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Transforming at Scale - Episode 1: People and Organisations

5 min read

In this episode let’s look at scaling across people and organisations.

We’ve learnt that people collaborate most effectively when they know each other well and can anticipate how each other will behave. They grow this understanding by communicating and observing. In a team of two there is one channel to consider and both people can devote their time and energy to it. Add two more people to the team and the communication burden doesn’t double it leaps much more. There are now 6 channels across the team. Each person is directly linked to three channels but the others still create a mental load (“Bob says that Ann told him this but that seems different to what Ann told me earlier. What’s going on?”).

If we keep teams small, say between 5 and 10 people, and let them spend a lot of time together people’s innate or learned skills will work well. Relationships and trust will grow and they will probably be happier and more effective than the same group working alone. A lot of our basic agile working practices take advantage of this. Many of these practices have been developed by trial and error with small teams to take advantage how people naturally work well together. It is often less about bringing in “agile” and more about taking away other unhelpful practices that stop people doing what they are naturally good at. If you can, keeping things to the scale of this kind of team is a great strategy (perhaps, in another episode, we’ll talk about how lots of our problems can be scaled down to this size but, unfortunately, some can’t). If we have teams that are bigger we start to need that adventurer spirit and be ready for some frustration.

You will have worked with some much bigger teams than this in the past. Some of them worked really well. Some of them were horrible. Your learning machine will have gone to work. You are sure you know the right ingredients to steer your new team down the right path. But it doesn’t work and some of the team won’t even give your ideas a try. Even with just 20 people in a team there are hundreds of channels at work. No one in the team has a complete picture of what was going on. We are like the cells in a bigger organism which takes on a life of its own and behaves in surprising ways. Study cell biology for a long as you like but it won’t explain why some people are vandals, some are poets, and some are both! Anything you think you learned from the successes and failures needs to be treated with some humility. You may not have had to a chance observe the relationships or interactions that actually made the real difference between the great or disappointing teams you were part of. That’s ok. Keep talking and try something else.

As the scale increases the communication burden explodes faster than our ability to address it. You might find cascade style communications worked great in your last department but everyone is complaining about poor communication in your new department. But you know cascades work as you have done it before. In fact, all you know is cascade communications succeeded in those teams where it was effective. Maybe you never noticed some diligent team members who worked behind the scenes to fill in the holes. Perhaps that is the element you need to recreate now but you never had the opportunity to learn about it. That’s ok. Keep talking and try something else.

Trust can become a big issue even when everyone in the team has good intentions and is working towards the same goal. Scale prevents us getting a deep understanding of our colleagues. We still try to anticipate people but we can’t do this as reliably as we do in a small team. People in a big team do things which catch us by surprise more often. We are normally so good at this sort of thing it is quite natural to think your expectations are reasonable. It can lead you to unfairly doubt the motives of the other people. Lack of trust increases the burden which can create a vicious cycle. Some teams or collaborations can be destroyed by this. The individuals are striving for the same goal but their collective efforts are undermined by the scale of the team.

At a really big scale you can hit seemingly bizarre problems. Surely an organisation of 30,000 people or so can work with common policies on things like HR, Finance and Procurement? In fact, isn’t this essential if we want to avoid chaos? In practice, people are finding that policies and standards can’t scale indefinitely and have to be adventurous and find another way.

At around 5000 staff the Council is already big enough to hit limits to scale for some things. On top of that we run payroll for around 40,000 people and many of our services have to collaborate with partners and customers beyond this. This is really hard work. We don’t struggle because we are bad at our jobs it is just that our solutions don’t scale as we would like. The things we learnt at one scale don’t apply so well at another. Nothing we can get from anyone else will scale as well as they think it will. Guess what? It’s ok. Keep talking and try something else.

Originally published on by Richard Barton