Scaling is an incredibly difficult and complex task. Finding best practices for all of the things you need to do as you scale — from hiring to designing your physical workspace — can be overwhelming.
Scaling up particularly affects communication. You start out passing on knowledge at team lunch and 1:1 when your first employees ask questions about everything and make up processes as they go.
As you expand, and more and more people and teams are a part of your organization, you start standardizing and trying to figure out the best way to pass on your knowledge more efficiently than in 1:1 sessions. You start thinking about how management can communicate with each other across specializations, and how you can get your message across to every employee — even if you've only sat down with them in a small group a few times.
That's why we've compiled this overview of knowledge sharing in scaling organizations. We'll cover why you need to set up rock-solid communication practices, the troubles you're likely to run into, and the basics of best practices for communication in large orgs.
Small companies pass knowledge naturally and intuitively. A friendly shouted question across the office, all-team happy hours, employees lending their hands to different parts of the business just to get something finished on time — these ad hoc ways of sharing simply don't happen in large companies.
That's generally a sign that your growth is going well. As you add team members, you're streamlining the chaos and figuring out how things need to run, and how to pass that information along in a more standard, efficient way. When you start your business, people make up processes left and right. As you add employees, your team will hand these processes down largely through interpersonal interaction.
But in a large company, you need clearly outlined and standardized processes to keep things running. With scale comes the need to trust team members to autonomously work at your standards.
For example, before Sanford Health grew, there “was no standard process [for IT support before Gliffy diagrams],” explained Dana Mikkelsen. They fixed that with graphic materials to show their process. “Because we now have standardization on our team, support has improved.”
Onboarding is another big target for information sharing. You need tools to communicate your culture and process to new employees to build a successful workplace, says Kelly Keaveney Graziadei, Director of Global Marketing Solutions at Facebook.
“With communication comes stories, priorities, and context. Context gives meaning to the work, creates alignment, and gives people the power and confidence to make decisions. Context and good goal setting is critical,” especially during scaling and onboarding.
It's also important to understand that scaling means adding and managing complexity. More people and more moving parts mean whatever problems your company had before, even if they didn't seem particularly threatening, inevitably blow up when you scale. This escalation necessitates open and accessible knowledge of current and new solutions and processes.
So, you understand the big reasons you need to communicate and share more knowledge. Implementation for sharing, though, is not as simple as recognizing why it is important. Moving towards operating at scale comes with its own set of challenges.
Former personal communications, like frequent 1:1 meetings with managers and founders, or all-hands meetings where everyone can participate, are simply not possible anymore.
As more and more people join the company and the hierarchy of your business grows, you will have to rely on clear and consistent support, messages, and knowledge throughout your entire management staff rather than being able to course correct any individual as you see fit.
In the early stages of a company, team members play a part in shaping the company in pretty much every way. From branding to team software decisions, people are jacks of all trades that have their fingers on the pulse of every company decision.
As you grow larger, this is no longer true. Take the overlap between what a hiring committee and an engineering manager might need, and what information they don't need:
When your team is 15 people and they all know that poor Josh is overwhelmed on sales, your announcement of a new sales hire is going to be pretty transparent.
But when your company starts to segment and people become more specialized, it's harder for everyone to see the bigger picture. More people directly fuels a greater need for directly communicating why things are done and prioritized in the way they are.
As you grow, you may struggle with wanting to keep that same easy, entrepreneurial spirit that fueled your early success. Frequent management meetings and actually taking the time to craft in-depth company memos rather than just gathering the team 'round your lunch table may feel stiff and unnatural at first. But, as these problems show, big orgs inherently differ from their smaller counterparts in many ways — and that comes with a new rulebook.
The growing pains you experience while scaling your company may be new to you, but luckily many people, who have successfully grown companies before, have created best practices for you to follow. We've compiled some that will help fix those major problems we just outlined.
Our first solution comes courtesy of Jonathan Rosenberg, former Senior Vice President of Product at Google. “Over-communicate in all ways, all the time,” he says. “When you think you've communicated something enough, you're probably just beginning to get through.”
This means having multiple ways of distributing knowledge. You need all-hands meetings and talks and memos. You also need diagrams and videos and open meeting hours. Different people absorb and explain information in different ways: writing, video demonstrations, graphics — you need to make these tools available to help everyone communicate their knowledge, and absorb the knowledge of others.
At a small company, it might make sense for each of the 10 team members to have an idea about what's going on way before things are finalized. When you're scaling, this is not helpful. Make sure each tool you use to communicate has features that allow you to control who has access to which documents. If an employee stumbles upon a rough plan for restructuring part of the company, or sees a customer proposal before you've finalized your agreement, that can plant the seed of misplaced panic or excitement. Gliffy's enterprise plan has extended admin controls for this very reason.
Sharing reasoning behind decisions is essential knowledge of the company that keeps alignment. The larger your company, the harder it is for employees to have that intuitive understanding of why management makes certain decisions. This is a lesson that industry veteran and current cofounder and partner of VC firm Andreessen Horowitz, Ben Horowitz, learned as he was scaling Opsware. “I used to teach a management expectations course because I deeply believed in training. In it, I made it clear that I expected every manager to meet with her people on a regular basis,” he said.
But in a casual conversation months later, he found out that managers had not been holding meetings. “The more that I thought about it, the more I realized that while I had told the team “what” to do, I had not been clear about “why” I wanted them to do it. Clearly, my authority alone was not enough to get them to do what I wanted. Given the large number of things that we were trying to accomplish, managers couldn’t get to everything and came up with their own priorities.”
Learning from others' mistakes is an age-old way to avoid your own, and it holds true in scaling as much as anywhere else. Seek out knowledge from others who have similarly scaled their own organizations. An abundance of anecdotes and advice exists out there to help you through, and they can be some of your best resources.
Pushing your company forward in a new direction is no easy task. Communicating well can ameliorate the growing pains that are inevitable as you expand. The trick is that good communication and knowledge sharing is now harder than it's ever been — and it's your job to find a way to push through that to ensure success for you and the people around you. Diagrams can help!