I started my tech career in a team that averaged 30 to 40 persons. When I became partner of my first software consulting firm, I sought a way to build better quality products in a shorter period of time.
This meant reducing waste. Our methodology relied on establishing strong development standards, rapid prototyping, usability testing, and discussing real-case scenarios with the developers before they started coding. Each project was handled by a small development team. We created a work environment where any team member could easily ask help from the other team members when they needed it. We also established development standards. This was before people heard of agile development and way before the lean startup movement.
Working towards the goal faster and better
Taking the right steps towards solving the solution also reduces waste. I recall a project that we did for a large energy organization that needed to speed up the execution of a critical business process. Finding the right solution would result in millions of dollars more in annual revenues.
On our side, a developer with an usability designer took two weeks to build a working prototype that the stakeholders could test and refine. Over that same two-week period, four employees from the IT department at the large energy organization did what it is typical when you are a part of a huge team. They spent their time arguing and putting on paper a draft document listing the obvious specifications. Which of the two deliverables got the go ahead from the high direction at their next meeting? Our prototype!
Instead of simply thinking about the problem and trying to solve it in our head, putting our thoughts and our knowledge of the market together to create a way to quickly validate our hypotheses and the feasibility of the project put us one step closer to solve the problem.
Why a small team is more
Plenty of social studies have been done on the relation between team size and productivity. They all concluded that the optimal team is made of 4 to 5 persons. These studies all reported that people’s efforts quickly diminish as team size increases.
There is more than team size that explains the effectiveness of smaller teams. I think that you need to unite people with the right set of mind. Personally, I found that people that excel at working in small teams share some character traits. Whenever I assemble a small team, I seek people that:
- are good at evaluating when they should seek other people’s opinions;
- are good at finding the answer by themselves (when they should do it);
- perform without a lot of supervision;
- are result-oriented;
- are curious — being curious is important because it means that they seek to learn and won’t be afraid to ask the right questions;
- are good problem-solvers
- bring something unique to the project.
The reason that I am a fan of the lean startup and agile development movement is not because it is trendy but it is because it eliminates wasteful procedures. Keeping a team small is a great way to start reducing waste and redundancy in any project.
If you need more convincing about why small teams are better, you can read this article by Harvard Business Review.