Illustration: Oscar Ramos Orozco

Never Stop Talking: How Small Teams Stay Great When They Grow

We like to attribute magical qualities to most startups. Collectively, we marvel at their ability to focus on a single, potentially world-changing product. We praise the inclusiveness and camaraderie of their employees. Their ability to move quickly is the envy of every major corporation. 

What is often overlooked is that these qualities exist not solely because of the greatness of the startup team, but are in part made easier by the team’s size. There is a “Law of Small Teams” at play: the smaller you are, the fewer natural barriers to moving quickly and effectively towards your goals. So the real proving ground for any team is when you can no longer sit elbow-to-elbow around a single table. 

When your team is small, your biggest barriers tend to be external in nature: needing more funding, press, or market traction. Internally, though, you can turn on a dime. Yet as you grow, keeping your team aligned and coordinated becomes increasingly challenging. The single best tool you have in keeping your growing team agile is building a culture of effective communication.  

For example, you might start to hear a phrase I’ve grown to detest: “I can’t start that yet, since I need this person to finish their part first.” These internal dependencies will be your death by a thousand paper cuts: it is possible to wake up one day to find your entire team moving glacially slow, with everyone waiting on someone else. Yet when teams internally communicate their dependencies and roadblocks, you can collectively work to eliminate them, allowing the teams to work in parallel. This awareness that communication brings is the first step to breaking these bottlenecks and recapturing that small team agility, even when you’re larger. 

It is possible to wake up one day to find your entire team moving glacially slow, with everyone waiting on someone else. 

I’ve been an early part of two rapidly growing teams and businesses – first at TED, now at Behance – and witnessed first hand how communication allowed us to scale. Here are a few of the lessons I’ve learned.

Leverage technology, but don’t force it.

Our engineering team at Behance convinced the rest of us to use a group chat program (such as Campfire or Hipchat), and we can no longer imagine life with out it. The ability to have asynchronous, recorded interactions among an entire team – and to split off into deeper dives through private chat – is the single best way we’ve found to keep everyone aware of what is happening. 

Mix and match the technology that best works for you, whether it is an instant messenger client, texting, Skype, or even the generous use of post-it notes. But be wary of dictating the tech your teams use: broad adoption is more important than any specific feature set. Better to build off what your team naturally gravitates toward instead of forcing the implementation of the “perfect” solution.

Favor in-person conversations, not email.

We can all become too reliant on communication by text. My colleagues Zach and Jackie coined the word “FaceMail” for the age-old act of walking over to your colleague’s desk and starting a conversation. A few minutes of face-to-face conversation eliminates days of email threads. 

But there is in important pre-requisite to this form of communication: be interruptible. If you are too busy to listen to your team, don’t expect them to make the time to listen to each other. Yes, you might occasionally lose the deep focus you had when you are interrupted. But an in-person conversation alleviates one of the greatest drains on company resources – a lack of clarity – so it generally is a worthy tradeoff. And there are a lot of strategies for ensuring you still have that much-needed time to focus, such as blocking off a few hours a day to camp out in the quieter parts of your office.

Hold all-hands meetings.

Being able to have an entire team’s simultaneous attention is the norm in a small team, but becomes increasingly difficult as you grow. You have to actively build it into your calendar. At Behance, we started a weekly all-hands with each team presenting (and each team rotating who presents to the group). These can and should be standing meetings (where everyone literally stands) that only last around 15 minutes allowing deeper discussions to take place offline.

When it stops working, stop doing it.

The single worst reason to continue doing something is because you did it before. When a system or process of communication starts to show signs of strain, ask what it was originally designed to solve and whether that problem still exists. If the problem no longer exists, scrap the process. If it does, refactor to make it work again. For example, our all-hands meeting was originally a monthly sit-down, with every team member speaking. When that showed signs of strain, we added the new weekly format.

The single worst reason to continue doing something is because you did it before.

*** 

Most people assume that communication inherent in small teams will continue naturally as you grow. Hey, we’re talking all day – isn’t that enough? But it’s a skill set that has to be cultivated and optimized throughout your team. Fail to prioritize it and your growing team will increasingly stand in the way of their own success. But build it into your culture and your small team can turn into the foundation of a great company.

More insights on: Office Dynamics

William Allen

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William Allen is the Director of Strategy and Operations at Behance. Prior to Behance, William created strategic partnerships with global brands at TED and was co-founder of the consultancy Industry Digital Media. He is a graduate of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
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