We at 101 Ways understand that scaling a technology organisation can be daunting. But we’ve also seen how scaling can transform the way people work for the better. So we sat down with a panel of experts to discuss how this can be best achieved.
A bit about me — I’m Chief-of-Staff at 101 Ways, Agile software development specialist and scaling enthusiast, I’ve helped a number of cross-sector businesses tackle scaling and growth challenges over the last decade. I was also the moderator of this session! Now to introduce the rest of our panellists:
- Dan Phelps, VP of Digital Customer at Abcam, who’s focused on their product engineering and design teams.
- Ros Vaughan, Head of Agile Delivery at Zoopla, a real estate database giant that also owns 60% of CRM tools used by estate agents.
- Mike Dixon, Director at 101 Ways who has been working in tech for 20 years. He also recently co-authored, alongside the rest of the 101 Ways scaling experts, a whitepaper titled How scaling can accelerate your product development that you can access here!
Keep reading to hear the highlights of the panel discussion.
What’s the difference between growth and scaling?
Growth and scaling are two words I often see thrown around interchangeably, but I was keen to get our panel to help distinguish between the two.
Mike said, “Growth is simply adding more engineers, customers, revenue etc. Scaling is more the framework to enable that growth.”
Scaling is basically a way to help a company grow without overwhelming it. Ros gave her take based on her experiences with helping Zoopla scale up: “I definitely resonate with your definition,” she started. “At first it was about growing out the capacity we had at team level for support for delivery managers, but once we had that critical mass, it was about scaling to make sure we had the right support structures in place for line management so that we didn’t have everyone reporting in to me.” She continued that this was a macro example of the type of scaling you’ll see across divisions and organisations.
I was keen to get Dan’s take, and he pointed out something interesting: we have a tendency to be afraid of the word “process”, especially in an entrepreneurial setting. His reasoning was that such a corporate term can appear to clash with the creativity of being in a start-up. But in fact, communicating early on and understanding where you might encounter friction helps make room for creativity and innovation!
When do you start scaling?
Once we’d established the difference between growth and scaling, I was curious to know what the “tipping point” was, where a start-up realises they can no longer have a small team doing a bit of everything and would need a scaled-up system. In this context, we discussed a couple of thought processes we like to use within our organisations.
Scaling the right way
For Zoopla, Ros has found the OODA loop to be the most effective way of observing when scaling becomes vital. The steps in the OODA loop are:
- Observe: Identify the issue and gather any and all data needed.
- Orient: Reflect on what’s been observed and consider what needs to be done.
- Decide: Discuss and formalise a roadmap to respond to the issue.
- Act: Put that roadmap into action, including any testing required before officially acting, e.g. A/B testing.
The OODA loop, according to Ros, comes from fighter pilots having to think on the fly (literally) and act quickly. Something we discussed here is that constantly reevaluating whether the company is working efficiently can be tiring, especially at the beginning when you’re growing so quickly that you have to check in every few months. However, the length of time between Observe and Act growing too long can be a sign that you need to reassess your internal processes.
While Mike likes the OODA loop, something else he’s personally found useful is Dunbar’s Number. This is a well-researched idea that humans can only form meaningful connections with about 150 people. In an organisation it’s easy to focus so heavily on delivering efficiently that you can forget about the actual relationships within your team. When you just add more people to a rapidly-growing company without regularly rethinking your structure, you’ll find:
- Your team members will feel like they aren’t being listened to.
- Employees struggle to form meaningful connections.
Mike also recalled in this context a conversation he had with a friend recently, whose business of mail-order flowers and gifts did very well in the onset of the pandemic. Their sign that things needed to change was when the technology just couldn’t support anyone else joining the company. They had to carve up their team into smaller groups because they couldn’t physically grow anymore otherwise. This links back to the distinction between growth and scaling, as they needed to scale up in order to accommodate that growth.
As I pointed out, all of these thought processes are to help streamline the overall process, as they ensure multiple manageable teams are working together towards specific goals while building towards a larger, common goal as an organisation. This beats having far too many people pushing towards one deliverable, which is a chaos any of us who have been in a start-up know all too well!
It’s important to remember that these aren’t one-size-fits-all ideologies, but were settled upon based on the specific needs of our organisations. It’s always imperative to listen to your team and see what they need from you as a leader, and then accommodate that!
Learning from our mistakes
Our panel was full of industry leaders in scaling that reached their level of success from trying things out and learning from our mistakes. I asked them what they would advise others to do differently based on their experiences, and the key lessons we learned were:
- Don’t be rigid, but focus on adjusting and adapting. Otherwise, you’re limiting the growth instead of enabling it.
- Consider the theory of business change, and remember that your team is in flux. Your process has to be malleable.
- Invest more into bringing others along on the journey of scaling. They deserve to feel just as excited as you about the process.
If you’re curious to learn even more about scaling and growth in a technology organisation, get in touch — there are 101 Ways to do things, and we can help find the right way for you.