1000x – The Challenges of Scale

When teams get this large, some good things happen, but a lot of bad ones do, too.  Along with an incredible amount of potential horsepower to harness, you just entered Dilbert country.  If you are helping to run the team, you just became the pointy-haired boss.  Yup, that’s you in the mirror – smile!

The biggest problem with teams this large is that there is spotty at best contact between the people who are doing the work on the ground and the people who are making the key decisions that affect the whole team.  Human connections just don’t scale to this size – if you did a one hour 1:1 with everyone on the team for 40 hours every week, you could only talk to everyone once a year .. and you wouldn’t get much else done.  In another post, I talked about the “dimwit duration” – how long it takes for a decision that has become stupid to make its way from the point of stupidity (the person affected) to the decision maker who can fix it.  That duration, for a lot of decisions, just went to infinity.

Some other things that tend to happen:

  • The people “in charge” have lost their connection with what’s really going on .. but don’t realize it.  To quote Will Rogers, “Ignorance is not the problem in the world. It’s the things people ‘know’ that aren’t so.”
  • There is a lot of structure that can become rigid and calcifying.  Business reviews, corporate policies, complex approval processes, etc.
  • There are many stakeholders for every decision.  A pipe is leaking; in a small team, somebody slaps some duct tape on it.  On a big team, there is the person who represents the maintenance department.  There is the person who manages liability – maybe there is a health issue caused by the pipe?  There are representatives from the teams affected by the leaky pipe.  Somebody is responsible for the budget – how much will it cost to fix the pipe?  There is the decision maker who can actually approve a new course of action – they have to be pretty senior because they have to be seen as an authority figure by all the different stakeholders.  And they are really busy, so you can’t get on their calendar for a meeting until next month.  Decision making slows to a crawl, even for relatively trivial things .. and making a truly major shift in the direction of the team is like turning an oil tanker.
  • People become abstractions.  Part of the nature of the beast if you run teams at this scale, is that you have to do things that affect the whole team.  You manage the budget, you manage staffing levels, you build review models, etc.  And the actual human beings in all their messy individuality tend to turn into numbers in a spreadsheet.  It’s hard to remember how much impact a decision has on real actual people.  I minored in military history when I was in college, and the same thing happens when you study strategy – the people who are suffering and fighting and dying become chess pieces on a board.  But much of what makes a team successful is not the grand strategy and the spreadsheet wizardry, it’s the organic minutiae of execution.

In this section, we’ll talk about what you can do to keep your hair from getting too pointy – if you wear a cool hat and a funky T-shirt, maybe not too many people will notice.