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What We Think

Preventing your Growth from Killing Your Business

A perfectly round and bouncy balloon explodes if it gets too big. Small, perfectly formed pastries lose their shape and structural integrity when made too large. When you take something that works beautifully and try to make it bigger, it often does one of two things. It explodes, or it loses its shape and function.

Organizations are much the same. How do you take a well functioning organization and scale it successfully? How do you ensure that the elements that kept it together won’t begin to sag? Or explode?

Scaling successfully involves two parallel efforts. Procedures and processes need to be restructured to maintain efficiency and quality. A lot of attention is usually paid to this effort.

Culture, however, is often ignored, and culture often causes growth to stall or stumble or collapse. How do you maintain the intimacy and transparency and trust of a small team of 10 when it expands to 50? To 200? To 2000?

We have been working with an organization to scale their operations from one location and a handful of people to four locations coast to coast. The culture of the team had been carefully nurtured and was key to the initial success of the group. Then the team expanded.

With growth, not everyone knew each other; team meetings involved sporadic video technology and sometimes static audio; “sharing” was becoming politic rather than a chance to delve into key issues. The leadership wanted to maintain the culture that had brought them success. To do so, we had to unpack the culture and reassemble how it manifests itself.

Articulating the elements of the culture, and specifying the implications of each of the stated behaviors is critical to scaling culture. For example, most organizations say that they want “A+” employees. But does that mean you want technical experts? The most well-rounded individuals? Team players? And what do you do with competent and well-liked B employees? Should they be terminated? What are the implications for recruiting? Hiring? Performance feedback?

Restructuring meetings is fundamental. The weekly team meeting that had fostered support had deteriorated into quick updates that kept the leadership informed but did little to unite the team. So, we cancelled the weekly meeting and created a new meeting structure. Because knowledge & information sharing is core to the culture, we have also built a knowledge management and communication structure around the meetings. Small groups of 4-6 cross-location staff meet every other week to recreate the intimacy and deep sharing that used to happen at the staff meeting. Leadership is not invited. This is safe space to talk about challenges and insights. The alternate week is devoted to location specific meetings, with an all staff meeting taking its place every 6 weeks. Once a quarter, the whole team physically gets together.

Leadership focus on culture is central for the scaling plan. We created a specific time in the new meeting structure for leadership to meet and discuss only the culture of the team. The agenda is simple: leaders from across the locations gather to discuss specific behaviors in order to identify cracks in the team before they become critical – pink flags before they turn into red flags. This time also helps ensure that all locations stay aligned and do not create rogue cultures.

Bottom line: As business grows, scaling and nurturing culture is critical to keeping the organization intact and in shape.

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