How To Scale: The Speed of Belonging

Change is all around us.

For some, change isn’t happening fast enough. And for others, the change has already been too much.

Our conflicts around change have a simple origin, a lack of relationships. This concept is best captured in the problem of scaling.

Every company wants to grow. Scaling up, and out, and growing is a long-time obsession for us all. It’s how we make money. It’s how we create systematic changes.

However, there’s a problem with scaling. Even large companies with lots of resources struggle to grow, learning painfully that low productivity and alignment are problems that require more than money to solve.

“There’s a problem with the eagerness to create solutions that scale. Vitallity and welbeing is in conflict with scaleing.” — Peggy Holman, Co-Founder, Journalism That Matters

The Harvard Business Review studied four types of scaling problems among hundreds of companies and found an interesting similarity. “Scaling challenges nearly always come down to the same problem: the difficulty of spreading something good from those who have it to those that don’t — or at least don’t yet.”

We hyper-focus on solutions in the way of bright spots, high performers, and successful strategies. Then, we try to get everyone to follow suit as if the idea is the most important piece to the puzzle.

In practice, part of what makes good ideas worth sharing in how they were created. It’s the team exercises, brainstorming sessions, creative moments, and the connections to specific, local situations. It’s not just about the ideas, it’s the environments in which they are created.

Another way of looking at it is in the burden that recipients of “success attention” acquire. As soon as we notice something working, we want to share it with everyone. In another study, the Harvard Business Review reported “Scaling becomes a problem of less because humans and human organizations can only handle so much cognitive load. In other words, successful scaling means finding ways to limit the number of things that people are expected to focus on and execute.”

We’ve all fallen prey to the latest “bright spot that now everyone must adopt”, whether it be OKR’s, anonymous staff surveys, or equity training. It’s not that any of these ideas are bad, it’s that they weren’t introduced or scaled properly.

The Right Way To Scale: The Speed Of Belonging

Our solution is as simple as the origin of the problem: more relationships.

Not relationships like in a boss/direct report hierarchy, but relationships like in friends. The difference is in the concept of belonging, where your value is not based on some external measurement, but in your humanity. When you feel belonging, it’s because you have friendships. And this kind of relationship is markedly different than the traditional boss and employee model.

Belonging relationships are common across organizational hierarchies but rarely exist between them. We get to know our office mates, our cubicle neighbors, our shift teammates, and our comrades in the kitchen. So clearly the problem isn’t in that we lack belonging relationships.

Where we need more belonging relationships between hierarchies. It’s in understanding broader networks of relationships that we find the connection between speed, scaling, and belonging.

When there is a lack of friendly relationships, there is a speed limit to change.

When these relationships exist, there are more opportunities for individual contributors to share concerns, open up about personal challenges, and politely say no or ask for help, which requires a vulnerability that only friendship can enable.

Belonging relationships bind us together, slow us down a bit, help us distribute help where it’s needed. They make us slow to react, and more willing to forgive. They bring the best of humanity into the workplace, especially when they are forged from top to bottom.

In summary, belonging relationships between leaders and their teams help team members stay focused on a reasonable load of effort, and help leaders keep the speed of change under the speed of belonging.

At the speed of belonging, there’s no limit to how much we can change, nor how far we can grow.

Justice for all.