The Challenge Of Scaling Talent

  • by , Featured Contributor, September 14, 2012

If you’ve ever pitched to investors, you’ll have heard the same five questions over and over. They’re the same questions asked on “Dragons’ Den” and “Shark Tank.” They’re the questions that must be answered well for any business to grow to a significant size, and, although they are simple, they are exceedingly complex:

  1. Is your team awesome?
  2. Is your product or technology awesome?
  3. Do you have a clear and effective channel to market?
  4. Do you have a profitable and effective monetization model?
  5. Does it scale?

The last question is often closely tied to the first. An awesome team can sometimes get away with things that work because of the talents of the individuals concerned rather than because of a sound underlying structure -- and, if that’s the case, the cracks generally begin to show as the company outgrows its original entrepreneurial spirit.

The traditional solution to this problem is systems. Systems! Perfected by Henry Ford and McDonald’s. The breaking down of tasks into increments so simple, so repetitive, so unskilled that a monkey could do them.



That type of system seemed like a good idea at the time, and certainly worked for decades. But nowadays most people don’t actually want monkeys working for them. We want talented, thoughtful, intelligent people, people who can handle an increasingly complex world and an increasingly sophisticated and demanding marketplace.

In our digital world, the answer to this question resides in technology: Scale for us means the incremental cost of each additional widget is zero or near zero. But while a digital offering can address the product, a growing company is always ravenous for talent.

So the question comes full-circle: How do you scale your awesome team?

The answer lies in a different kind of system: a more mindful one, one that offers direction while allowing discretion. Pulling this off requires greater transparency in the decision-making process. If people don’t understand why they’re supposed to be going in the direction they’re going, they’ll never know when it’s acceptable or necessary to deviate.

The answer lies in a deep understanding of what can be changed and what must remain unchanging, and a deep understanding of the tension between stifling and enabling constraints.

But most important, it lies in trust: trust that people are capable, are motivated, are willing. Trust that even if something is not done by you, or done the way you would do it, it can still be done “right.” Trust that, in fact and in clear opposition to the philosophy espoused in the assembly-line systems of the industrial age, the world will not end if we let go.

I see this precarious balance between control and release in the way that TED manages the TEDx program (for which I’m a licensee). The head office provides a set of core guidelines and principles, along with a set of hard-and-fast rules. The rules protect the brand, ensuring both consistency (for example, in logo design) and integrity (for example, by not allowing sponsors to speak at TEDx events). Each implementation is up to the individual licensee, and therefore each implementation is radically different: different speakers, different amenities, different themes, different attendee experience.

A structured system that allows for freedom of expression creates a virtuous cycle, where each participant strives to optimize his or her own expression of creativity within the described constraints. It is the best way to produce an environment where the successes are not limited to the boundaries of your own imagination. And it is by far the best way to scale talent.

What do you think?

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