Jason Fried’s talk at SXSWi this year was a brilliant discussion of how to do a great deal with a small team. In fact I think he didn’t just mean a small project team, but a small overall organisation. Nevertheless, I think it’s interesting to think about how some of the techniques and thoughts could be useful for a small project team in a large organisation. Some of the most amazing, creative and new work done in many organisations is by a small “super team” that somehow delivers extraordinary results despite their small size.

Taking Jason’s view, however, you could instead look at it like this: the small team delivers amazingly because of their small size and despite the large organisation of which they are part. Much of the talk focused on reducing mass — the assumption being that the mass of larger organisations is one of the things that holds them back.

So what are the other aspects of being in a small team, as described by Jason, that are needed to get that spectacular performance? What could the bigger companies do to get the same ability, without having to split into a million small companies? I realise that this is against the original ethos of the talk and that Jason may be unamused, but I think this is a real issue. It’s no good to anyone if we can do the small startup thing, but then become absolutely useless as soon as growth means we have to get bigger. One of the (admittedly less prominent) issues of the DotCrash was that companies didn’t scale.

But back to the topic. Here are some things that I think are the real advantages to being in a small team:

  • Lightweight communication — both in that there are fewer people and therefore fewer lines of communication, but also that you can develop a shorthand style, akin to the advantage Simon has described before
  • Focus — this is linked to comm, but worth calling out on its own. The smaller the time, the more chance that you have a united, consistent vision for what you’re building
  • History & Credibility — a small team is likely to work together for longer (or bond sooner) and so a lot of the barriers will lower sooner. You’ll learn to trust that Chuck’s gutfeel about the interface problems is right, that Joan really does understand the customer best and that Sheryl only speaks up when she’s really sure that she’s right, so you should listen when she does. This kind of nuance usually gets completely lost in big teams

I’m sure there are more — please help me come up with the rest. Comment and I’ll update into the main entry. And for those of you reading via RSS, this might be worth taking a look at in the browser, so you can see the discussion.