The elements of scaling
At our second annual customer summit, we heard from industry leaders on topics like performance, the future of the web, tackling problems with VCL, and leadership. Camille Fournier, former CTO of Rent the Runway, spoke on the key elements of growing teams successfully.
When scaling teams, you want to simultaneously add more people while increasing team productivity and effectiveness. You hire more people and put them all together, but then they’re less effective because communication breaks down. So, the real challenge of scaling is: how can you continue to add people and maintain effectiveness without being crushed under the weight of communication? Camille’s experience as CTO uncovered four key elements of growing teams.
Elements of scaling
Speed. At Rent the Runway, Camille changed her team’s deployment model. She knew it’d be an improvement, but was surprised by the impact of deploying every day instead of once a week — “turns out, engineers like to ship.” If you’re scaling teams, “Look at your processes,” she advised. “Identify places where you have unnecessary resource constraints.” In her case, that once-a-week deployment was an unnecessary constraint — by making it easier to deploy more frequently, she gave her team more autonomy and made them happier.
Structure. Although “startup people hate the word,” Camille noted, “structure is inevitable.” It’s neither good nor bad — it provides guardrails that help your team figure out what they need to do quickly, helping them focus so you can build successful teams.
Learning and transparency are key to successful structure: “You’re going to feel better about structure when you understand why it exists, when it’s transparent to you.”
We can learn from structural failure. At Rent the Runway, Camille became well-known for her engineering career ladder, a structure that “came from failure — the first being that we had no ladder at all.” She started simple, but learned that it was too ambiguous, so the next revision was more detailed. Putting more transparency into that structure turned it into something really useful for both Rent the Runway and many teams around the country.
Don’t let structure and process become too constrictive. When things fail in technical systems (“they always do, many times”), this is your chance to interrogate all the different components that went into that failure and improve on them.
Relatedness, or the sense of belonging to a group. A lack of interpersonal interaction makes it difficult for teams to develop vulnerability and psychological safety (i.e., the willingness to take risks and be honest in front of one another). In previous (non-leadership) roles, Camille was “all about favoring efficiency over relatedness,” but as a manager this started causing problems.
According to a Google study, psychological safety is a fundamental element of successful teams; employees need to be willing to ask questions, make mistakes, and fail in front of one another. The pyramid above represents the five dysfunctions of a team, the base of which is absence of trust. This isn’t “I trust you to do your job” trust, but rather “a more fundamental trust, a trust that you are trying to do the best thing for the company.”
As Camille put it, “Leaders should be willing to apologize briefly and openly whenever they make mistakes.” If you don’t, people will start to perceive that mistakes are “something you should cover up,” and trust will be eroded. Develop teams that trust you and one another so they can take risks, fail and learn openly.
Conflict. Camille noticed that a lot of teams in tech have a huge fear of conflict, but it’s critical to drawing out data and seeing other perspectives.
One sign that your organization lacks conflict is your meetings are boring — “if they consist of groups of people with nothing to say until after the meeting, you may have a problem.” Your team should be engaged during meetings, and the way to ensure that is to have real conversations where you draw out opinions and perspectives from everyone involved.
But conflict is tricky — in a leadership position, engaging in active conflict can shut people down (“the boss disagrees and you scare people”). Camille advises leaders to think of conflict as actual, genuine curiosity — not something to be scared of or argued about, but an opportunity to ask questions and learn something new. And, conflict doesn’t always have a resolution — “Consensus-based decision making is not always the best way forward.” At some point you’ll have differences of opinion that aren’t going to naturally resolve themselves — that’s when leaders step in and take responsibility for making a decision.
Empathy: a guide to compassionate leading
One key takeaway (if nothing else) is that “Empathy is a learnable skill.”
“If we are willing to stand fully in our own shoes and never give up on ourselves, then we will be able to stand in the shoes of others and never give up on them.” — Pema Chödrön
As a leader, Camille had to learn to be comfortable with herself, to admit mistakes, and to come fully engaged to work every day — trying to grow, learn, and do her best — instilling these four key elements to grow and foster happy, successful teams. Because, after all, “What is the point of scaling a company, of scaling a team, if you end up working with people that you hate?”
Watch the full talk below, and stay tuned as we recap more Altitude 2016 talks.