Avoiding the speed wobble as you scale-up

Small is simple

When you were leading a start-up of 20 people, decision making was quick, people genuinely all knew one another and helped each other.  Such was the level of connectedness between people, the need for much in the way of rules and procedures was little to non-existent.   Now that there are over 100 people working for you, the above statements become less true.  It can be an uneasy feeling, people you don’t really know are making decisions on your behalf; duplication and gaps begin to appear; perhaps worst of all, for many people work is not nearly as much fun as it used to be.

You are not alone

If this resonates with you, you are not alone.  The unease that you have about your organisation’s culture since you had >100 on the payroll is usual.  Dunbar’s number is a piece of evolutionary psychology theory which seems to indicate that the “speed-wobble” you are experiencing is very normal and predictable.  Studies of all sorts of human groups over the centuries and all around the globe seem to indicate the presence of a tipping point at around 150 people where the communal dynamic changes profoundly.  There is general agreement that the reason for this is that we humans can only really maintain personalized, caring relationships with that number of people.  Great, but what to do when you need to grow beyond 150?  Good question, and one that we’ll return to…

Some of the inevitabilities of organisational life are not inevitable

Many of us founders understand all too well the realities of corporate life; most of us grew up in big business and many of us set up on our own because big business no longer thrilled us. The instruments of management that are commonplace in those businesses have not changed much at all since they first emerged during the industrial revolution.  Control was, and still is, the de facto purpose.  Hierarchy, functional specialism, rules, procedures, authorisation thresholds, incentives, budgets, decision authority being held by senior people at the centre, and performance reviews are just some of the practices employed in pursuit of the ever-elusive goal of control.   The reality is these practices are much more effective at eroding people’s energy, engagement, commitment, and creativity than they are at gaining control.   Despite bearing the scars of life in over-bureaucratic corporates, many founders feel that layering on the red tape is an inevitability as their business grows.  Spoiler alert: we don’t!


If we set out now to invent the norms and mechanisms of our organisations based on what we know about humans and human performance, what we’d come up with would bear no relation to what we see in most organisations today. 


What if we set out to build our scale-up to be human-centric, not control-centric?

Since the industrial revolution our understanding of neuroscience, psychology, sociology, and anthropology has progressed way beyond what was imaginable then.  And yet that scientific evidence is still not being heeded in most organisations today.  A moment of self-refection tells us, in the majority of circumstances, we humans do not respond well to being controlled.  Can you think of a time in your working life where you needed to be controlled to do a good job? Think about that before you adopt more controls; your organisation can be and should be different.

But beware: removing or avoiding bureaucracy tends to leave a void where chaos likes live 

The best way of dealing with this problem is not to treat it as a problem in the first place; “prevention is better than cure” as the old truism goes.  It is control and bureaucracy that exacerbate the unavoidable limits of social intimacy and acquaintance.  You are a young, vibrant, scale-up business, you have got this far without too much in the way of bureaucratic process, you can go a lot further without needing it too.   However, organising with a minimum of bureaucratic control as you grow through the 100s of employees is in and of itself certainly not a recipe for success; it is more likely to bake you a nice big serving of chaos.

So, if not more bureaucracy, then what?

Here we return to the $M question; what should we be doing to avoid the perils of the speed wobble?  I could write a book at this point, but I won’t.  Instead, here is a handful of randomly selected human-centric practices; things that will help maintain a great culture, bring the business results you seek AND avoid the red tape.

Have a “no rules” rule.

Prescriptive rules come with a whole heap of downsides.  They tend to alienate, they reinforce a ‘parent / child’ as opposed to ‘adult to adult’ dynamic, they constrain, and no rule can ever hope to appropriately fit all situations. The alternative approach is to work with people to generate broad guidelines, defined around purpose.   These are more adaptive to the wide variety of situations. Also, they give people the space to use their knowledge and skills to deliver customer value, to innovate through experimentation, to share ideas and resources and to become more closely engaged with the business.

