There’s lots of great material out there on how to build agile teams. That material focuses on support and improvement at a team level which is of course one crucial component. But in the midst of all this, we seem to have forgotten one of the most important aspects of team building that has a huge impact on team performance: the organizational growth strategy.
Don’t get me wrong: helping individual teams become high performing teams is essential (and there are enough pitfalls to avoid there as it is). But if you don’t consider your team growth plan, the way, and frequency with which you choose to grow your teams, you may be counteracting all the effort you’re putting into helping those teams become high performing.
There are four common organizational growth strategies in total. Within this text, you will get to know the first one. I’ve written out the benefits, drawbacks, and some tips on what you can do to reduce the downsides for each approach. Because there’s no organizational growth strategy that only comes with upsides, the key, as with most things, is determining which downsides you’re able to work with.
Why does having an organizational growth strategy matter so much?
You may be thinking: “why do we need an explicit organizational growth strategy?” We’re human and flexible and can adapt, right? Constant changes in team composition require time and energy to build psychological safety back up each time a team composition change is made. This often means that the benefits of your hard work at getting the agile process down right and helping the team learn how to work well together will be greatly reduced. All that makes it even harder to become a high performing team.
Why does psychological safety matter?
Psychological safety is a state in which team members feel safe taking interpersonal risks. William Kahn, a professor in organizational behavior at Boston University, did extensive research on the topic and describes psychological safety as “being able to show and employ one’s self without fear of negative consequences of self-image, status or career.”
The level of psychological safety we feel in a given situation influences which parts of our brains get activated. When our brains have determined that the environment is socially safe, we are able to use abstract thinking, language, memories, creativity, and empathy freely and in new ways. The opposite is true when the brain registers low social safety–we go into threat response mode which means fight, flight, or freeze.
Try solving a problem when one third of the team wants to get out of the room, one third has shut down their brains so they can’t even process what they are hearing, and one third is busy finding fault and being aggressive. You’ve probably seen it before–not exactly the best environment for productive collaboration, right?
Psychological safety is considered to be one of the most important enabling factors of high performance in teams, and the way you grow teams directly affects it. That makes having an explicit organizational growth strategy all the more important. So what are four ways you can grow teams? Let’s take a look, and we start with a strategy I call “Recruitment Whac-A-Mole” which is the most common organizational growth strategy companies have.
You probably remember the arcade game Whac-A-Mole in which you use a mallet to “whack” plastic “moles” as they popped up, earning a point for each successful strike. Recruitment Whac-A-mole refers to the process of opening up positions in different teams and focusing intensely on filling those positions as they “pop up”. You’re probably quite familiar with it already as it’s the most common way to grow teams.
And that’s no surprise. It’s very straightforward after all. Here’s a recruitment need that’s popped up in a team, here’s an available person that meets their requirements and that the team approves. Boom, done.
During times of high growth, open positions pop up seemingly everywhere and in every team. That leads to a whole lot of mole whac-ing. As you may have guessed, Whac-A-Mole as an organizational growth strategy comes with the most significant drawbacks both short and long term. So why do companies default to this method of team growth?
1. Whac-A-Mole is rationally straightforward. We’ve become so accustomed to it that it’s now more or less an established industry best practice (from a recruitment perspective).
2. It’s easy. Again, here’s a person, here’s a team. Boom, done.
3. It scales well. And if you need to scale faster you can simply hire more recruiters and managers.
4. It’s easy to match new hires with teams and challenges that match their interests and ambitions.
5. As a new joiner, knowing which team you’ll join gives you a sense of the people in the team. This makes it possible to assess whether you want to work with the team or not. Psychological safety often goes up if you know who you’ll be working with.
6. Of course, this works both ways. The team will also feel a sense of increased psychological safety since they know beforehand who will be joining them.
7. In project-based organizations, Whac-A-Mole is often appreciated as it liberates Project Managers from stable structures that put deadlines at jeopardy (e.g., “our delivery date is in 3 months, so I can’t start recruiting externally now”).
The downsides of this team growth approach are mainly related to the negative impact on psychological safety that frequent changes to team composition have, namely:
1. Reduced cognitive ability/performance in all teams that are recruiting, every time they recruit.
2. Teams shifts their focus from solving problems and reaching goals to building relationships and re-visiting processes, roles, structures, and purpose. (If you’re familiar with Tuckman’s stages of Group Development or Susan Wheelans IMGD what’s happening when you frequently change team composition is that the team moves back and forth between Storming/Counterdependency and Fight.)
3. Subgroups can form as new joiners may be threatening to the social status and have different opinions about the purpose. And let’s face it: if you’ve worked in a team that’s run roles and responsibilities workshops 5 times in the last 5 months you’ve probably gotten really tired of it.
4. Team members start thinking about leaving (and actually leave) the team to find a team where there’s peace and quiet so that they can focus on their direct work.
5. Companies mobilize themselves to deal with interpersonal conflicts and re-integrate sub-groups that work in isolation. And if you’re organization is scaling rapidly, there are even more situations a company needs to deal with. So that’s company energy spent on dealing with conflict and not with reaching goals.
If you’re stuck in a Whac-A-Mole team growth system, here are some things you can do that will help you reduce the drawbacks mentioned above:
1. Have a conversation with the team and ask them what effects Whac-A-Mole is having on their happiness, productivity, and stress levels.
2. If you know you’re going into a Whac-A-Mole period, make your decision-making process as well as prioritization process explicit. It’s easier the smaller your team is and more stable it’s been. So you might not get a better chance than before you start recruiting.
3. Actively and often show appreciation towards each other and celebrate. As a product manager, you can immensely help the team with this by prioritizing small tasks that are easy for the team to accomplish. This creates a positive atmosphere which increases psychological safety.
4. Make sure every new hire has a buddy for an extended time and preferably rotate that person.
5. Mob program for an extended period of time whenever someone new joins. It’s a great way to get to know someone, knowledge share, and integrate someone. Don’t get me wrong, I’m a huge fan of mob programming and I know not everyone is, but mob programming is a great onboarding strategy especially when there is frequent changes to the team composition. It becomes a stabilizing ceremony.
6. Create structured knowledge sharing.
7. Batch people in (rather have 3 people joining the same week than one per month to make it possible to run bootstrap exercises etc.
8. Create an onboarding program that’s owned by the team.