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As context for this article, my long standing description of ideal clients makes no mention of specialization or maturity. Instead, I have historically said that my favorite clients are: “Growing companies, ready for structure around accountability and collaboration. They are starting to suffer from operational inefficiency, stalled growth, and high levels of employee frustration.” Usually, the very next question is “and how big are these companies?”
I typically use headcount to answer but for a few years now, I have given a fairly wide range and been unable to articulate why a particular business might fall on one end or the other. Is it industry dependent? Does it matter how quickly the company has grown? Is there even a pattern to be found?
The short answer to all of these questions is “yes”! The longer answer, as the third question hints, involves an algorithm that I only recently identified: the more specialized the roles or the more mature the business, the smaller the team will be when it is ready to think intentionally about roles, accountability, and structured collaboration.
For the ultra nerdy among us: Specialization | Maturity ∝ (1/Size When Ready for Structure)
Specialization and maturity seem like good things. “Structure” is often seen as restrictive and annoying. So why would these attributes create an earlier need for structure than a more generalized free for all? The answers turn out to be a bit different for each factor so let’s start with specialization.
I truly began to appreciate how specialization drives the need for structure when working on my talk “Turning A Players Into an A Team”. Looking at the materials I had pulled together, I noticed an assumption that small businesses are hampered by too much structure while large teams are hamstrung without formal collaboration. The second half still rings true for me but I realized that the part about small businesses was being shaped by startups in the tech industry.
In most of these organizations, there is some breakdown across the “technical” and “business” folks but there tends to be a lot of shared skills within each silo and even some crossover. Often, the engineers are more numerous than the business people in the early days so the business people need to be able to wear multiple hats to keep everything running. For their part, the engineers are also straining to make their vision a reality and are often working outside their preferred comfort zone to fill in the various cracks. It is even fairly common for people to cross the primary boundary with business people knocking together proofs of concept and engineers supporting fundraising.
This is a context where trying to define specific roles and boundaries can be hugely detrimental.
But, in the past few years, I have learned a lot about professional services companies and how law firms, for example, distribute work across highly specialized roles, regardless of business maturity. Similar to the tech company, there is likely to be a broad division between lawyers and their staff. Also similar to the tech company is the need for flexibility in the non-lawyer team members. However, the roles filled by various lawyers and the paralegals tend to be very well defined from day one and there is rarely any crossover between the work being done by lawyers and staff. Similar statements would apply to medical practices, certain manufacturing conditions, or any time someone spends years developing a very narrow skillset that they execute largely independently.
It is that last piece that unlocks the mystery. When specialists work largely independently, you have to start building the formal bridges across individuals rather than waiting for teams to form naturally, as happens in tech.
Turning now to “maturity”, I am leaving that word intentionally ambiguous in definition. Whether the business has been operating for quite some time or has simply fallen into a natural rhythm, any sort of change can be difficult and painful. Mature businesses have generally established organic structures that are well understood by everyone involved. The way things work is clear because the knowledge has seeped by osmosis into everyone’s consciousness at roughly the same time.
This can be very effective as long as the team and context of the business remain the same. But when someone leaves, a new person joins, or external factors challenge the company, adapting structures that are more felt than known can quickly become overwhelming. The small impact of differences in how each person understood the status quo are magnified when the misalignments set team members on diverging paths.
For example, the fuzzy boundary between business development and marketing efforts might have made no difference when “business development” and “marketing” were each one individual and there was a solid working relationship between them. Adding a new team member to the marketing efforts, however, might highlight an area that the business development lead wants to own over the long term. What is accepted as the natural balance between respected colleagues may become unacceptable when it is formalized into the domain of a team.
Taken altogether, I am delighted to finally be able to provide some guidance around why certain organizations will need the type of work I do sooner or later than others. As I continue my consulting, I am sure that my understanding will evolve and become more refined. The world will also change and perhaps I will further refine my understanding of specialization and maturity and ideal clients. For today, however, my inner nerd is rejoicing and I am excited to put this algorithm into practice!