Keeping it small

“I am a horse for single harness, not cut out for tandem or teamwork.”

– Albert Einstein

It’s early March 1975 and a loner saunters into a dungy and dark garage with a group of folks who have the audacity to call themselves the Homebrew Computer Club. The mission of this group of misfits: make a personal computer that is accessible to the masses.

Steve, a 24-year-old with long hair and a brown beard is an extremely shy introvert but is insatiably intrigued by the idea. He sits and listens. Doesn’t speak or ask a single question. He would continue to attend the Homebrew sessions, but rarely contribute.

Instead, he gets to work – alone. He arrives very early most days at work to learn and ponder – reading engineering magazines and books, studying the latest chip manuals, and thinking about a possible design. After work he’d hurry home, whip up a quick TV-dinner and then head back to his trusty cubicle, where he’d work late into the night. He’d describe this period of solitude, deep work and early morning California sunrises as “the biggest high ever”.

On June 29, 1975, around 10pm, Steve Wozniak would finish his initial prototype. He punched a few keys on the keyboard and voila – letters would appear on the screen. It was a breakthrough moment and he had built the world’s first personal computer – alone.

Fast forward 30 years or so, to the crisp, beautiful and serene landscape near Burlington, Vermont. Another engineer, Darryl, would be working on a solution for a problem that had perplexed planning technologists for quite some time – how to forecast and plan slow selling items in retail.

A few years earlier Darryl, and his long-time colleague Andre, would become frustrated in trying to convince planning software providers that they should build a store-level solution (what we now call Flowcasting). Most ignored them, or worse, believed that could use a solution designed for manufacturing and distribution for retail. Eventually, one fateful day, they’d both say, “fuck it, let’s build something ourselves”.

Darryl, like Woz, would get to work – laser focused on being able to scale a planning system to volumes and developing a solution for planning slow selling items. Using actual data from a handful of retail clients, he’d test several ideas, refining and adjusting until eventually he’d bring forth an elegant, simple, and intuitive solution.

His breakthrough was achieved largely by working alone, just like Woz.

The solution for planning is used by lots of retailers around the world to properly plan these type of items, including two of our Canadian clients.

Have you ever wondered how Apple has been able to bring forth a series of revolutionary products of elegant design and simplicity?

By keeping it small, that’s how.

Jony Ive was the Chief Designer at Apple and both he and Steve Jobs credit the fact that the iPhone, iPad, iPod and iTunes were breakthrough products because they were developed by very small teams.

According to them, a small, laser-focused team drives the and then, as they share the design with others, they get good at “saying no to a thousand things” – to quote Jobs. Apple instinctively knows that every additional person added to the party brings more input and, very often, more noise.

For anyone working on projects and/or trying to design better ways, there’s some deep insight to learn from these stories. That is – small is not only beautiful, but generally produces better designs, implementations, and results.

So, to improve your odds of success, here’s some simple and practical advice that I always try to adhere to in any project I’m working on or leading:

  1. Reduce the number of meetings
  2. Reduce the number of participants in meetings
  3. Keep teams as small as possible

It’s a philosophy that’s worked well for Jobs, Ive, Bezos, Landvater and Doherty and I think it’ll work well for you too.

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