The weakest link: Scaling up your team

Apr 22, 2021 - 10 min read
Joshua Ahn
editor-page-cover

There’s a careful balance to strike between growing your team in numbers vs. skills when scaling your team. In the Startup Genome Report that reviewed 3,200 high-growth startups, 74% failed due to premature scaling of their team. Among those failed startups, researchers found that their team sizes were three times larger than other stable startups.

Successfully scaling your business rests on providing the tools and resources required to develop your teams’ skills without losing revenue. Yet, in that process, you may find your growth stunted by the weakest link.

Today, we’re going to discuss ways to scale your team by finding and correcting the weakest link. Along the way, you’ll discover practices to increase your team’s productivity, engagement, and retention. Here’s what we’ll cover:



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Qualities of a strong team

As a leader, building a strong team is no easy task, yet the outcome will be worth the challenge. Strong teams will inevitably meet your goals for higher performance and create an environment of increased retention, engagement, and satisfaction. To meet those larger goals, let’s focus on specific categories of a strong team as a benchmark for correcting your weakest link.

Countless studies identify traits of a strong team through categories such as:

  1. Communication
  2. Knowledge
  3. Emotional Intelligence
  4. Leadership
  5. Diversity

Today, we will focus on scaling three of the five noted categories above by targeting the weakest link. Those three categories are communication, knowledge, and leadership.

Communication

A study by Google revealed that their most successful teams required an even distribution of communication from each team member. Regardless of individual competence, collective intelligence hinged on active communication from all team members. In a strong team, each team member feels equipped and willing to contribute to conversations on a project, increasing team engagement.

In addition, team members are actively asking questions to improve their knowledge of the requirements of a feature. Teams with active communication will show signs of trust between team members, improving retention and job satisfaction.

Knowledge

Each team member should be equipped with the knowledge required to perform well individually and willing to learn new information. In particular, team members should be updating their skills to improve the quality of their code and meet code standards. Strong teams will have L&D opportunities widely available for their team members to develop their skills efficiently.

Leadership

Strong leadership advances the company’s goals alongside creating a healthy work environment for the team. The team leader is quick to acknowledge any issues that arise and invests time into finding solutions for team members. As the business starts to grow, a strong team leader will develop a strategy to scale the team with new tools or efficient L&D processes to compensate for increasing demand.


Qualities of a weak link team

As your business grows, you may find it challenging to meet your performance goals or to think of strategies to scale your business without the expense of revenue. As you look towards building your team up to scale with your business, you may run into the issue of a weak link team. You’ll notice communication decline, gaps in knowledge, and frustration with your leadership.

Here are some quick questions to see if you may be dealing with a weak link team:

  1. Are turnover rates high?
  2. Are your profits decreasing?
  3. Are you constantly running into issues?
  4. Are the same issues arising?
  5. Are you hearing frustrations about leadership?

What is a weak link?

The term weak link comes from the analogy that a chain will only be as strong as the weakest link. Meanwhile, a weak link team describes a team’s performance contingent on a single team member’s performance and ability. For example, a rowing team’s overall performance depends heavily on each individual’s performance.

Every stroke must remain in sync, and each individual must contribute equally to propel the team forward more efficiently. Similarly, the efficiency of software development hinges on the weakest link on a SE team. The weak link is either contributing less than other engineers or out of sync with the rest of the SE team.

Consequences of a weak link

Following the analogy of rowing, if one teammate reduces their effort in rowing, the rest will be forced to increase their workload, reducing the overall performance. Similarly, a weak link may be preventing your team from scaling with the business as consequences may include other members taking on more work, burnout, loss of talented engineers, and reduced satisfaction.

Benefits of correcting a weak link

Correcting a weak link can be awkward at first, but with the right tools and practices in place, you’ll find the benefits outweigh the initial discomfort. You’ll discover your team will work more efficiently, have increased trust in your leadership, and maintain greater job satisfaction.

Additionally, you’ll save time and resources from having to recruit new or more candidates while scaling your business appropriately to meet the demands of your customers. Keep in mind that your weakest link could become your most vital asset in the future if you correctly build them up.


Identifying the weak link

It might start with intuition, but identifying the weak link on your team may be a cumbersome process without the proper metrics to guide your search. Start your search without the idea of eliminating the weakest link, but to pinpoint the employee that may be creating more issues for the rest of the team.

The goal here is to see if the employee is willing to grow or improve before looking into ways to bring them up to speed.

