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Why Small Teams Win

Scaling meaning before scaling teams

Great products are made by people who care. As teams grow in size, ownership, responsibilities, and individual impact become abstract and blurred. As soon as ownership becomes ambiguous, products lose their opinion and often end up becoming a mediocre mess shaped by countless compromises.

This is one of the main challenges large teams face today and in order to better understand how we can address it, we need to take a step back and talk about pencils.

Yes. Pencils.

This pencil, to be exact

Pencils are remarkable tools. They are one of the oldest and simplest writing tools ever created. In fact, they are so simple, so useful, and so ubiquitous that we never take the time to appreciate their mere existence. As of today, around 2 billion pencils are produced in the U.S. every year. And yet, not one single person in the world knows how to create an entire pencil all by him or herself. It’s simply too complicated. A brief look at the raw materials of a pencil sheds some light into its complexity:

You most probably don’t know all of those materials. That’s ok. Luckily, some individuals know what some of them are, and they are collaborating with other individuals with various cultural backgrounds from all around the world to give us this surprisingly complex tool everyone is taking for granted.

Let’s just quickly consider the first material on the list: cedar. One of the key requirements of a pencil is that it’s robust, that the wood doesn’t splinter, and that it can repeatedly be sharpened. There are only very specific wood types that meet these requirements, and in the industry this type of wood is commonly referred to as cedar.

Based on the materials we can see that in order to manufacture a typical $1 pencil we find at most supermarkets, we would need to know how to cut and process trees, how to harvest ore, mine graphite, extract wax and rubber, and how to manufacture glue etc.

It’s ridiculously complex.

As so often, we confound familiarity with simplicity. Just because something is familiar, doesn’t mean it’s simple. It’s the same with design. When good design feels simple and barely designed, it’s most probably been refined over the course of many years.

“When good design feels simple and barely designed, it’s most probably been refined over the course of many years.”

The pencil story illustrates a fascinating point. Everyone within the production process works in a very specialized field and is fully aware what their responsibilities are within their respective field. And when every field excels in what they do, the whole becomes greater than the sum of its parts.

It’s very similar in the area of product design. When everyone knows and understands exactly how their contribution adds to the final product, everyone on the team ends up creating better work.

This sounds reasonable in theory and we’d all love the product design process to go as smoothly as the one of the pencil. So why is it so hard in practice?

A loss of meaning

Research shows that as teams grow in size, individual contributions and effort start to decline. This was most famously shown in a study by French Professor Maximilian Ringelmann. In a simple experiment, participants had to pull on a rope. When it was just one participant, he or she would give a 100%, but as the number of participants increased, individual effort declined significantly. At eight people, individual effort was as low as 50%.

When I heard about this study for the first time, it reminded me of a product I worked on.

About a year ago I launched a note-taking extension for Google Chrome called Mindful. The extension found adoption very quickly and things were going well for a while. Everything changed when I rolled out an update that made many users lose all of their notes. It was, to put it mildly, a new low in my career. I spent day and night tracking down every single individual and helping them recover their notes.

Thinking back, I realized that there was a direct connection between my creation and the emotions that people had experienced. When users were happy, I was happy. When they were frustrated, I was frustrated too. Once ownership and our individual contributions become diluted, this connection starts to fade. This is the moment, I’d argue, when quality starts to suffer.

If Mindful was my rope, I certainly gave a 100%. I’m not sure I can say that about some other projects I’ve worked on in my career.

How can we make sure people keep being engaged as the size of teams increase?

I believe the answer is both simple and complex at the same time: we need to ensure that meaning scales proportionally to the number of people.

If you work at a factory and you were to produce one entire pencil by yourself, you’d have much more ownership and pride in your work as opposed to only doing one micro-task within the process. As long as the work is meaningful, we care about the outcome.

“As long as the work is meaningful, we care about the outcome.”

Adam Grant, a professor at the Wharton School of Business at the university in Pennsylvania conducted an interesting study about the importance of finding meaning in what we do. A team working at a call center had one single task: to collect as many donations as possible to help finance students’ scholarships. As expected, rejection rate was incredibly high, exceeding the 90% mark. So how do people stay motivated in such a setup?

A simple change lead to a dramatic increase in the amount of donations the team would collect. When participants were able to talk to students who received a scholarship and see how it affected their lives, revenue quintupled. *The callers averaged $412 before meeting the scholarship recipient and more than $2,000 afterward*, writes Grant.

Just 5 minutes of interacting with a scholarship recipient was enough to make people remember why they’re doing what they do.

Understanding how our contributions create meaning is critical.

Parting words

Small teams are notorious for outperforming larger teams because of their ability to coordinate swiftly and effectively. On top of that, small teams excel in creating environments that make people care, environments in which individual contributions are observable, and valued.

The ultimate fate of successful products is that they quickly attract more people to work on it. When we put more people on projects, we need to make sure that responsibilities, autonomy, and meaning remains intact. This is what we saw earlier in the pencil example. When everyone creates values they can observe and understand, they keep operating effectively.

In other words, we need to scale meaning, before we scale teams.

Once we let peoples’ individual contributions and responsibilities to become abstract and diluted, we effectively create a doorway for mediocrity.

Currently design tinkering at Google. Formerly iA. Writes and speaks about design. Follow me on Twitter.

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