How Do You Organize a New Team for Success?

A friend of mine who works at Google recently wrote to me, "I've just created a new team of five and we're just getting setup. We need to show progress on a problem in six months. I'd love your advice and resources on how to organize a team for success (norms, decision making, values, etc)." Another friend is starting a company on the side of his day job, and wanted to know how he should structure his team.

First, I'd recommend blocking off an hour for your team to come together and discuss how you want to work together. As HBR reports, “One of your first priorities should be to get to know your team members and to encourage them to get to better know one another. One particularly effective exercise is to have people share their best and worst team experiences. Discussing those good and bad dynamics will help everyone get on the same page about what behavior they want to encourage — and avoid — going forward." 

Here are some questions to ask to create norms around working and making decisions:

  • What hours do we want to work? Where and how do we want to work (same room, what kinds of check-ins, what kinds of file sharing, etc)?
  • What are our hopes and fears for this team or project?
  • What are some of our individual goals we want to work on? How can everyone else be supportive of those?
  • When work gets intense, what are our non-negotiables? (i.e. Kids come first, must exercise in the middle of the day, etc)
  • How will we make decisions? What types of decisions need consensus? How will we deal with conflict
  • How do we want to give and receive feedback (I have a whole guide on types of feedback here-- but basically, do we want to do it 1-1, in a group, informally, or during a specified time each week-- like at a retro?) It’s always better to start with more structure, more touch points, more check-ins at the beginning, and you can always remove them.

There are a bunch more questions here, along with sample norms (sometimes people find the word norm to be confusing, so giving examples is good). Keep asking questions of your team weekly or monthly: 

For team values: it's hard to set team values until you've worked together for at least a few months. But you can start with personal values. Here is a good exercise for personal values: Personal Maps (it's fun and you get to learn about each other).

For team structure: 

  • At a high level, here is a good overview of the five main types of organizational structures.
  • For tech startups, here is what a team structure could look like when you start. 
  • As you grow, your structure will become more complicated, but a good rule of thumb is to keep your teams autonomous. Pinterest's founder Ben Silbermann explains how they make their teams "feel as autonomous and nimble as possible within the constraints of the organization. That means over time we are trying to make it feel like a startup of many startups. We want units that encompass a super strong designer, or a super strong lead engineering, a writer, often times a community leader. We want them to be self contained. We put people together that have all these kind of disciplines." Pinterest then anchors the teams to certain projects and removes barriers to let them go fast.
  • And remember to keep tweaking and making adjustments. As Cap Watkins, VP of Design at BuzzFeed writes, "Our organizations are our products. If it isn’t already, it should be someone’s (or multiple someones’) job to be planning for the future of the team; to set goals based on people and effective communication rather than product metrics. We should constantly look inward, making small adjustments and tweaks as we learn new information, adjusting our future plans as a result."