The good old days. An imagined moment where things were simple, easy, and fast, often referred to by anyone working in a company that was at some point a startup.
It’s no surprise that companies - big and small - strive to rediscover that good-old-day feeling. To do so, they often go big. Get the entire company together on an off-site. Or do a live-streamed all-hands. Or get senior leadership to fly into office after office.
But it often doesn’t work. Why? Because what made those early moments so great was that everything, but most obviously the team, was smaller.
And I think there’s no alternative. You can’t avoid it. You can’t go around it. If you want to keep changing, reinventing, and growing, think small, not big.
It makes sense. Keeping things small is a principle beloved of many of the great teams of history.
Take Kelly Johnson, the father of Lockheed Martin’s Skunk Works, and the person responsible for designing and delivering the first US jet fighter in a grand total of 143 days. He liked small teams, with one of his 14 rules of management being:
“The number of people having any connection with the project must be restricted in an almost vicious manner. Use a small number of good people (10% to 25% compared to the so-called normal systems).”
Or Sam Altman (now the CEO of a not-particularly-small team), back in 2017:
“The flexibility of the company basically decreases with the square of the number of employees, so you want to stay really small until you’re sure things are working. Once things are working, then you can get really big.”
It’s why at Basecamp three is their magic number.
“Nearly all product work is done by teams of three people. A team of three is usually composed of two programmers and one designer. And if it’s not three, it’s two or one — not four or five. We don’t throw more people at problems, we chisel problems down until they can be tackled by three people, at most.”
Why do small teams win? Two reasons.
First, the more people on a project, the less effort they put in. This, I discovered, is known as the Ringelmann effect, after a 1913 study that involved a lot of ropes being pulled.
If you have more people involved, they feel like others in the group are on it, and so take a step back themselves. That’s fine if one or two people think that, but if everyone does, then it’s game over.
Second, communication styles change depending on the size of the group. When there’s three or four of you then any discussion defaults to a conversation. Expand that number, and the more room you have for dynamics to enter the fray.
Some people in the group stop talking entirely. Some people in the group you wish would stop talking entirely. Things go from being a conversation to a presentation.
This doesn’t mean small always means better. One of the best bits of research I’ve read in this space (courtesy of the HBR), makes this clear. For continuing along a well defined path, large teams win. But when you want to start something new, or change direction, small teams are the only way to go.
“Our analyses uncovered a nearly universal pattern: whereas large teams tended to develop and further existing ideas and designs, their smaller counterparts tended to disrupt current ways of thinking with new ideas, inventions, and opportunities.”
And this is the feeling that we all want to go back to. But to get to the feeling, all too often, companies try to go big, particularly when it comes to team and company off-sites.
This can be great for bringing people together and getting them excited about a clearly defined mission. But it won’t take you back to the feeling of disruption, of change, and of possibility.
If you really want to get people in your company to feel the way it felt way back when it was just the three founders, in a house, with their laptops. Well, just do that.
For the good-old-day feeling, there are no substitutes.
Find the handful of needle moving things that need to get done. Get small teams together in great places to work. And watch them go.
The job’s not to get people to feel good (in small teams with high stakes it often never does), but to make the decisions, and build what matters.
To do that, you always need to go back to small.