Scaling Teams and the Fight Against Human Nature

I’ve talked to a lot of founders about their startup experiences and one of the more consistent topics we eventually get to is that, somewhere around 80-100 people, the team dynamics get really hard. So hard, in fact, that many founders opt to leave their companies at around this size and bring in more “professional” management.

(via Ana Teresa on Flickr)

In the past year, as Moz has grown from ~60 people to ~120, we’ve been feeling some of that same pain. A dramatic portion of the time spent by executives, managers, and myself tending to the company goes toward adjusting team dynamics, fiddling with processes, soothing egos, coaching individuals on how to work well with each other, and investing in all the human infrastructure and support necessary to make 120 people function more like a small, nimble machine.

The craft itself – the creation of that new business model and new product to solve a big, painful problem,  is a smaller and smaller portion of the time and energy pie chart (at least, for managers/execs/founders). In some ways, that’s a sad, frustrating thing. And in other ways, it’s a healthy, normal part of  scaling.

Why? Because getting bigger and working cohesively toward common goals comes into conflict with so much of human nature.

Human nature dictates that we:

  • Form tribes to build identity and camraderie – yet in a scaling startup, this causes untenable, painful, progress-stopping inter-team rivalries.
  • Invent a common enemy upon which we can heap blame and against which we can fight – sadly, inside the tribes that naturally form, there’s often a tendency to create that common enemy internally (it could be marketing vs. engineering or testing vs. production or sales vs. execs, or any number of others).
  • Minimize the positives and focus on the negatives – that could be feedback from customers, internal critiques, manager reviews, product imperfections, or weaknesses in process. It’s so easy to forget that we somehow beat the formidable odds against building something that worked, something that attracted customers, something that scaled, and a company where hundreds of people really do want to work.
  • Resist change at all costs – yet in a scaling startup, change is the only constant, and processes, procedures, formats, teams, and everything else has to change to be successful.
  • Act emotionally, yet believe our decisions to be driven solely by logic – we tell ourselves we act rationally, but can easily prove that irrational biases rule our minds. This wouldn’t be nearly as dangerous if we could recognize these biases, but in another failing of human nature, we cannot – we cling to the notion that our decisions, unlike the rest of our species, are uniquely logical.
  • Lose empathy as our numbers grow – tragically, when we need empathy the most (as an organization gets bigger and there are more people to consider and more complexities between them), our nature is to rescind it. It’s easy to empathize with a small group you see everyday, but much harder to extend that empathy to everyone in a larger group (especially those you may not know well).
  • Create rules and process to prevent against repeats of singular abuses – the old adage of one bad apple ruining the whole bunch becomes more and more likely the larger a startup grows. Process can be wonderful, but sometimes we create a process just to ward against some bad behavior from a former employeee and, by doing so, ruin the company a little more for everyone. Use process to free and enable, not to punish and restrict.
  • Irrationally romanticize the past – “Remember how things used to be? It was so much better three years ago when I first started here and…” -everyone at any organization, ever. But I remember three years ago. It sucked compared to today. Our ability to delight customers paled in comparison. Our ability to attract talent was in the toilet. Fear about our budget and our bottom line was a daily occurrence. 2013 is superior in so many ways and I know it, but even still find myself fondly remembering (or, rather, misremembering) back in 2010 when (in my human-addled mind) it all seemed so much easier.

I’ve witnessed the early stages (and sometimes the advanced stages) of all of these. It’s hard to watch and even hard to combat, but combat it we must (and at Moz, I think we’ve done a pretty terrific job most of the time).

My advice to startups that are reaching scale is to prepare for this pattern. We all have to go through this if we want to become bigger, more world-changing companies. Managers, executives, and founders probably need help, training, mentorship, and outside coaches (a lot of Mozzers have done this, including me). Process is an ugly word at a tiny startup, but it’s a beautiful, life-changing, progress-enabling word as you grow (so long as it’s done for the right reasons).

My advice to those who work in organizations that are scaling or have reached scale in these larger numbers is:

A) Be mindful that your nature and that of those around you makes these irrationalities and biases the default way of thinking.

B) Don’t let it stop you from doing what’s right, what fits with your values, and what moves the needle for the organization – use the knowledge of these elements to compensate mentally, emotionally, and with process.

C) Remind those around you that you’re all suffering from the same human condition, but that awareness and active resistance can win the day.

I don’t know how the next few years will go, but I do know we’ll have a bigger team, and more of the challenges from the list above. I hope that by staying mindful, and by compensating personally and as a team, we can remain the kind of place I love going into every day.