Hiring and the Four Stages of a Team

27 May 2021

If multiple teams are struggling and need hires but you don’t immediately have hires for all of them, what do you do?

I was in a situation where multiple engineering teams struggling, and couldn’t get the work done that they wanted to, the first solution for each of them was to hire more. The challenge with limited hiring bandwidth is that multiple teams can’t come first. Fortunately, Will Larson wrote about the four states of a team in Staying on the path to high performing teams, which breaks down the growth stages of teams and what to do for each stage.

Four stages

  1. Falling behind, add people
  2. Treading water, reduce WIP
  3. Replaying dept, add time
  4. Innovating, add slack

Falling behind is when the team is working hard, but the backlog of critical work gets deeper every week.

Treading water is when the critical work is getting done, but there is no extra time to pay down technical debt.

Repaying debt is when the team is able to start paying down technical debt and see benefits.

Innovating is when debt is low, morale is high and the majority of work goes towards satisfying user needs

Categorizing the teams

Using these four stages we can categorize our struggling teams to determine where our hiring should be focused, and how else to help the rest of the teams.

  • When a team is falling behind, the solution is to hire to keep up with the critical work and move into treading water.
  • When a team is treading water, the solution is to reduce concurrent work until they are able to start repaying debt
  • When a team is repaying debt, the solution is to give time and space to continue. Everything is working, we just need to make sure they do not increase the amount of concurrent work and slice back into treading water.
  • When a team is innovating, the solution is to make sure they continue to have space and their work is valuable. It’s easy to pick up high-risk low-reward projects and get the team broken apart.

With our teams in groups 1-4, we can see that groups 1-3 are still ‘struggling’ but not all in the same way. They are struggling in the sense they want to get more done, but not in the sense that hiring is the best way to do that. We can use this information to build a strategy for hiring.