Culture Design

Ditch the Assembly Line and Unleash the Band

A case for smaller collaborative teams by Robert Trahan

The way we work today is largely influenced by the industrial revolution. It made work more standardized, specialized and managed. This helped factories to produce more with less cost. But it also made work less fun. And as we move from making things to creating things, the old structure is holding us back instead of helping us grow. I'd like to explore why there's a need for change, and what I've observed working with other modern enterprises.

The Downside of Overly Structured Environments

  • Initial Efficiency vs. Long-Term Rigidity: While assembly-line structures may offer quick results initially, they often lead to rigidity. This can render individual contributions irrelevant and transform work into a robotic process.

  • Stifling Creativity and Innovation: The repetitive nature of assembly-line work stifles creativity, leading to stagnation in innovative thinking.

  • Diminishing Employee Engagement: Mechanization of tasks reduces employees' engagement and prohibits learning and understanding.

What We Can Learn From Bands

I watched "Get Back!", Peter Jackson's documentary about the Beatles' making their final album. It was amazing to see how they collaborated. They turned simple ideas into great songs like "The Long and Winding Road" or "Eleanor Rigby". Their collaboration was not neat or orderly, but it was full of energy and trust. They were not afraid to fail. That's the kind of teamwork we need in modern companies.

Their collaboration was not neat or orderly, but it was full of energy and trust.

The Power of Small Teams

One way to accomplish this is by keeping teams small, and the hierarchy flat. This allows individuals to riff off each other's ideas, adapt to changing situations, and own their roles. In my experience this has lead to:

  • Enhanced Communication and Understanding: Small teams foster deeper mutual understanding and effective communication, like band members in tune and on beat with each other.

  • Increased Flexibility and Responsiveness: Like a band improvising, small teams can swiftly adapt to changing scenarios. Team members learn to anticipate and adapt to each other's styles, leveraging their domain knowledge.

  • Greater Ownership and Accountability: Each role in a small team is significant, fostering a sense of responsibility and engagement similar to that of a band member. A drummer doesn't try to play the guitar at the same time as the drums. This is directly tied to the size of the team. Too many rhythm guitarists, and they won't feel needed, because, well, they aren’t.

And the benefits don't stop there:

  • More innovation: Diverse ideas come together, leading to creative solutions and groundbreaking products.

  • Higher morale: You trust your teammates and enjoy working together, making work more fun and fulfilling.

  • Empowered employees: You have more say in decisions and feel more in control of your work.

How the Organization Benefits

In this model, instead of mindlessly following rules, you're actively shaping the future. Imagine a software company that operates like an assembly line. Each person has their own small task, like a tiny gear in a machine. How might the organization benefit by switching to small, cross-functional teams? With each team, like a band, having diverse skills and working together on the entire product lifecycle, you might expect:

  • New and exciting features: The team's creativity explodes, leading to innovative products that customers love.

  • Faster solutions: Problems are identified and fixed quickly, just like a band working together to get back in tune.

  • Better quality: Everyone understands the product holistically, leading to higher quality and fewer mistakes.

A company that successfully transitions from an assembly-line model to a band-like collaborative approach can expect more innovative products, higher employee satisfaction, and increased market competitiveness.

“Great things in business are never done by one person. They're done by a team of people.” - Steve Jobs

By fostering a collaborative environment where individuals shine, you'll unlock the true potential of your team and achieve remarkable results! If you'd like to brainstorm about specific ways to remove impediments and get your teams moving again, please don't hesitate to contact us!

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