Why Growth Ends Up Killing Most Teams

If you ask most teams to identify their top three metrics of how they rate their success, almost every group you asked would say that “growth” is one of their primary indicators that they are doing something right.
And yet, while growth does often demonstrate success, it is also one of the most dangerous by-products of a successful team. If growth is not managed well and prepared for in advance, the very thing teams aim for will end up killing them in the long run.
Julie Zhuo, the VP of Product Design at Facebook recently described the necessity for staying ahead of the dangers of growing teams in the Harvard Business Review:
(As we grew) there were more unexpected issues, more announcements to communicate, more decisions to keep track of. This pattern kept repeating itself. As soon as I figured out a better process, a few more people would join and the gears would get clogged once more. The only way to stay effective was to constantly change and adapt.
In my own leadership, I’ve seen growth both strengthen and topple teams and organizational efforts. I spent five years leading a city-wide service organization in Atlanta, GA. Each year, as our partnerships and productivity scaled, so did the number of team members that were necessary to pull off the work. What started as a team of six in my first year ended as a team of 45 by the fifth year.
I had to navigate the tension of how to manage the growth of our organization without letting that growth turn around and take us out.

Why Growth Kills Teams

Teams function best when they are properly informed and motivated. When they know what they are doing and why they are doing it.
Quick or extensive growth inherently threatens both of these central functions of a healthy team. Take increasing your staff as an example. Although it may feel like you are only adding a few more team members, every person add is a growth “unit” that defaults to pushing you further from the ability to keep your people both informed and motivated.
This is because a team grows, communication within that team proliferates exponentially, not linearly.
Chart by Jake Daghe
This extrapolation is one of the most dangerous elements of growth facing most teams. This is the reality that Julie Zhuo experienced when her design team at FaceBook started adding team members. She describes the sentiment that most developing leaders feel as their teams begin growing:
“Everything seemed to be going smoothly. Then one day, seemingly out of the blue, I realized that the old way of doing things was no longer working.”
Adding a team member is not quite as simple as just adding another line of communication. The more you grow, the harder it becomes to communicate clearly and to keep your teams informed and motivated towards the essential mission of your organization.

Keeping Growing Teams Informed

As teams grow, structure and specificity are crucial for good and healthy communication within the organization. As a leader, it is part of your main responsibility to ensure that your team members both understand and buy into your organization's structure of communication. In order to do this, you must describe in detail how you expect your team to communicate and when you would like them to do so.
Determining the how of communication for most organizations and teams is fairly straightforward. The tools are fairly universal and consistent. Text messaging, Inter-office messaging like Slack or IM, and email. Your team may have another organization-specific form of communication, but odds are you are likely using these core tools.
Most leaders have more difficulty with the when of communication, especially as their teams grow. If possible, you need to make it clear to your teams which method of communication you expect them to use when and for what purpose. In our organization, texting is reserved for critical questions and necessary quick responses. Slack is used for general inquiries and short-burst information communication. The typical response window for a slack message is between an hour and a half a day. Email is reserved for longer-content communication and details that may not need an immediate answer.
The more you can clarify your communication structure, the better your team will be equipped to stay informed of the key details for your organization.

Keeping Growing Teams Motivated

When it comes to keeping your growing team motivated, repetition is a leader’s best friend. Jeff Weiner, CEO of LinkedIn, says this about repetition:
“If you want to get your point across, especially to a broader audience, you need to repeat yourself so often, you get sick of hearing yourself say it. And only then will people begin to internalize what you’re saying.”
Motivation and missional alignment are often taken for granted by leaders who are too busy putting out the fires associated with quick or unexpected growth. But in today’s business climate, very few people will blindly accept the core motivation of a company or organization. With so many options for where to work, people want to be convinced as to why they should join in with the mission of your organization.
Therefore, if you neglect to prioritize keeping your growing team motivated, you will lose your best people. And when that happens, your growth has once again derailed and sabotaged your organization.
Great leaders will aim to keep their teams motivate by creating clear and easy to remember cultural value statements. Each organization has its own culture, and when your team is small, that culture is easy to maintain and mold how you see fit. But as you grow and take on more and more team members, that culture becomes harder to keep consistent and clear.
Therefore, simplify your values and state them often. Start meetings by talking about your values. Train new team members extensively in your values and follow up in four to six weeks with more cultural training. Keep at it often and adjust accordingly as you see the need for maximum impact.

Get Stronger As You Grow

Growth doesn’t have to derail your team or organization. If you are aware of the pitfalls and potential difficulties, if you embrace the preparation and make sure you as a leader are ready to adapt and change as your team grows, you will be successful. And not only that, but your teams will accomplish great results far beyond your expectations.