Features November/December 2020

Lessons Learned from the Trenches: Understanding How Organizations Scale

By Megan Gilhooly

From 1982 to 1996, computer maker 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 commonplace that they have their own category: scale-ups.

What does it mean to scale? Why do companies need to do it? And why should technical communicators and other information developers need to understand these reasons?

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

What Does It Mean for a Business to Scale?

A Google search brings up thousands of definitions, but all relate to the ability to grow at a specified speed. Scale also implies the ability to grow revenue without an equal increase in resources.

According to Lighter Capital, “When companies scale . . . they add revenue at a faster rate than they take on new costs.”

Karen has her own 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 capable of growing their organizations. No one wants a one-to-one return on their investment.”

Even companies that don’t focus on scaling up rapidly eventually find what works for them at scale. For example, Basecamp, a web application for project management and team collaboration, found success in long, slow growth and rejected the temptation to attempt rapid growth. 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 to 3.3 million in 2020.

“Even a company like Basecamp, whose founder, Jason Fried, rejected growth for growth’s sake, has been wildly successful by investing in opportunities that keep his products clear and simple—and propelling the growth of his firm,” Karen explains.

So, scaling is essential for CEOs and investors, but why is this important to content teams?

If you grow your content team by 50% and increase the volume of content 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 grow your team by 5% and content production by 300%, then your CEO will be ecstatic.

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

It’s even better if there’s a 300% growth in the performance outcomes that your content provides. To support your company, you need to scale your content operations (ContentOps) intelligently. Once you understand how companies scale, you can leverage ContentOps to provide value that helps the company achieve its growth goals.

How to Scale Effectively

As Karen sees it, the following are three absolute musts in scaling an organization:

  • Awareness
  • Action
  • Accountability
Awareness

The first step in making any change—and scaling is change—is adopting 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. It would be best if you clarified that the steady state, status quo, is a myth—simply put, you will grow or you will 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 tool? Maybe, but if you request a new tool to make your writers’ lives more comfortable, you’re not pitching the right benefit.

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

Going back to Karen’s advice, prove to your executives that ContentOps can, and should, be different 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 effort, but the speed of action will vary depending on the impact. In a Forbes article called “Say No to ‘Just Do It,’” Karen discusses the implications of moving too slowly when decisions require speed and 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. The preference [for speed] has been so helpful—and so rewarded—in the past, it might 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.

You can’t retract a one-way door—once it’s out, there’s no turning back. Anything that affects employees’ pay, changes that negatively affect customers, 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 software-as-a-service (SaaS) tool that supports industry standards leaves open the possibility to easily shift to a different tool in the future, decreasing the risk compared to buying on-premises 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 vital 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 blaming. 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 our reality different than our expectations?
  • How do we need to adjust to achieve our outcomes?
  • How should we adapt our outcomes based on this information?

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

Large organizations become proficient at doing root cause analysis on impactful mistakes, which is essential. 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.”

The approach is no different for content teams. 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 held daily meetings and performed biweekly retrospectives.

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

The improvement relied on negotiating with legal to significantly improve the turnaround time of legal reviews and creating an escalations team to handle escalations that previously were consuming the entire team’s time. Frequent debriefs led us to discover the most critical issues tying up the process. In essence, we created new norms that kept every team involved in ContentOps 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 your company’s need 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 to your processes. By focusing on your team’s scalability, you’ll make better decisions, add value to your organization, and make your CEO very happy.

MEGAN GILHOOLY (megan.gilhooly@zoominsoftware.com) joined Zoomin as VP Customer Experience after serving as Senior Manager of Content Management and Strategy at Amazon and AWS. Previously, she was Director of Information Experience at Ping Identity and Director of Technical Communication at INVIDI Technologies. Connect with Megan on Twitter(@megangilhooly) and LinkedIn (linkedin.com/in/megangilhooly).

 

References

Basecamp. n.d. Accessed 20 January 2021. https://basecamp.com/.

The Startup Finance Blog. n.d. “What Is Scaling in Business and How Is It Different Than Business Growth?” Lighter Capital. Accessed 20 January 2021. https://www.lightercapital.com/blog/what-is-scaling-in-business/.

Walker, Karen. 2020. “Say No to ‘Just Do It.’” Forbes, 26 September 2020. https://www.forbes.com/sites/karenwalker/2020/09/26/say-no-to-just-do-it/.

Download the Nov/Dec 2020 PDF

2020 PDF Downloads

Ad

Ad

Ad