Why Small Teams Win

It’s common for managers to want to grow the headcount of their teams. While this can make sense from a political perspective it’s usually a mistake for the organization. Big teams don’t cause work to be delivered any faster. The goal should be maximizing the amount of leverage that a team has.

Many large organizations aren’t operating effectively. This creates a big opportunity for small businesses and startups to take advantage. Startups can do this by increasing the leverage of their teams. The four main sources of leverage that a business can have are

  1. People
  2. Code
  3. Audience and Marketing
  4. Capital

In this we’ll take a closer look about how to gain more leverage through code. In reality though using any of the nonpeople forms of leverage as your first resort will give better results in the long term.

To cover how to increase leverage with software we’ll talk about:

  • Why large teams don’t increase performance
  • How to think about software and automation
  • Creating a culture of self service

Large Teams don’t Increase Performance

Large teams don’t get more work done than small teams. At the very least people don’t scale linearly. Adding another person to a team frequently causes things to slow down because of communications issues.

The more people there are the more those people need to talk with each other to stay aligned. There are also many more side conversations than would happen on a smaller team. All of this creates issues with alignment but also with the amount of communication that needs to happen.

Making sure everyone understands the goal is much harder on larger teams. Generally at some point there will become a member of the team that is fully dedicated to communication and talking with the team.

The other effect of having a larger team is that there needs to be more meetings and those meetings need to be larger. This is important because everyone needs to be on the same page. While this can be reduced by creating a culture of async communication for some things people need to be able to talk to make progress.

How to Increase Leverage

Instead of automatically trying to grow the size of teams the goal should be to figure out how to increase their leverage. By increasing leverage I mean making it so that each team member can do more.

There are a few fundamental questions that we should ask when we are looking to increase leverage. The first of those is where time is being wasted. Finding places where people aren’t doing meaningful work or are just updating something.

Once you have found those areas there are a few options for dealing with that activity. In priority order the options are:

  1. Cutting the activity out
  2. Automating the activity
  3. Delegating the activity to someone else

If you can cut the activity and just stop doing it, that should be the first stop. When that is not the case we have to look at the other two methods of handling the activity.

For automation the first thing we have to look at is if computers are good at this activity. If they are, we can create a process and design out automation to handle it. At that point our job purely becomes monitoring and understanding what has happened.

When it comes to delegation there are a few things that have to happen. First off you need a good standard operating procedure and way of training an outsider on doing this activity. After that you need to hire a contractor or find someone in another group who can take it over. From there it’s about monitoring to make sure the work is done correctly and possibly coaching that person on deficiencies in the work.

Creating Self Service

The other key to creating small teams that can be highly leveraged is allowing others to self-service what the team produces. Obviously to produce value people need to use what is produced by the team. Fundamentally the job is to get things into people’s hands for it to matter.

However there is a tradeoff there where a small team can’t afford to be doing support all the time. On a large team it’s very easy to have people handle that support work. On a small team though this is an absolutely massive time loss.

To handle this there are a couple of options. The simplest of those is a wiki or documentation of the process and how to get stuff from the team without requiring work to be done. This is great for some things however it still requires someone to do the work.

The better option that is inspired by Amazon is the model of having each team produce a service. Doing this allows there to be an API which end consumers can use without making the team be involved in what others are doing. In doing this you also significantly lower the communication burden between teams since there is a programmatic way to access the information.


Small teams can move mountains in the modern world. Creating automations allows for small teams to:

  • Have a limited support burden
  • Focus on the highest value work

By focusing and making things more efficient there is a huge opportunity to do better. The future won’t be won by the largest teams but instead by the ones with the most leverage.


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2022-11-25 19:37 +0000