In IT, Bigger is NOT Necessarily Better

In IT, small teams can get things done quicker
In IT, small teams can get things done quicker

Way back in my young & foolish days I had the opportunity to work at a couple of startups. I came to them after having worked for very large firms such as Boeing, Siemens, and Alcatel. Needless to say the environment, attitude, and overall energy level at the startups was completely different from the large established firms.

One of my friends from those days, Charlie, has moved on and the startup that he’s working for can no longer really be called a startup: they’ve got 800 employees and have been around for almost 10 years now. Thanks to LinkedIn we’ve reconnected and we got to talking about the “good ‘ol days”. What caught my attention is that Charlie told me that he’s been put in charge of a project to rekindle the “startup spirit” within his company. When I asked him how he was going to go about doing that, he said that he had no good ideas.

Charlie’s firm is struggling with the same issue that Microsoft is just starting to deal with: how can a large firm with lots of resources learn to operate like a smaller, more nimble firm? Everyone realizes that Google, Facebook,, etc. weren’t born inside of a large firm. Instead, they started life as a startup and because they had a great product and lots of employee energy, they got lucky and have become successful. Just about every large company would like to find a way to infuse itself with that kind of “startup energy” (a.k.a. innovation).

Janet Rae-Dupree
wrote a piece dealing with this topic for the New York Times awhile back. Some interesting observations came out of this article. The first is that just about everyone agrees that when it comes to IT and innovation, bigger is not always better. Specifically, smaller teams that are made up of staff from different departments seem to be able to move much quicker than larger traditional organizations. Specifically decisions get made much faster and so the entire team is able to move on to the next-next-next thing. I can hear collective HR and Legal departments gasping at the thought right now!

I almost hate to say it, but the TV show Survivor has proved this point. When forced to, people can work together to solve complex problems in unique ways. Yeah, yeah – there will always be backstabbing and alliances formed; however, when the team’s survival depends on its success this can overcome many of these personality issues.

As Charlie and I wrapped up our talk, I pointed out the Survivor analogy to him. He pushed back and said that he liked the small team idea but didn’t want to be kicking employees off of an island each week. I told that he didn’t need to do that, but what he could do is limit the resources available to a team (time, money, etc.) and tell them that they need to reach a milestone before one of their resources ran out. If they didn’t then the team would be disbanded. Everyone works better under startup-like pressures.

So what do you think? Was my advice to Charlie any good or did I send him down the wrong path? Can the best parts of a startup (innovation, sense of ownership) be replicated within a large company or is this a fool’s quest?