Pacing and isolating change.

December 21, 2020. Filed under management 127

One of the downsides of being a group manager is that you spend most of your time on change management, but it must be said that organizational change management is a pretty interesting topic, particularly within a fast growing company.

Gelled teams–teams that know how to work together effectively–are considerably more effective than newly formed teams, but can be difficult to maintain when you’re hiring rapidly. One strategy for allowing teams to gel is to have a predictable fast-slow hiring cycle, where you hire rapidly for 6-12 months followed by a 6-12 month consolidate phase where teams gel. Teams hire towards a steady state where they can gel, spend some time gelling, and then switch back into hiring afterwards.

Many organizations do an unpredictable fast-slow hiring cycle where headcount appears and disappears unpredictably, and while it appears superficially similar, unplanned changes disrupt organizations as they find themselves optimized for an existence they’re no longer heading towards and end up shifting teams to adapt to their new constraints. This adaptation shuffles folks across teams and resets the gelling clock. This scenario is even worse than constant hiring, because you get fewer gelled teams and fewer trained engineers. I guess your salary expenses are lower, but you’re still accomplishing less with that budget.

The strategy of predictable fast-slow hiring cycles is somewhat hadr to pull off due to structural constraints. First, you probably have a recruiting team and it’s very difficult for them to surge and retract their team along with those cycles without either overworking the booms or overstaffing the busts. Second, if your business is growing very quickly and outpacing your engineering organization’s bandwidth, you’ll find very little sympathy from your leadership team when you tell them that you’re “trying to gel the teams.” That’s nice, now hire faster.

Fortunately there’s an easy solution here: isolate hiring at any given point to a subset of teams, then switch hiring to another subset while the earlier teams get time to gel. Avoid keeping any team in the hiring seat for too long, and you’ll get the benefits of pacing change without the organizational drag that comes from practicing it at an organizational level.

This approach of isolating change works for a lot more than hiring, try it for handling emergency projects, new product launches, whatever your organizational sources of churn happen to be.