Two principles of highly productive teams

One of the major challenges that we’ve gone through in the last year is figuring out how to stay highly productive as our team grew from 5 to 12 people. While we’re still early on in this process, I thought I’d share some of the lessons that we’ve learned so far.

Communication between 12 people is very different from what it was between 6 people, which is really different from when it was between 4 people. Our internal communication mechanisms have had to evolve so that they are less disruptive, more relevant, and more helpful. It’s an ongoing quest to reach the same efficiency of communication we had when it was just Brendan and I in an apartment.

During the last year we’ve found two principles that have helped us to stay focused and productive: “ownership” and “authority.” It took some work to hone in on these two simple principles. Now we manage to achieve them on an ongoing basis.

Ownership
Defining question: Who is responsible for getting this shit done?

It seems like a simple question but I’ve actually found that it can be really easy to lose focus on this. Everyone wants to help solve the biggest and most important problems. While this is a great intention, responsibility needs to be focused so that the company can stay balanced.  If you don’t know who is responsible, you haven’t clearly defined ownership.

Giving ownership of something to one person doesn’t mean that they are the only person who can work on a particular problem. It just means it’s their ass to get something done, whether they can accomplish it themselves or if they need to enlist the help of others. I’ve found that by giving complete ownership to one person it also forces more clarity over exactly what each person should own and that’s a good thing.

Authority
Defining question: Who is the decision maker on this shit?

She who has authority has the final say on an issue. Every team member who has ownership over something (hint. everyone should have ownership over something) should have the authority to act within the boundaries of their ownership. Err… what?!

This is the the anti-micro-management rule. Letting people make their own decisions can be scary. In fact, for the founder of a startup it’s often terrifying. What if they make mistakes? What if they make the same mistakes I’ve made before? Sometimes your team will make the same mistakes that you have, but by giving them the authority to make their own mistakes, you give them the authority to learn from them.

The result is that by letting people get up to speed very quickly, the business will move much faster.

A highly productive team
When I tell people about our approach to team building I often hear the questions like: So you really give up control like that? How do you stop someone from making a mistake? The answer is simple: trust. You have to trust that if you’re building a team of the right, amazing people you can trust them to operate within their own domain.

It doesn’t mean you can’t give feedback about the job they’re doing, you should of course help wherever you can, it just means that you should provide your input and let them make their own decisions. If you’re building a strong team they’ll take your advice, factor it into their own decision making and include it if it makes it easier for them to achieve the objectives of their ownership.