Refactor: Extract Team

Growing organizations need to create new teams with time. This article covers some FAQs that I discuss in depth in The Tech Executive Operating System. Being aware of these questions and having answers ready will help you avoid some common pitfalls and set the new team up for success.

Can you form a team before you have a manager?

There are scenarios where you have a need for a new team, and you have the people to staff it, except for the person who’s going to be leading it. Assuming that you have other leaders in the organization, you don’t have to rush to promote or hire a new manager. You also don’t have to wait until they arrive.

My clients had success with putting in place interim leaders who are already managing others in the company. For example, the director manages the team personally until a manager is found. I’ve also seen cases of engineering managers taking the new team under their leadership temporarily, especially if some of the people in this new team used to report to them. Of course, this has to be temporary, and the teams cannot be too big for the leader to function.

What is a good size to start a new team?

Ideally, teams should be around 6-10 people. However, there is no problem with starting a team from scratch with two people (one person isn’t a team!). The caveat is that you should not make it a habit to form many micro-teams and let them remain tiny for long periods.

Organizations with a lot of micro-teams suffer from increased communication burdens and too much managerial overhead. So, teams can be smaller initially, but don’t spin up a new team unless you intend to staff it to get to five or six people soon.

Should you promote someone or hire experienced managers?

As with everything, it is vital to keep a healthy balance. A company that insists on only promoting first-timers is playing on hard mode. You’re needlessly doing things in a way that doesn’t get you any extra credit. On the other hand, it is impossible never to promote people and only get outsiders—if there’s a glass ceiling, people won’t stay.

For each position, consider the available talent within your team and the complexity of the role. Some teams are easier to manage than others.

How important is the decision to create a new team?

That is, how long and hard should you consider before deciding to do it? Should you create a team for a temporary need and call it off after a couple of months? How critical is it to be certain that the team will remain viable for more than 6, 12, or more months?

I think we can all agree that changing your organization’s structure and teams willy nilly is probably not a healthy thing for your people. Nevertheless, do not get sucked into analysis paralysis. If you believe that something warrants the existence of a team, and has a roadmap that’s at least six months long, go ahead. We tend to underestimate work anyway.

If something is genuinely short-term and you don’t know if it will become an ongoing effort, frame it like so. Some of the best and most exciting teams I was on were special task forces that were only running for short periods of time, ranging from a few weeks to three months. If everyone involved is aware that this is a temporary thing, it should be fine (personally, I still view it as a perk!).

Always remember that nothing is set in stone. I know I titled this “refactoring,” where changing organizations is considerably more challenging than typing an accord on your keyboard to get the IDE to rename something. Still, we can make changes more often than we might otherwise suspect, as long as we communicate things in the right manner and learn how to perform tests on our organization (e.g., the task forces mentioned above). Happy leading!