The power of small

A couple of weeks ago, in one of my sessions, the GM of a tech company told me that her absolute priority was to keep her team to no more than 30 people in order to maintain simplicity at all levels and to leverage the full potential of her people to contribute. I couldn’t agree more with her mindset. By now, we all know that the “more” narrative (more people, more turnover, more countries, more outlets, more offices, more …) does not always mean “better” and that “growing” does not always mean “thriving”.

Very few companies and institutions know how to successfully manage “more”. The increase in the number of people in an organization ends up being proportional to the increase in its inefficiency. The higher the relational, structural and operational complexity (closely linked to the so-called Dunbar number, which I mentioned in this post  the less organisations properly use the contribution potential of their coworkers who, often, are limited to specific and sometimes highly transactional tasks (very typical of the productive society model of the 20th century). In most cases, companies carry on until a given moment when, sooner or later, the tetris becomes blocked. Then, they try to solve the situation through a very dangerous concept in the current situation: centralization. These organizations, immersed in centralization projects that involve implementing specific softwares, processes, reorganizations, new job descriptions and other 90-style activities and tools, end up having their people more focused on the centralization process than on the business itself (which is the first to suffer in this type of project). Centralizations, moreover, are usually carried out with the help of external profiles that do not know the organization from the inside and much less its business. This fact generates a series of operational and relational dysfunctions for which the organization ends up paying a very  high price (in all senses). Those of us who have experience in large companies know that centralization is just a wishful thinking. You will never ever have everything under control under one button, no matter what promised that consulting team. In the end you will only be left with an exhausted and unfocused team, a software of which, with luck, you will take advantage of 50% (but you will pay for it in full) and processes that normally help those who have created them more than those who have to use them. An organizational drama.

The more companies I know on the inside, the more convinced I am that the solution to the inefficiency and loss of focus generated by an increase in size is not centralization (which never compensates for the titanic effort involved), but simplification. There are no resources to spare nowadays, and it is precisely people’s time and energy that is currently at the lowest levels in the organizational framework, so let’s not waste it by making things even more sophisticated.

The path to simplification starts with a very clear point: identifying who is impacted by what I do and listening to that person and his or her needs. Through this listening I gather valuable information that I turn into tangible or intangible products using my expertise and 100% adapted to the user’s needs. However, reality shows us that the larger the organization, the less listening there is. When the user’s need has crossed the whole complex web of procedures and layers, what arrives is a minimal decaffeinated molecule of the real need, so the product that will be made will be just that, a decaffeinated product at best.

Simplifying, then, means shortening the distance to the end user. The ways to do this are diverse and depend on each organization. In some cases we can choose to simplify the way we structure teams: instead of a large team of 50 people who are difficult to align and synchronize, it is useful to create 5 multidisciplinary and interconnected teams of 10 people each, which function as small organizations (replicating the city and neighborhood model). In other cases, the solution will be to put all the organization’s workflows on the table, mark the dysfunctions in red, get shocked, dismantle the system and discover that most of the time removing layers is enough to achieve simplification and it is not necessary to do anything else (but yes, we will have to cancel tools and procedures that, no matter how hard o expensive they were to implement, nowadays they are harming our business). In other cases, the solution is to use a general common framework aligned with the organization’s value proposition (or purpose or objectives or whatever we want to call it) shared by all (not only by the management teams) and let people work accordingly, like the adults they are (I am still fascinated by the many “parental control” tools and procedures used in companies that turn their people into robots).

In short: big and centralized is expensive. The good news is that something large, monolithic and more procedure-centric can evolve into multiple small interconnected units more focused on delivering value. There are infinite ways to do this, but the starting point will always be the same: start by listening to our direct user. When was the last time we did that?

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