Understanding How Organizations Scale

From 1982 to 1996, Compaq grew from zero revenue to $15 billion, and from 100 employees to 17,000. This massive growth makes the company one of—if not the—fastest growing companies in US history.

Today, high growth companies are so common, they have their own category: Scaleups. But what does it mean to scale? Why do companies need to scale? And why should we, as information developers, care?

Who better to answer these questions than a former Compaq executive that experienced the hyper-growth firsthand? Karen Walker was employee #104 at Compaq and ended her 14-year stint there as VP of Operating Services. During her time at the company, Karen learned valuable lessons through both successes and failures. She’s also spent 2 decades consulting with senior leaders at high growth companies on how to navigate hyper-growth.

What does it mean for a business to “scale”?

A Google search bring up thousands of definitions, but all relate to the ability to grow at a specified speed.

Scaling a business means setting the stage to enable and support growth in your company. It means having the ability to grow without being hampered. It requires planning, some funding and the right systems, staff, processes, technology and partners. (score.org, Jul 15, 2019)

Scale involves growth, but also implies the ability to grow revenue without an equal increase in resources.

“Scale” is increasingly being used as shorthand for “scale up” (“to grow or expand in a proportional and usually profitable way”) and as a noun that means “proportional growth especially of production or profit” and/or “a large market position”. (“What does ‘Scale the Business’ Mean?”, Miriam-Webster)

Karen has a much more simple and straight-forward definition. “Scale is the ability to grow without being slowed down or held back.”

Why do companies need to scale?

Companies need to scale because, as Karen puts it, “there is no steady state.” In other words, if your company isn’t growing, then it’s declining. Your company can’t just stay as it is, according to Karen, because “your clients are changing, your market is changing, your employees are changing.”
Karen adds that venture capital (VC) and private equity (PE) firms care about scalability. “Investors, VCs, PEs – they invest in leaders who are able to grow their organizations. No one wants a 1 to 1 return on their investment.”

Even companies who don’t focus on scaling eventually find what works for them at scale. For example, Basecamp, a web application for project management and team collaboration, found success in a long, slow growth and rejected the popular principles of scaling an organization. The founders built the company on principles such as building half a product, letting your customer outgrow you, and “underdoing” your competitors. And the company grew from 45 customers in 2004 to 540,000 in 2010 and 3.3 million in 2020.
“Even a company like Basecamp, whose founder Jason Fried rejected growth for growth’s sake, has been wildly successful in by investing in opportunities that keep his products clear and simple – and propel the growth of his firm,” Karen explained.

So, scaling is important for CEOs and investors. Why is this important to content teams? Well, if you grow your content team by 50% and you increase the volume you produce by 20%, you aren’t scaling your team effectively and you’re not helping your company scale. If, on the other hand, you add one person to your team and you grow your content production by 300%, then your CEO will be ecstatic.

OK, it’s not always about volume, but you get the point.

Even better if it’s 300% growth in the outcomes that your content is focused on providing. To support your company, you need to intelligently scale your content operations. So, let’s learn how companies scale as a way to better understand how we, as content professionals, might support that.

How to scale effectively

As Karen sees it, there are three absolute musts in scaling an organization: awareness, action, and accountability.

Awareness. The first step in making any change – and scaling is change – is getting adoption on the need to change. “It’s hard to change behavior,” says Karen. “It’s impossible if you don’t believe that things can be different and that they need to be – it is in your best self-interest. You must have clarity that the steady state, status quo is a myth – you will grow or decline. And lastly awareness that the needs, goals, methods of others are as valuable as your own.”

Translated to content professionals—scaling a content team requires change management. Any good change management model (and there are many of them!) starts with getting stakeholders to acknowledge the need to change and even creating urgency for why the change needs to happen now.

Need a new content management tool? Maybe. But if you request a new tool to make your writers’ lives easier, you’re not pitching the right benefit.

Your first task is to prove that changes you make in content operations will help the company scale. Does the new content management tool enable your team to do more work without growing the team? Will a new tool reduce the amount of time reviewers spend without negatively impacting the customer experience? Can purchasing a tool help scale the company more effectively than building your own?

Going back to Karen’s advice, prove to your executives that content operations can be and should be different in order to meet the organization’s objectives, and that your suggested change aligns with the needs and goals of other teams throughout your organization.

Action. Proper scaling requires action, but the speed of action will vary depending on the impact. In a Forbes article titled Say No to “Just Do It”, Karen discusses the impact of moving too slowly when decisions require speed, but also the impact of moving too quickly on decisions that deserve more forethought. “A bias for action is necessary for high-speed growth. Like many strengths, if that bias is overdone, you’ll have a weakness. And because the preference (for speed) has been so helpful – and so rewarded – in the past, it may be a significant blind spot in your organization.”

