Scaling an organisation is like taking a photograph

Scaling an organisation
is like taking a photograph

Great photographers master three things.

The composition of the image – the arrangement of visual elements for clarity and aesthetics.

The execution of the image – the craft of camera, lens, aperture, shutter, film and processing.

The emotion of the image – the use of light, focus, blur and facial expression to evoke a response.

Composition is all about choices of subject: what’s the point of this picture; what’s in; what’s out; are we close in or far away; how do the elements relate to each other to produce a coherent whole.

Execution is all about fidelity of intent: which version of what’s in the photographer’s mind’s eye is he or she actually able to realise in the final image, given the constrains of equipment, recording medium or processing.

Emotion is simply the way the image makes you feel: excitement, joy, awe, pity, despair.

There may be trade-offs. This photograph of the D Day landings by Robert Capa is technically challenging. It’s grainy, blurred and out of focus. The darkroom assistant accidentally destroyed all but eight of the images from that day in a processing error. But the composition is exquisite: the soldier pushes forward through the water, away from the landing craft, the smoke of the shells. We can’t make out the floating dark patches in the sea above his head, but we can imagine what they could be. And it’s nearly three quarters of a century ago, but we can still feel the fear, the determination, the horror, the disorientation, the noise, the cold.

Compare it to he following photograph, of a tired and relieved Neil Armstrong, back in the Lunar Module after having walked on the Moon’s surface for the first time. Armstrong was famously reclusive. He said very little afterwards about what it felt like to have been the first human to walk on the surface of another celestial body. This image by Buzz Aldrin is beautifully composed; the execution is also pretty good – but the grin on Armstrong’s face, the sparkle in his eyes and the feeling of tranquility (sorry) from the key lighting and selective focus say as much as he ever did in words after he returned. How did it feel to walk on the Moon? Like that.

So what does this have to do with scaling? Successful leaders balance their organisation’s direction, dynamics and design.

An organisation or team’s direction speaks to its vision, mission, strategy and plans. Why do we exist? What are we trying to achieve? How are we going to achieve it?. 

Its dynamics are the behaviours and values exhibited by employees, customers and partners. How does it feel to work here: to work with us? Exciting? Collaborative? Hustling? Confrontational? Austere? High-pressure? Laid back? Trusting? Professional?

Its design is the means by which it gets stuff done – the hierarchy, the decision-making structure, the performance management system, the budgeting process, the heartbeat of daily, weekly and monthly meetings through which the business is managed, the IT systems which support its processes.

When you’re scaling an organisation and one of these is out of balance, opportunities are lost, progress falters, employees and customers leave.

If your direction is unclear, people don’t know what to do, can’t work out how to prioritise and end up going round in circles.

If your dynamics are dysfunctional, you’re horrible to work with and work for – issues aren’t dealt with, accountability is low, behaviour is poor, integrity is absent, as is motivation. Everybody’s out for themselves.

If your design isn’t right, getting stuff done is difficult for everyone. Decision-making is slow, and happens at the wrong level of the organisation. Most of your time is spent fire-fighting. People get burned out, and disengaged.

These concepts may seem abstract, but managed inadequately and your organisation will struggle to grow and may even fail completely. Managed well, they will unlock growth. The bigger you get, the faster you’re trying to grow, the harder they are to address – and the more that leaders will have to spend time communicating and reinforcing these areas. 

It can be hard to know where to start, or what to do. It’s even more difficult to know what you’ve missed – “unknown unknowns”. To help, we’ve created a survey to help you to understand and map out direction, dynamics and design.

For ten minutes of your time we will tell you which factors are likely to be holding you back – and give you some guidance. All the companies which take the survey will be sent a customised free report which will tell them how they benchmark against other tech companies of their size and stage.

Take the Organisation Health Check survey

Images used in this post remain the copyright of their respective holders and are reproduced here under educational fair use exemptions.

Ansel Adams – Clearing Winter Storm, Yosemite National Park, California – 1944
Robert Capa – US troops’ first assault on Omaha Beach during the D-Day landings. Normandy, France. June 6, 1944
Erwin “Buzz” Aldrin – Apollo 11 commander Neil Armstrong inside the lunar module following the historic first moonwalk – July 21, 1969
Dorothea Lange – Migrant Mother – 1936