How Not To Squash Your Team With Red Tape

One of the common tenets of growth theories is that companies require process and structure as they grow. And if they’re lucky, they’ll be around long enough to reach a critical tipping point where too much structure will begin to squash innovation. It’s easy to find examples of companies that have crossed this threshold — they’re slow, bureaucratic, behemoths. How did they get there? At some point in time, someone decided they needed a new process or policy without considering the cost.

I’ve been thinking a lot about this on the Heroku Support team. We’re at a critical point in our evolution where we’re growing fast and trying to keep up. New policies and procedures are probably necessary to streamline our operations. However, we’re also dangerously close to that important tipping point of flexibility versus bureaucracy.

It’s also very tempting as a manager to want to try to fix everything for your staff. You’ll spot an inconsistency or ineffective workflow and immediately want to throw on a cape and get to work. But too often we place even greater burdens on the team that we were trying to help in the first place.

For example, your team and ticket load is growing and you’re seeing more and more examples of unhappy customers demanding refunds. Your gut instinct may be to implement a hard-and-fast policy: “All requests for account credits much be approved by 2 managers!” Instead, trust your staff and give them guidance on how to deal with these situations. If you’re worried about it, place a soft limit and have them consult you if the amount is more. Then continually train and guide your staff to be more self-sufficient.

Over-bearing policies can also cast too wide of a net and affect the wrong people. It’s all too easy to try to affect the behavior of a single team member by creating a policy that inadvertently affects the entire team. One agent handles a ticket poorly and suddenly an entire new process is enacted to fix one isolated incident. As a result, the entire team suffers.

Instead, I’d encourage you (both manager and team member) to think long and hard as you add additional processes and structures to your team. Before you do so, ask yourself these important questions:

  1. What am I trying to solve here? Do I have a clear understanding of the specific problem?
  2. What negative side effects might this change trigger? Could other positive behaviors be negatively affected?
  3. Have I run this idea by other members of the team? Do they agree on both the problem and the solution?

Implementing new processes is far easier than removing them. And often times, many issues can be resolved at the individual level. So before you decide to change out your support tool, change up a playbook, or require a new process in handling tickets, stop and consider the full cost and effects of a new policy. Your team will thank you!

If you’re interested in hearing more about this: I’m really excited to be speaking at Elevate Philadelphia this spring! My talk is called “How Teams Grow, Thrive, and Fail” and we’ll be mostly talking about corporate growth theories and how they can apply to our teams.

Hi there, I'm Jon.

Writer. Musician. Adventurer. Nerd.

Purveyor of GIFs and dad jokes.