weare360-FounderFuel-three-part-recipe-to-navigate-the-growing-pains-of-doubling-team-size - a selection of white bowls with different ingredients for baking a cake, with a lemon, a grater and a big bowl with a silver whisk

FounderFuel: A three-part recipe to navigate the growing pains of doubling team size

When a startup team comes together you quickly get to know one another closely. There’s a bond that builds through the shared direction and intense collaboration. You’re all highly internally motivated. You’re in it together. Hey, you might just be changing the world together! 

That camaraderie continues as the business grows to eight or ten people. Connections remain close knit. There’s often a lot of respect for one another, you’re all aligned, and politics are minimal. 

Beyond this number of people though, various scaling challenges start to appear. I call this ‘the coffee table moment’. It’s the point at which you can no longer sit down as a team and have direct conversations with one another around a table. As a founder, you can no longer communicate directly, and have meaningful relationships, with everyone in your team. The number of network connections in your team is increasing exponentially. What this means is that new styles of leadership are required in order to keep your team motivation topped up too.

In a recent Scaleup session, myself, Christina and Sanja hosted a discussion around these questions. One framework we kept returning to was Daniel Pink’s Motivation 3.0 recipe that we covered through the lens of founder motivation here. The same recipe is a great way to interrogate how we can motivate our teams too, and my mission here is to look at how we can tap into this without breaking the bank.

As a quick recap, Pink defines the intrinsic motivation that we need in startup teams as Motivation 3.0 – and it is driven by a combination of three important factors:

  • Purpose: the yearning to work on something bigger than ourselves, such as a big startup mission.
  • Autonomy: the desire to direct our own lives.
  • Mastery: the urge to get better at something that matters and keep growing.

How the coffee table moment affects Purpose

As the business transitions from a small, founder-led team to the ‘the coffee table moment’, and beyond, there is a visceral shift. It’s more than just a physical problem that the team cannot literally fit around a table! It’s a shift from a small group of people organically interacting all day long to a larger group of people where suddenly there is the likelihood of so many more misunderstandings, lack of alignment, lack of communication etc. 

It hurts… and it creeps up on you: Before you know it, people are disgruntled, projects are going awry, and cracks are starting to show.

Simple strategies for improving a sense of Purpose in your team:

First, revisit the key ingredients:

  • What is the vision and purpose behind what you all do every day in the team?
  • What do you want your company to be like as it grows?
  • What behaviours do you want to retain? Which do you want to lose?
  • How does this all translate into how you want the company to ‘behave’?

It’s easy to gloss over this point thinking you’ve got Purpose and behaviours all sorted as a founder, but in the majority of cases the coffee-table moment challenges that because it can no longer be implicit and needs to be boldly explicit.

So communicate, communicate, communicate: Since these ingredients often exist mainly in your head as a founder, one of the main risks is that the rest of your team are left lacking in direction – both strategically and behaviourally. So look to consciously shift understanding around how you want the team to behave and what good looks like in your team. By defining and repeatedly repeating these ingredients, the whole team are able to make independent decisions about what is best aligned to the Purpose and understand how they fit into it, which is critical to their motivation.

When Autonomy gets threatened by team growth

It’s not just clarity on vision and strategy that gets confused as a team size grows, ownership of tasks, decision-making and accountability become less clear too. This often leads to meetings for meetings sake, lack of decision-making and silos developing that break that, once unbreakable, team bond. It doesn’t take long before it hits productivity and employee satisfaction – with team members feeling stuck and disempowered. Leave it too long and people start leaving and churn goes up significantly.

Simple strategies for improving sense of Autonomy in your team

Go back to the drawing board on structure and processes: What meetings are people expected to attend? How often are they held? What input is expected? Who is responsible for making decisions in each formal and informal group and how can you encourage positive action, rather than inaction, to be the meeting default? Getting your ‘operational rhythm’ in place (and sticking to it) is a big win – and it all starts with unpicking the complexity that has built up through growth and creating clarity. With clarity, comes a sense of autonomy again.

This is also an effective time to consider organisational structure too: Who should be reporting to who? How can decision-making be made more autonomously without hierarchies? Within this, consider that due to the way humans interact and seek direction, informal hierarchical networks form even where they are not formally defined.

How to utilise the Mastery driver for continual improvement as a team

As the team grows, team members can feel increasingly disconnected from the leadership team – and this affects their sense of Autonomy and Mastery. Consider for a second, as a more junior team-member, how much you’d learn and how influential you’d feel in a team of three or six, where every day you interface with the leaders (in this case you as the founder). Now double the size of the team and reflect on how this affected your sense of connectedness and motivation.

Interestingly, the impact of this growth works both ways – as a founder/leader you lose out on the learning too. As the great Andy Grove (founder and CEO of Intel, and author of the seminal book High Output Management) said, “snow melts from the edges”. What he means is that it’s often less senior employees who have the best understanding of what is going on at the customer facing edge of the business. So they have some of the best ideas and perspectives that you are not exposed to. Miss out on this and you’re missing opportunities to learn too.

Simple strategies for improving sense of Mastery in your team

One way of addressing this, is to encourage feedback and peer-to-peer learning within your team. A great way to bake a continuous-sense of improvement into the culture of your team is through this motivating simple feedback framework approach.

Also, think about how everyone in the team (senior and junior) can share what development areas they’re working on with the rest of the team too. Just by sharing a goal or development area in a safe space, it creates a powerful sense of accountability and support to develop, as well as a degree of compelling vulnerability from the more senior members too.

This is something we nurture in our TeamCircles: We take a diagonally-sliced group of eight to ten people (from all levels of the business, from the CEO down) and bring them together to explore and share their development goals (what we call their ‘One Big Thing’) and over a four month programme of group coaching and supportive individual coaching, everyone makes progress against their goals. It’s a radically different way of ensuring the continued development of you and your people across your whole business, that has a significant impact on a person’s professional development – whilst also cementing team trust and motivation. If this sounds like the kind of fuel your team needs, find out about TeamCircles here.

FounderCircle members can catch up on the full Scaleup Session recording here.


Written by Richard Hughes-Jones, founder-coach and leadership coach at weare3Sixty

Founder coach | Startup leadership coach | Team coach

Passionate about the leadership skills transition from founder to C-suite in high growth technology companies and the investment industry.

About the FounderFuel Series: Actionable tools and bite-sized insights to empower entrepreneurs and founders to get the best from themselves and those around them as startup and scaleup leaders. Get the fuel direct to your inbox by signing up here.

At weare3Sixty we believe in supporting the humans behind the world’s ambitious startups and our mission is to make sure that every founder and startup leader in the ecosystem has the support and skills to reach their full potential as resilient, high-performing leaders.

Here you’ll find 1:1 founder coaching, team coaching and team training all dedicated to the unique ride that is starting up and scaling up. Not only that, with our group-coaching FounderCircles® you’ll be surrounded by hundreds of other talented founders on the journey too – all committed to fuelling themselves, their teams and each other for the ride.

Calling all accelerators and investment partners: We work in partnership with investors, accelerators and incubators to complement programmes of support and learning with the human side of startup performance. Find out more here.

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