The line for coffee was brutal this morning.
In front of me were two neatly dressed guys from the same company. Let’s call them Dink and Duff. The attendant (barista?) double-checked Duff’s order with him. Hilarity ensued:
Attendant: That was a medium right?
Duff: Yes, medium.
Dink: I heard you say large. You ordered large.
Duff: Did I? . . . No, I ordered medium.
Dink: You ordered large.
Attendant: Here you go . . . handing him a medium coffee.
We’re not even to the donuts yet. They ordered two dozen. It took a while for Dink and Duff working together to construct the perfect variety. The attendant was working as efficiently as humanly possible.
Suddenly someone behind me in line spoke up to provide input on the donut selection, and I realized that Dink and Duff had another three colleagues in line behind us.
Once the order was placed and paid for, one of the colleagues offered to carry the donuts to the car. Dink handed her the single box of donuts though he was only holding his coffee. The handoff necessitated either Dink or Duff to hold the door for her. This went on all the way to the car, leaving meanwhile two more colleagues in line to presumably order their coffee.
What’s frightening is that this is likely how this team will operate the rest of the day.
Small Teams, Leadership, and Decision Making
Something I had to learn early is that in a small business, you rarely have the luxury of huge teams with the added benefits of blame shifting and diffusion. Decisions have to be made, and there often isn’t enough time or resources to spend on being extra sure about those decisions. In reality, this is an advantage, though at times a discomforting advantage.
Of all the mistakes and failures I’ve made in various lives, I can honestly say that the negative effects of the related choices never outweighed the benefits of finding out sooner what doesn’t work.
Unfortunately, as teams grow, there is a tendency for the decision making process to last longer, pushing the benefits of new information further off. A larger team doesn’t always mean proportionally more expertise or know how. This doesn’t always have to be the case of course. Volumes have been written on leadership, team sizes, and their relationships to success. For example, there is Dunbar’s number, mentioned in Malcolm Gladwell’s Tipping Point.
One nasty result of the unholy union between growing team size and political correctness is the rise of consensus leadership. Sometimes the long road to positive results requires a smaller team making a lot more mistakes. Screw up, learn, improve, then screw up some more but make more improvements. Of course, the key is avoiding repeated screw ups without improvement. This spirit is at the heart of the lean startup movement, and teams of all sizes have something to gain from the insights.
Sure, experimentation gets tiring and failure can even be demoralizing. But at the end of the day, unless you’ve got hard data, what’s the difference between two more chocolate glazed and two more Boston cream glazed?