Mitosis Is Another Organizational Growth Strategy
This strategy gets its name from the biological process of mitosis which is how cells divide. It starts with one stable cell growing in mass until it has the size to divide into two replicas (two stable cells). When mitosis happens at a sustainable rate, it causes minimal disruption.
In terms of team growth, this means:
1. Build a large team. High performance is optional but some level of psychological safety is mandatory.
2. Add lots of people to the team in a short period of time. The short period of time (1-3 months) is key otherwise, this is just Whac-A-Mole in disguise.
3. When the team has doubled or tripled in size, split the team into naturally formed sub-groups or run a self-selection event. There needs to be some level of stability before you split the team in order for the new groups to not be selected as a flight response.
I’ve helped facilitate several splits using the Mitosis approach as an organizational growth strategy. The most recent one was splitting a huge value stream to independent streams that had value to the customers but the organization didn’t know how to. We merged several teams, and, after they’d been exposed to the entire value stream for some time, we asked the teams and team members themselves how they thought they should be split.
1. It’s a fairly simple way to grow teams: just push everyone into the same team and ask them to identify independent customer needs to organize around.
2. As the team grows, tension will often arise. Since everyone knows that a split is around the corner (weeks to a month or two away), it increases their patience and willingness to collaborate with each other since they know it’s a time-boxed, short-term phase.
3. You may be able to get by without spending too much time on full team retrospectives and continuous improvement activities since teams know a new structure is coming and can tap into short-term patience. Not having to participate in retros with 10-15 other people you don’t know well or that you know you may not work with in a months time reduces tension and frustration.
4. You focus growth efforts on certain areas and teams which reduces the negative impacts that scaling has. Since the other teams are stable and have time to improve their collaboration as a result.
1. Doubling or tripling team size in a short amount of time reduces psychological safety significantly.
2. Approaching team growth in this way may completely stall the team’s ability to perform, and it may even cause mental health issues if interpersonal conflicts arise that aren’t dealt with or if there aren’t structures in place that create safety.
3. Growing many teams slowly to eventually conduct a mitosis split causes all the drawbacks with Whac-A-Mole as well as with Mitosis. (So pick one).
4. The sub-groups that naturally form when a team grows above five members may be based on biases and identity such as tenure, language, ethnicity, style of working, or role rather than what’s best for collaboration. The longer it takes before adding new members, the stronger these sub-groups will be.
1. Set the split date in advance so that everyone knows when it will happen and through self-selection.
2. When the team gets big (10+), have a conversation with the team about when you’ll meet in a large group setting, what you’ll talk about, and how you’ll make decisions. Meeting to make decisions with 20 people can be tricky so it’s best to have a plan.
3. Build relationships through formal and informal settings e.g. demos, knowledge sharing sessions, social events etc.
4. Together with the original team members, talk about your organizational growth strategy before taking in more members. Set up a rotating collaboration program like pair programming or mob programming so that when the first person joins it becomes the norm from start. As early as possible make your decision-making process as well as prioritization process explicit.