There’s a point in a growing business where things often take a sudden shift from “Wow, this is going well” to “Help, it’s all falling apart”. It’s rarely one thing, but instead a rapidly growing undercurrent of things being missed, inconsistent delivery and decreasing morale. A panicked leader might even try to fix it by adding headcount and be surprised that this actually makes things worse. The common thread is usually internal communications issues and I call this pattern “The Communications Explosion”.

Business leaders in the blast radius of this bomb will often ask themselves what they did wrong to cause it. They shouldn’t. This explosion is a mathematical certainty if you plan to grow your business. You can’t stop it happening, but you can put measures in place to stop it causing harm.

If you grow, this WILL happen

I stated above that this is a mathematical certainty, let me  explain that bold claim. The explosion happens because lines of communication increase exponentially as the size of our team increases; i.e. more quickly than our head count grows and increasingly fast as it does. This is easily imagined as a diagram. A team of two people needs just one line of communication to connect everyone to each other:


Two people need one line of communication

Add one person to that team and you need to add two lines of communication to keep everyone directly connected. Hire one more person after that and you need three additional communications paths. As you can see, the lines increase more quickly than the head count.

For those who love a formula, that growth can be expressed as Lines of Communication = n * (n – 1) / 2. In chart form below you can clearly see that upward curve showing complexity growing more quickly that the number of people. Look at how quickly though: A founder only agency growing to 10 people needs to go from 0 to 45 lines of communication in that time. Growing to a team of 30 would theoretically mean a staggering 435 lines of communication. That is pure theory though as businesses either fix it or fail long before they get to that size.

Maths? Yawn! What does this mean for my growing business?

Let’s consider the impact of this with an example. Whilst the details have been changed to protect the innocent, the facts have not:

Company X grew rapidly during the pandemic. Pre-pandemic they were largely office based and the force of will of leadership compensated for many internal communication short-comings (Although they clearly existed and were having impact on both customers and team). A sudden move to being a fully remote team, together with continued growth multiplied the impact. The symptoms were clear: Endless internal meetings, frequent “blame storming” for missed issues and delivery failures, and a seeming inability to execute on decisions that had been made. Staff complained of living “half on zoom, half on slack” and constantly waiting on other people to get work done. The pandemic got the blame, but a look through historic customer and staff feedback suggested that the issues were there long before.

The real problem was that the team had grown without the systems and structure in place to support that growth

When is right to tackle this?

Before we talk about how to avoid this problem, let’s just take a moment to consider when you shouldn’t! Direct lines of communication are absolutely the right way to go when you are small. A small team in direct regular contact will always have the most efficient communications.  Small teams planning to stay that way should embrace it and enjoy their ability to out-manoeuvre larger competitors. It only becomes a problem once the team starts to grow more.

The usual pattern I see is that teams grow to 6 or 7 people without problems, but the push from 8 through 10 presents far greater challenge. Another look at the numbers throws some light on why. 7 people needs 21 lines of direct communication. Adding the next 3 people more than doubles complexity, requiring 45 lines of communication. When this happens the leadership can often find themselves so tied up dealing with the fallout of worsening communications that they struggle to find time to fix the issues. I speak from first-hand experience here.

If you plan to grow past that number you have to build with that in mind. This is why it is so important to know what the agency you are building looks like. If you wait until you need structure and process in place, then you might not have time to do that. From that size on, staying ahead of this potential issue becomes an important and ongoing part of the leadership team’s work.

Getting ahead tends to focus on three areas:


Pyramid or Pod, or something less conventional, I don’t think there is one answer for everyone. Different agencies suit different approaches and I am sure this is a topic I will come back to. What is important is having a structure where particular work is owned by a group that is smaller than the whole. This has most impact where work is of the the type with the most demanding communication needs, allowing that work to progress without adding volume to all lines. Structure becomes easier to think about in larger organisations where dedicated teams make sense., but lighter structure can bring impact early. Even a team of Leader+2 will benefit from having particular work where it is understood the business leader does not need to be looped in – freeing up time for more important leadership activities. The important part is having cle


Closely related to structure is the idea of ownership. Having clearly defined ownership not only reduces the amount of internal traffic, but also helps everyone find the right person first time. Defining ownership requires three things: The owner, The Breadth of what they own, The extent to which they own it (for example, do they need eventual approval/sign-off).


Build an internal library that your team trust and is easy to use and the communication noise will instantly reduce noise. An early version of this for many organisations will be what I call a “knowledge dump” – a single, unstructured and searchable place to store anything that might be useful again later. A quick way of multiplying the impact of you knowledge dump is to encourage everyone to contribute regularly in simple, informal ways. A favourite of mine has long been doing screen recordings of interesting points. Figured something out? Screen record it and share that.  If your platform can also add transcripts automatically this becomes a valuable asset quickly. As the organisation grow that knowledge base will need to become something more structured, but the important step is to start capturing information early.

Technology (used wisely)

There are literally hundreds of apps and platforms that claim to improve internal communications; from messaging platforms like Slack to full suites like Zoho, Asana or Clickup. I’m yet to speak to any agency owner who has found a tool that works perfectly for them, but used well most of these tools can help ease the load by keeping relevant information, decisions and discussions close to the work being done. Each comes with risk too. Badly considered, these tools can add significant volume and be interruptive to work. This means that building a positive approach to using them is just as important and choosing the right tools for your organisation.

The usual objection to improving these areas alongside growth (as opposed to fixing later) is the belief that they add overhead. Each comes with a certain investment in terms of time, but can be improved slowly and continuously. When you do this the returns come quickly and the losses of not being ready for the next step can be avoided entirely. These are the foundations that you will build your agency team on top of. The good news though is that, unlike the foundations of a building, you can continue to strengthen these as you build.

Does some of this sound familiar? I love tackling problems like this with agency leaders. If you are trying to grow your agency and want to get ahead of the challenge I may be able to help through Mentoring.