The team I help lead at work has grown over the past few years. We're a small team in a much larger company. But starting with just me, then two of us, and now approaching ten, it's been a challenge to keep things moving smoothly.
Because communication doesn't grow linearly. Each new person doesn't add a static amount of, say, email to the pile. As Clay Shirky explained so well, a group's complexity grows faster than its size:
This is the part about leading a team that many seem to forget. Additional resources, in a typical system, don't scale in a linear way. Each time you add a new person, to address a resource constraint or new work, you're adding complexity. Complexity that, over time, conspires to make everyone less efficient. Eventually, at a certain scale, each new person makes the team as a whole less effective.
How? Let's say Jane gets hired, and now the team has gone from three people to four. Those three people were emailing each other, knocking on each others' office doors, a few times a day. With Jane's arrival, now she's emailing everyone, knocking on doors, etc. But she hasn't just added her own communication into the mix. No, now everyone else is also talking to Jane, and each other, about things that Jane has added.
Everyone's not just talking to a new person, they're talking to each other more. They're spending more time managing their emails. More time asking questions of each other. More time getting less work done.
And this keeps happening.
You have to be aware of this sort of thing to be an effective leader or manager. You have to understand that one more person doesn't just take work away, they add in so much more complexity.
So how do you deal with additional complexity? You have to cut, before you can add.
If you don't remove complexity as more is added in, pretty soon no one is effective. And everyone is miserable.
Our big problem was internal email and gChat conversations. Adding another person to everyone's inbox wasn't sustainable. Adding another person to a group gChat wouldn't work.
So, we cut out email. And gChat. Not completely, and not immediately. But over the course of just a few short weeks, we were able to move almost all of our team's communication to Slack. Now, every conversation we have is in its right place. Some channels we accept as being more urgent than others (whereas all emails arrive in an inbox at the same urgency, unless you're really good at filters). We no longer have emails and chats. We just have conversations within Slack, with its built-in filesharing. Everything is grouped, searchable, and easy to maintain. And easy to filter based on priority.
On our team, emailing is a mistake that should be corrected. What a relief!
The second major pain point was internal status meetings. A status meeting with three people is productive. A status meeting with ten is a joke. We had to do something about it.
Now, we meet twice a month, for twenty minutes. It's efficient, productive, and fun.
15five.com. Our team now fills out a short report each week that I review. It addresses any issues they're having, any big successes or things they're happy with, and anything they need from me. So our status meetings can just be focused on exciting things to share with the team, and specific conversations that benefit from the group.
A ten-person status meeting can easily take an hour. Plus prep time. That's at least 10 hours per week spent on a single meeting! With 15five, between filling out the reports and reviewing them, we barely spend three. What a win!
Plus, there are the less visible costs. Like stress, annoyance, interruptions. The things that chip away at morale. Now our meetings can be fun, productive, and even looked forward to. What a change.
So that's how our team has managed to reduce complexity, even while our size grows. It's difficult, and something you have to always consider.
Productive, efficient, and happy teams are never an accident. But unproductive ones are.
Put the effort in, and good things can happen.