Successful Scaling: How to Grow Without Tumbling Back Down

“Breathing would be delightful,” the director of products told me in our kickoff. His startup was growing fast. It had a bunch of new funding, the pressure was on to ship, and the team was underwater. I was there to help and take the pressure off so they could breathe. “Let’s begin to think strategically about the future,” I told them. Here is successful scaling and how to grow without tumbling back down.

Scale is the problem you want — and one many companies never get to experience. It’s a sign of a good team and a good product when you can scale and scale quickly. Ironically, growing can be what destroys you. Your team can lose sight of the goal and group dynamics can get thrown off.

Systems can crack under pressure that they were never designed to support. Leadership will often become frustrated with their teams, wondering why they can’t keep up with the onslaught of new ideas and tasks. Worst of all, confusion can infiltrate your product, impacting the customer experience and even your reputation.

Product Management and UX are more difficult to scale than engineering. Engineering has commonly accepted and uses ratios and patterns for scaling. Product Management and UX trends to add people when it becomes painfully clear the current team is overwhelmed. Then the team hire and onboard new people while doing everything else.

How to Avoid Problems and Implement Successful Scaling

The reality is that scaling looks different for every company and team. Here are some constants that have guided us over the years as we’ve helped grow teams from small strike forces to significant success stories:

Direct the train

Product and UX need to direct a train that is already running. There is little to no appetite at most companies for engineering to slow down so product and UX can figure things out. As simply and often as you can, tell everyone where we’re going, why it matters and what it will look when they are there so they can make decisions without needing detailed documentation. We teach everyone at 3Pillar about the Product Mindset and how we need to build for outcomes like revenue and engagement.

Contain the whack-a-mole effect

Success breeds success – and ideas generate ideas. If things are going well with your company, it’s likely that you’ve had at least a few brainstorming questions, looking to generate new strategies and concepts.

“Hiten Bombs” is what they called at KISSmetrics when founder Hiten Shah dropped new ideas on the team and in a very brave post he wrote about how his ideas blew up progress on the team.

One of the core principles of our Product Mindset is to excel at change. It’s tempting to try and make all these exciting new ideas a reality, but the fact of the matter is that if you listen to everything, you’ll never get anything done. Systematically collect ideas, review them, select the most promising ones – and move on.

Fix your movement patterns

I’ve taught skiers with a chapter of Disabled Sports USA for many years. A skier needs to get down the hill without hurting themselves or others, and they adopt a movement pattern that will get that job done. But it doesn’t mean that it’s efficient or effective as they want to get on harder terrain. My job as an instructor is to understand their goals and how they move and start to replace their old movements with new ones that will help them progress.

The same principle is true of businesses: The patterns that served a small business won’t necessarily serve it well as it scales.  Figure out what habits are holding your team back and forge new ones. It might be awkward at first, but it can save you time, money and talent in the long run.

Create simple rules

There’s a place for the comprehensive, big, bound employee handbook – and, more often than not, it’s in a wiki no one reads. What we need are ways to help our teams use their judgment to make better decisions. Researchers from Stanford found that simple rules help employees make decisions in a world of complexity and change. 

Nine times out of ten, if someone struggles with effective decision-making – whether it’s on dress, hours, remote work or benefits – they need coaching, not a detailed policy. Keeping things simple will keep you nimble as you expand.

Listen carefully to your new hires

It’s hardly conventional wisdom; if anything, new hires are the ones who need to do the listening. But hearing their expectations will give you greater insight into interpersonal dynamics, and listening to their past experiences of what worked and what didn’t could supply you with new approaches and tactics.

Own your day

In the flurry and flutter of change, it’s easy to spend all your energy putting out fires and ensuring that everyone gets through the day intact. Take time – each quarter, each month, each week, each day – to consciously and concretely advance your long-term goals, even if it’s just by a fraction. If our experience shows anything, you won’t be able to do this every day. But on the days you can do it, you’ll feel all the more accomplished and centered on what it is you do and who it is you are.

At the end of the day, if you keep your eye on the big picture, a bigger team can be a stronger team. If you set clear roles and clear expectations for your employees, foster an environment of trust and collaboration through strong leadership and tackle growth step-by-step, you can successfully scale without losing sight of how you got there.

Jessica Hall

Jessica Hall is Vice President of Product Strategy & Design at 3Pillar Global and is the author of “The Product Mindset: Succeed in the Digital Economy by Changing the way Your Organization Thinks.”


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