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Changing the World with Small Teams

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I have had an email signature for many years which has a cheesy quote at the end. It reads “never doubt that a small group of thoughtful committed people can change the world.” The actual quote is longer than this, it is attributed to Margaret Mead who was an anthropologist, the full version is “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has. ”

A colleague of mine recently asked me if larger teams was the key to success in a large company. I wondered if this colleague had ever read to the end of one my emails. Were they trolling me?

The core sentiment of the quote is that only small, thoughtful and committed groups of people succeed in making significant change. If you work in a tech company this is important because it applies most of all to the technology disruption around us today. Cloud computing and Artificial Intelligence are changing the face of many industries. Its not the older, larger and established companies who are necessarily leading this change, its often the smaller nimble organizations who have the focus to figure out and lead this disruption.

Quite a few years ago now I founded a small high tech startup that was fairly quickly acquired by Cognos who themselves were acquired a year or so later by IBM. Code I wrote in my basement in West London ended up 10 years later being a core piece of technology in tens of thousands of installations. Large scale tech companies are great for scaling ideas but my most important lesson working in small startups and big corporations was that ideas themselves and solving hard problems is not necessarily about big teams. In fact, its almost never about big teams.

Why is this so?

The first reason is quality over quantity. The adage in the industry is a great developer is three times faster at delivering software than an average developer. While this is true in my experience there is a little more to it. In small teams it is possible to handpick team members with the right mix of talents. With the right people with complimentary skill sets and respectful of each other’s expertise you can create collaborative teams that can easily out pace much larger groups.

Small teams with diverse and complimentary skill sets also foster something called the Medici effect. It relates back to team collaboration. Diversity in thinking and the connection of ideas through close knit face to face communication is often what leads to new innovation.

As teams grow they can impede themselves as a result of having too much overhead in communication. Its very hard to effectively have a discussion with 25 people, let alone 100. This is why effective software teams rarely are this big, and instead are divided into smaller mission focused groups.

The core point is, if you think you need a bigger team to solve a difficult problem, you are most likely wrong. Think again. This type of thought process leads to inaction and if you are in a startup this may result in failure. Sometimes constraints create the best solutions, so keep working at it. Time and again I have seen hard problems solved by small groups, often with simple approaches. My hopeful message to entrepreneurs and startups is not only can you solve hard problems that big companies may not be able to solve but you have the capacity and ability to disrupt entire industries.

Keep thinking you can change the world. Remember *only* small teams can do this.