In the same article, Karen also discusses comfort with ambiguity. “When we’re uncomfortable with the unresolved and the ambiguous, sometimes we have an impulse to act solely to gain a feeling of control over a situation and eliminate a problem. But what if that isn’t the best answer, just the most comfortable one?”

I spent three years leading global content teams at Amazon, which touts bias for action as a leadership principle. But Amazon pits bias for action against other principles like insist on high standards and dive deep. How does the company expect its employees to do thorough planning and focus on the best quality while moving quickly? It doesn’t.

Amazon uses the analogy of one-way and two-way doors for quick decision-making and assessment of action. A two-way door is something that you can walk into, then turn around and come back out, mostly unscathed. In these cases, make a decision, take action, test, then reassess.

A one-way door would be something that cannot be retracted—once it’s out, there’s no turning back. Anything that impacts employees’ pay, direct communication to a customer, and statements to the press, for example, are one-way doors. These cases require more deliberation before taking action.

Content professionals looking to purchase tools can turn seemingly one-way doors (due to large price tags) into two-way doors to support a bias for action. For example, purchasing a SaaS tool that supports industry standards leaves open the possibility to easily shift to a different tool in the future, decreasing the risk, as compared to buying on-premise tools, buying tools that don’t support industry standards, or building proprietary tools.

Accountability. We all know the importance of accountability, yet many organizations struggle to find mechanisms that promote this important factor. “Accountability is the Achilles heel of most organizations,” says Karen, “Especially those in hyper-growth mode, because growth covers a lot of sins! Use a mutual accountability process to increase your odds of success and turbocharge it by layering in substantial debrief/learn sessions along the way.”

Karen emphasizes that accountability needs to be two-way. “If you have only individual accountability, it’s much more fragile than if you and your team are all committed and accountable to each other. Individuals are prone to distraction and competing priorities, and even with the best of intentions will fail to meet their commitments. But there’s great power in mutual accountability and using this structure will move your outcomes from fragile to flourish.”

Getting back to that Achilles heel—how can we get past the difficulty of getting people to commit and be accountable? According to Karen, it comes down to processes and trust. “Accountability isn’t blame, it shouldn’t elicit defensiveness when the process is solid and there is trust on the team. It will help you stay aligned and on track to meet your commitments.”

To build accountability into your processes, Karen says you need to explore answers to the following questions, and discuss them in a team setting:

  • What happened?
  • What’s working?
  • What’s different than we expected?
  • Why was reality different than expectations?
  • How do we need to adjust to achieve our outcomes?
  • How should we adjust our outcomes based on this information?

Karen suggests debriefing a lot! Don’t wait for something bad to happen. “High performance individuals and teams debrief in order to learn and then apply that learning. It makes us more effective.”

Large organizations become proficient at doing root cause analysis (RCA) on impactful mistakes, and this is important. More important, though, is to debrief regularly after any event—a team retreat, a project, a conflict, or a win! “It doesn’t have to be an hours-long ordeal,” according to Karen. “Just a quick check-in focused on even a few of the questions above will help.”

This should be no different for content teams. Writing an effective RCA when catastrophe strikes is crucial, but isn’t it better to catch process issues internally before they lead to catastrophic situations?

At Amazon, I led a team that produced 60,000 pieces of content every year. When I started, they developed content in a slow, unidirectional process that took an average of 120 days per request. I quickly converted the team to Agile content teams that did daily meetings and bi-weekly retrospectives.

The debriefs done at each of these led the team to actions that decreased the average turnaround time for requests from 120 to 45 days (63% YoY improvement) within the first year, and further decreased it to 12 days (73% YoY improvement) per request in the second year! That’s a 90% improvement in just two years.

The improvement relied on actions such as negotiating with legal to significantly improve turn around time of legal reviews and creating an escalations team to take on escalations that were consuming the time of the entire team previously. Frequent debriefs led us to discover the most important issues tying up the process. In essence, we created new norms that kept every team involved in content operations accountable to improve turnaround time.

Bottom line

I joined the Zoomin team because being part of a high-growth company is exciting. I love what we do because the product itself helps large enterprises and hyper-growth companies scale content delivery. As a former leader of large content delivery teams, I understand what it takes to scale your content team to support the need for your company to scale.

Karen’s prescription fits perfectly. Start by making stakeholders aware that your team can and should change for scalability. Take actions that create exponential benefits. And add accountability into your processes. By focusing on the scalability of your team, you’ll make better decisions, add value to your organization, and make your CEO very happy.

 

Megan Gilhooly is VP of Customer Experience at Zoomin and previously led global content teams at AWS, Amazon and Ping Identity.

This article was originally published in the November 2020 issue of STC Intercom, a publication of the Society for Technical Communication.

 

 

 

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