Strength in Few

Left to their own devices, the kids will turn any room in the house into a blanket and cushion fort. I don’t mind it because it reminds me when I used to the do same thing with my parent’s brown and orange couch.

When it was time to pickup, I used to call the kids together to explain how they needed to work together to clean the room. But, over time, I found the kids spent more time debating who would fold blankets or arrange cushions than cleaning. Each task required a mini-meeting, and each child felt he/she got the worst job. A simple task that should have taken 10 minutes took 30. And nobody was happy.

Lately, I’ve changed my tactics. The goal remains a clean living room, but I’ve found a way to accomplish it in half the time:

Assign one child to the task.

For example, when I asked Lincoln to take down the latest fort, he didn’t spend the first five minutes telling Anna she was folding the blankets all wrong. Anna wasn’t around to drive the other two crazy by whistling the Smurf’s theme song. And Luca wasn’t able to sit on the couch and bark commands like a drill sergeant.

Lincoln was able to figure out the most efficient way to clean the living room with no distractions from his sisters. If he did a good job, he’d garner all the praise. No sisters stealing the spotlight. And that’s exactly what happened. Strength in numbers? Not in this case.

I’m convinced the same situation plays out every day in nearly every business. A job needs to get done so a committee is created, and more time is spent in meetings than solving the problem.

How many times have witnessed a  software projects drag on for months with little to show afterwards? I’ve seen this scenario play out at nearly every company I’ve worked for. The assumption that the more people you toss at the problem, the faster you’ll reach completion is false. The opposite is true. Each person you add will want to make his or her “mark” on the project. The more people you invite to a project, the longer it takes to reach consensus (if you ever reach it). More people = more meetings = less time spent doing actual work.

I spent years trying to create a team to create a company website. I recruited a number of talented people to help me. But it was impossible to get everyone together. No one felt like taking ownership. And why should they when any accolades they might receive would be diluted by the size of the group. There was always another project that was more important. So nothing got done for many years. It wasn’t until I convinced my boss that I could create the site with the help one friend that we finally made progress.

When a project comes in at work, I now intentionally figure out how many people I need and cut that number in half. It’s not easy to do because I’ve been taught that adding more resources will result in a shortened schedule. That’s usually not the case. Just because you can add more resources, does not mean you should.

Think back to the last time you created and finished a project that made you proud. Were you part of a large team? Were you part of a small group? Or was it only you?

One thought on “Strength in Few

  1. Interesting post Brett, especially when I compare the sentiments of work groups in the private sector versus the public work world. My experience is that committees are good for generating ideas and planning work, but the actual product comes from one or two people.The committees are still important because people want to feel like they are part of the solution and have a voice in the outcomes. Ironically, everyone always complains about having to sit in a meeting or help with a committee, but just try to take the committees out of the process. It results in cries of bloody murder that they've been disenfranchised and that management doesn't care about their ideas.Have you ever heard the contemporary parable of the camel being created by a committee?


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