Why growth is so awkward

On the freeway, which drivers bug you the most? Is it the ones who are driving much faster than you or the ones who are driving much slower? It’s probably both. When everyone is travelling at similar speeds the road is a little safer and more comfortable. There are less lane changes, less blind spots to check, less brake lights.

Likewise, in the IT world, imagine people who have been ahead of their time. Do you remember technologies like VRML, Timex Sinclair or the Irix 3-d UI? Some of those were so far ahead of their time that they went buzzing over people’s heads. Likewise there have been some that were too late. Remember Betamax HD, or turntables with linear scanning or programmable calculator watches? They were all very cool, but showed up too late for the party. Each of them was a failure because they were too far ahead or behind the times.

In business, each company has a road that they travel towards maturity. Some walk, some run, some crawl.

In my career, I have worked at a few places that were making a transition from small-sized company to medium sized company. If there was one word to summarize the whole transition process and overall atmosphere, that word would be “awkward”.

Small Company Ways

In a small-sized company, all of the jobs are defined in terms of the people who do the jobs. There isn’t { Finance, HR, Marketing, Sales, Operations, IT }, there is { Derek and Linda (who handle sales), Jerry takes care of the building/property, Mike handles servers and PCs, Mary answers the phones, etc. }. As a result, when Alicia goes on vacation, we always run out of coffee and printer paper. You sometimes hear, “No. We can’t lose Justin. This place would fall apart without him.” A small company isn’t made of jobs/roles, it is made of individuals.

There are a few operational results of this tight bond between a small company and its people. For instance, the employees typically have limited opportunities (there is no “moving up”). Likewise, the company is limited by the skills and ambition of its employees. This cyclic-dependency usually constrains growth. [Limited incentives for growth] = [limited growth]. It usually isn’t much of a concern to the employees in a small company because they accept this condition in-trade for having a place that feels like a family. It feels stable and predictable. The employees don’t expect this to change and don’t really want it to.

Mid-Sized Company

In a mid-sized company, growth isn’t limited by the employees. If you want to increase sales, you “go-fish”. Find some go-getter who feels stifled at her current job and is ready to stretch her wings, or some experienced ace, who is ready for a change-of-scenery and bigger challenges. The talent-pool for a small company is limited by its walls, but the talent-pool for a mid-sized company usually consists of all people in the market for a job.

The differences between a small-sized company and a mid-sized company are pretty significant. When a company outgrows the small-company mold, some big changes happen. The small company folks expect to grow along with the company but the medium sized company is more apt to hire strategic people into advanced positions. It seems unreal to the original staff. Not only do the new people get great positions (and pay) without having to pay their dues, the new people almost seem to block the advancement of those who deserve more. The new guy gets your cheese. It sucks and the folks who have “paid their dues” feel kind-of mad about it. If you are one of them, you think, “I probably could have taken an evening class or read a self-improvement book and been that guy”. Except, you didn’t and if you had, then your co-workers would be mad at you now, because you would have taken their cheese.

The Upgrade Process

During the transition from a small to medium sized company, there tends to be a lot of staff turn-over and a lot of awkwardness to go around. It is a freeway full of cars travelling at 2 different speeds. Half are thinking the slow cars are idiots and half is thinking the fast cars are maniacs.

Just like a real freeway, the whole thing gets sorted out eventually. The slow cars either speed up a little or they find an exit ramp. The fast cars slow down a little or get pulled over (exit ramp) or just decide to take another route with a more comfortable traffic pattern. The whole thing takes about 3-5 years.

Momentum for Changes

Once a company has gone through this transition, some of the people start looking towards the next horizon: the transition from a mid-sized company to a large-sized company. Of course, this horizon is probably 10 years away, but some people actually start preparing for it, because they like that speed. They are accustomed to change and transition. They don’t want to lose that momentum.

Birds of a Feather

When I read online discussions about IT, I see this duality so often. Somebody asks a question online about a problem with a MS Access database or a home-spun web site. Then some cracker-jack from a fortune 500 IT department berates them for using tools for kids. “Why aren’t you using MVC with struts and CMM 3 with burn-downs and scrums?” Half the people reading it are going “Yeah! Why not?” and the other half are like “Huh? Does anybody (outside of a university) use that stuff?”

“Right Sizing”

When I am hiring people, I watch for some of these characteristics. If I’m at a small company, I try to avoid the speed demons. The energy in these hot-shots is just too much. The inherent lack of structure and maturity at a small company, requires people who intend to walk (really well) and run occasionally.

In contrast, when I’m at a mid-sized company, you need to be more worried about the bottom of the spectrum than the top. Most mid-sized companies have goals of becoming a large company. Companies who have recently made the transition from small to mid-sized, will inherently be more comfortable with changes and different ways of thinking. You still need to be careful not to overdo it.

So, if you find that things are awkward in your office. Just try to keep in mind what is going on, and what is the preferred pace of your colleagues. Things will get sorted out. Just press that gas pedal ever-so-gently and try not to tailgate.

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About Tim Golisch

I'm a geek. I do geeky things.
This entry was posted in Career. Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Why growth is so awkward

  1. Thanks for sharing your info. I really appreciate your efforts and I am waiting for your further post thank you once again.

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