Don’t let expansion ruin a great company culture

As a young company that primarily serves informal markets, we have quickly expanded into new regions on the African continent. While South Africa remains a key focus – and our base – we have invariably needed to establish a presence in other fast growing markets. In practice, this has meant that our management team spends a great deal of time away from the rest of the team – and working remotely. Without a doubt, this scenario is impacting the culture of the business – as the core structure shifts from a centralised management system to a more distributed model. This certainly comes with a host of challenges and business problems, but we are finding that by adopting certain tools and processes, this new model can accelerate business growth and support expansion.
Maintaining Awareness
In our experience, there are three key challenges that need to be addressed. The first is around visibility, and finding ways to ensure that everyone has a clear view of important issues/projects at any given time. When staff and management are always in the same physical space, it is easy to get together and have status updates or hash out small but persistent problems. Indeed, there is a certain contextual awareness that is removed from the equation when teams are scattered across locations. As managers and leaders, we may not be aware that unexpected technical issues are hindering a developer, for example, which may then delay a key product release.
The second challenge is decision-making: when the management team is working remotely, and often traveling/offline, how do you ensure that key decisions are made quickly? In the world of mobile technology, success is often dependent on speed. For example, we have to choose which clients to work with very carefully. As a small team, we have limited capacity, and therefore take a very strategic approach to our expansion. So when a call like this has to be made, we need to have structures in place that ensure the team can make a quick – and joint – informed decision.
These two challenges are part and parcel of the third, and arguably most important issue for a dispersed management team: how do you create and maintain the right company culture? Every business ideally needs to have a clearly defined mission, with teams that are able to support and complement each other. With distance and remote working structures, maintaining such a supportive and positive culture can be difficult.
There’s an app for that…
In tackling these three key challenges, we have found that technology can be enormously powerful. Provided that certain platforms and tools are used strategically and with clear goals, technology can certainly mitigate the issue of losing contextual awareness.
For example, with regards to the visibility challenge, we have started to use key metrics for specific areas within the business. Every week, the team has sight of a highly detailed one-page breakdown of the main functions – such as Sales, Tech/IT, Operations, etc. We use collaborative tools such as Google Drive, Trello and Telegram Messenger to ensure that we are all working off the same documents, and have full view of any changes – in real time. Importantly, we are continually looking for new tools and experimenting with various apps and platforms to improve our processes.  
With regards to decision-making, we have established clear processes. These processes are designed to ensure that we can react quickly to changing contexts, and keep a close eye on moving targets. In order to avoid losing time if, for example, one team member is traveling, other members are empowered to take key decisions within their particular area of expertise. So essentially there is a type of SLA between the different teams that everyone adheres to.
As a business that has grown out of Cape Town, we certainly didn’t start with the vision of being spread – as a team – across the continent. Admittedly, tackling the challenges detailed above is still very much a work in progress, but it is something that almost every successful African company will invariably face.

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