To identify the weak link, look for the following traits:

  1. Difficult or slow communication

  2. Lack of interest or curiosity

  3. Gaps in knowledge

Difficult or slow communication

A team member who is challenging to reach can make any project exponentially more challenging to complete. Slow or difficult communication can significantly reduce the efficiency of other team members and create frustration within the whole team.

You may find the weak link having difficulty communicating their code or other team members finding it difficult to understand how their code works. Difficulty communicating their code may also signify that the code is not up to standards or ignores code quality.

Lack of interest or curiosity

Like most other jobs, software engineering requires a desire to continue learning and growing in the craft. You might notice that the team member may not have an accessible tool to improve their learning, and as a result, they lack interest in their work.

A lack of interest often leads to “doing the minimum,” which can reduce code quality or create more work for other team members. Find out if they are willing to put effort into developing their skills or see if there are any new skills they are eager to learn.

Gaps in knowledge

You may notice a team member showing gaps in knowledge of frameworks, design patterns, or patterns. Weak links can create more work for your experienced developers to find time to teach the skills required to develop a feature or cause a slower review process.

Due to the collaborative nature of developing a feature, it’s essential to quickly identify any gaps of knowledge a team member may have.


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Correcting the weak link

After identifying the weak link, correcting the weak link can take different routes such as one-on-one meetings, PIPs, or new hires. As a general process, discover the source of their challenges and establish a plan to improve their work. This process should be done quickly. If you wait to have a conversation about performance improvement, the issue will become more complex.

Keep in mind that you should avoid immediately going through formal procedures such as a PIP without first communicating your initial concerns through an informal format. Blindsiding your weak link with an official performance improvement plan without a gradual lead-in conversation can create perpetual distrust between team members and management.

As a leader, develop a culture that communicates your investment in your team’s progress. Now that we’ve covered some norms let’s talk about correcting the weak link.

Workflow 1: Informal

  1. Set up a one on one

  2. Highlight any positive actions and expectations they have met

  3. Communicate your observations and include specific examples for when they did not meet expectations

  4. Confirm a mutual understanding

  5. Ask about any blockers or challenges.

  6. Ask if they are willing to improve their performance and communicate your willingness to help them grow.

  7. Set clear goals and provide training or support as required

  8. Schedule check-ins

  9. Communicate any consequences

Workflow 2: Formal

  1. Set up a one on one

  2. Communicate your observations for the decline in performance and what your expectations are. Highlight any positive actions.

  3. Ask about any blockers or challenges they may be facing.

  4. Ask if they are willing to improve their performance and communicate your willingness to help them grow.

  5. Clarify that they will be placed on a PIP and explain the consequences

  6. Create a PIP

  7. Provide training and support as required

  8. Schedule check-ins

  9. Schedule in-depth final review

Your weak link will need the right tools and support to meet their goals of improvement. Whether through an informal process or formal process, L&D tools such as Educative Teams can catch them up to speed through a more straightforward process for all parties involved. Clear goals of improvement will also include a clear route for improvement.

Your weak link will feel supported by having an efficient resource for learning new skills or developing rusty skills. Tools like Educative will provide top-level support to improve your weak link and ultimately scale your team. As a leader, investing in L&D tools communicates your desire to keep your team in sync and avoids any frustration that may build up from inefficient improvement processes.


Wrapping up

As a leader, develop a culture where your team members are encouraged to grow and develop their craft as software engineers. A study with Google found that the most successful teams could openly share the challenges and blockers in their personal and professional lives.

Realistically, you may not have the resources available to source top-level software engineers.

Thankfully, creating a scalable team does not always require new hires but involves the utility of efficient tools to help your weakest link advance. Scale your team by investing in L&D opportunities, and as a result, you’ll find yourself saving time and resources while building a successful team.

By quickly recognizing the qualities of a weak link team, identifying the weak link, and correcting the weak link, you’ll find your team drawing closer to the ideals of a strong team. As team dynamics ebb and flow over time, your weakest link today might be your most valuable asset tomorrow. As you scale your team, you’ll notice higher retention, increased productivity, and a more positive outlook from your team.

If you are interested in learning more about what Educative can do to support your team, please contact Educative for Business for a FREE 14 day trial. Our best-in-class technical courses can equip you and your team with the knowledge needed to meet your goals and stay connected.

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WRITTEN BYJoshua Ahn

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