individual face-to-face time is too precious for things that can be answered by looking at a project management tracker. But that doesn’t mean we don’t talk about projects or tasks or activities:
What I'm usually trying to do here is to get a sense of how the person is able to cope with their current workload. Are they overwhelmed? Are they blocked on something? Are they missing out an opportunity to get some external help?
The trick is to be higher level, focus on big picture “how work is going” discussions.
Visioni also discusses using one on ones to give feedback, discuss ways of working, topics brought by the team member, career development, and big topics.
I also 100% agree with this sentiment:
Make sure you proactively ask for feedback too as part of these meetings.
Alignment gets expensive. Don’t skimp on it. - Jessica Joy Kerr
This is a great line, and I wish I had written it:
More people means we can do more things at the same time. Both “more people” and “more things at the same time” lead to increased overhead.
Kerr describes a challenge very much related to the Managing A Team During Rapid Growth topic this week - alignment as an organization gets large.
Kerr shares some examples of how Honeycomb has achieved success with more people and more projects, but also how they have faced more overhead and slower pace. She offers some suggestions for managing these trade-offs, such as accepting coordination overhead, replacing collaboration with decoupling when possible, and not skimping on alignment.
Alignment is not expensive, compared to collaboration. But it feels disposable, it’s easy to let slip.
Ensuring a common understanding of goals and directions - heck, just having visibility into what’s going on - gets harder quickly in larger teams and organizations. It’s easy to just cut corners, since lack of alignment rarely causes immediate problems. But in the long run it leads to scattered or duplicated efforts, squandered opportunities, and atrophied communications.
5 Meeting Strategies That Help Introverts Share Their Ideas - Duncan Jones
Our team members are often experts, but still often need some help sharing their ideas and contributing to team meetings. Here Jones offers a “Managing Teams” approach on making meetings easier to contribute to for introverts, while Hurt’s article is a “Managing Individuals” discussion on coaching individual team members.
Jones recommends some techniques for making meetings more approachable for introverts:
Incorporate (quiet) writing into the meeting - “brain writing” as a first stage to brainstorming, or using post-it notes for brainstorming or feedback
Use pregnant pauses to provide openings for people to contribute
Send reading material (and agendas, it goes without saying) ahead of time, so people less comfortable speaking extemporaneously have some time to think about the material first
Actively facilitate the meeting - don’t let the more boisterous team members hog the floor
As a manager, share your opinion last - heavens yes, this is essential, and it took me an embarrassingly long time to learn this. In fact, this is a good idea generally.
Hunt offers good approaches to coaching a team member to speak up in meetings:
Be curious about what’s going on, so you can better understand the situation (don’t assume anything!)
Explain why their voice matters
Help the team member prepare
Debrief them and help them learn to eventually repeat the process on their own.
Managing Within Organizations
This is a great article by Devlin on managing up, starting with how she realized it’s importance through someone who managed up to her effectively:
It’s hard to describe how easy and fun it felt to manage this person. I always knew what they cared about, how things were going, what they expected of me. It allowed me to be very open with them in return.
She shares five concrete ways we can get started managing up:
Sharing a weekly update (“..please try it for 4 weeks. I promise you it’s an instant time saver and trust builder. “)
Using your 1:1 time well
Sharing your development goals
Make it easy for your manager to share feedback
Offer support and help.
It’s a great article - read it!
As people from research, we tend to, well, let’s say neglect the people stuff. (I once quite seriously told a friend, “I didn’t get a Ph.D. in Physics so I could talk to people”).
Worse than merely neglect, some of us hold the people stuff in active distain, our view it as straightforwardly suspicious. I’ve heard some variation of this more times than I can count: “Managing up/networking/having lunch with people is just ‘playing politics’/schmoozing/trying to look good”.
But it’s our professional responsibility to take some initiative in developing a productive work relationship with our own managers. It’s our job to work well with them, and them helping us is part of their job, so actively soliciting and making use of that help makes life easier for them. (Similarly, with developing good peer working relationships across the org, or developing professional networks outside the org).
And that’s it for the week! I hope it was useful; Let me know what you thought, or if you have anything you’d like to share with me about how a newsletter or community about management for people like us might be even more valuable. Just email me, leave a comment, or reply to this newsletter if you get it in your inbox.
Have a great weekend, and best of luck in the coming week week with your team,