Power to the people; reconnect decision making with the work

If you were given the choice of decisions made on rich, first-hand information or on regurgitated, second-hand information which would you choose?  What if those first-hand decisions were quick, and the one -step-removed decisions slow, which then?  It takes a degree of trust to delegate decision authority, but for those organisations and leaders who actively push the responsibility for decision making towards the action and not hold it tight at the top, there are all sorts of upsides.  Not least of all is trust.  Trust itself is a powerful thing and a two-way street; by demonstrating your trust in others, commitment and loyalty come flooding back in the other direction.

Be super-clear on purpose; let your people determine the how, the when, and the who

Why does your business exist? If each and every person you employ were asked that question, would the responses be strong, consistent with each other and said with some feeling?   If not, then it is your job to make it so.  Purpose also exists at a team and individual level; ask a corresponding question to every team and every role.  What is their purpose, their contribution to the bigger purpose?   A useful tactic is to give people the space to work out the purpose of their own role, and then give them even more space to get on with delivering it.  Try it – it works.

Design for agility, not efficiency.

In those corporates that we loathed and left, ‘designed’ organisation structures distribute resources and the power to assign them – and control the money.  ‘Designed’ organisation processes distribute tasks and the responsibility for delivering them – and create coherence.  Thus ‘design’ is about providing efficiency, stability, predictability and repeatability (and nothing about creating a great place to work).  Efficiency etc. is great for snapshots in time but also does a fantastic job of preventing change and innovation, and in these increasingly uncertain times that can be fatal.  

Regardless of what the org-chart says your organisation is a network of relationships between people, working together in pursuit of the purpose, and by the way, the network looks nothing like the org-chart!   Your job as leader is to nurture that network, create the environment where it can be strong and flourish.    

What on earth does that look like in real life I hear you ask.  It depends, but here are some examples of changes you could try:

  • Avoid functional measures and targets, instead measure “what matters to customers”.  
  • Encourage curiosity about “who could I work with to help improve how this works?”  
  • Help your people see their every-day work through the lens of customer value and not internal performance.  
  • Internally crowd source for the generation and prioritisation of improvement ideas.  
  • Create an inviting and exciting “space” for people with different specialisms to come together and experiment, innovating ways of working AND product / service development ideas. 


“An individual without information can’t take responsibility. An individual with information can’t help but take responsibility.”  Jan Carlzon


Be transparent with everything

The larger the organisation grows, the harder it becomes to prevent unhelpful “them and us” divisions based on power, even if it is informal power.  One way to prevent this is adopting a mantra of radical transparency.   By making all, or very nearly all of the company’s information accessible to all employees is a healthy demonstration of trust, an advantage in itself, it also helps garner wider input to decisions, supports collaboration and nurtures a helpful “big picture” perspective.   There is more to transparency than changing the permissions on electronic files and folders though.   Leaders also need to demonstrate openness and honesty, often about mistakes and other unwelcome news.  Uncomfortable? Quite possibly.  Preferable to hiding stuff and being found out? Almost certainly.

We hope that at least one or two of those has sparked your curiosity.  None of these ideas are without risk, and no one will ever implement them anything like right first time.  My hope is that you get started with something.  

In the speed wobble it is the leader who has the steering, the brakes, and the gas.

Speed wobbles, or even the mild pre-tremors of them can be really scary.  In order to emerge safely on the other side, you need to be brave and bold.   For a leader this can be daunting.  Where to start?  With whom? How to avoid inviting chaos were control once was? There are many things you could do, but what things will work best for your organisation?  And then there is the question of how?

As a leader, would you like to make those decisions based on data and research as opposed to “a stab in the dark and hope for the best”?   Would you like to be able to identify what to change and how to change it based on a proven analysis of your organisation at this moment in time?  What if that precision were not only available for the organisation, but for every team within it? What if that data could be collected within a couple of weeks?  What if teams could start on their change journey within days after that?

If these sorts of benefits have appeal, then The Vitality Index might just be for you.  We look forward to talking things through with you.

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