Some recent interactions have reminded me about something I would like to rant about in word-form for a bit here, and that is society’s impression of “small”. It seems that it’s always about being BIG – your company’s reach, your clients, your budgets, your office, your staff, the projects you take on, the car you drive. “Bigger is better!” is the war cry heard in offices, daydreams and homes.
Now, don’t get me wrong, I love me a big ocean and a big empty beach, y’all. My main issue with this Pursuit of Big is the one-dimensional way it seems to be interpreted. Bigger doesn’t always need to mean bigger in physical size or numbers – that’s a limited, one-dimensional view of expansion that I find aggravatingly common. A taller building doesn’t mean it’s a better building, and a bigger office *certainly* doesn’t mean better work is going to come out of it. In the rush of modern life I think we are becoming too literal in our interpretations and assessments, and we are forgetting that there is more than one way to expand.
For example. One view of “bigger” that’s often overlooked is the expansion of thought, perspective and problem-solving in the brain. In other words, the expansion of focused time. We have so much space! In our brains! We can make use of that never-ending huge potential by exploring, making small mistakes, answering questions and problem-solving; we need time to do this alone, and then time to exchange thoughts with colleagues, and then time to go off alone and think about it again. I love when this sort of “bigger” appears in my workplace and conversations. It becomes a seriously rare treat when you realize that someone spent some time in their heads thinking about what they wanted to say before opening their mouths.
Another thing about “big” is that it’s only good when it’s proportionate. There’s a reason that all plants, animals and human life start very small and grow gradually: they are learning how to sustain themselves, and if the resources around them will support their growth. Letting a business/project/idea start small is not shameful: it’s wisdom.
Small gets a bad rap. Things that are small (in this bigger-is-more-is-better societal vision) are deemed weaker. Delicate… could I say “feminine”? Often “small” is brushed aside as less powerful. But using our common sense, we quickly see how wrong that can be. Sure, you (and any nearby building) would be easily crushed by Godzilla, but often the smaller the spider the more powerful the venom – or to use a less poisonous example, who has not been awe-struck by the cure to be found in a tiny piece of DNA? Or by the power of a simple idea? Or even a single word?
Another thing that drives me crazy is this unspoken belief in our offices that big teams are better. In reality, though, too many heads in a room often arrests the creative process and creates an altogether different creature: The Committee. Big group decision making has its place (everybody raise your hands and say “Citizen Democracy!”) but make no mistake: big groups kill creative, unique, innovative thought. If you’re interested in learning more on this topic I would suggest thinking about the experience of cooking in your own kitchen or reading this article by the New York Times criticizing “GroupThink” (I really love a quote from Emory University neuroscientist Gregory Berns that they use, talking about how to keep “the pain of independence.”, i.e. the existence of original, innovative thought, in your workplace). I will also refer you to this passionate article by Smashing Magazine, and finally let this cartoon sum it all up nicely.
So what about small teams? As per the articles I referred you to above, there’s a lot of evidence to support the view that small teams create an environment where creativity flourishes, and often the smaller the team the more creative the thinking. Many larger ad agencies divide up their teams into groups of 2 or 3 people (or, like Stefan Sagmeister, keep their creative team under 5 people total) and for good reason: a few smart brains in a room by themselves have the juice and brazenness to dismiss the status-quo culture and push open doors to new, previously dismissed or unexplored paths.
I’m not trying to say that “big” is all bad or “small” is all good. What I’m suggesting is that it’s time to think about how our views on these two things affect our every day decisions, our workplaces and the environment that we live in. Personally, I’m a huge believer and proponent of the right sort of small in combination with the right sort of big. My desire is to be big in vision and small in size. How does that apply to my vision for the Office of Sarah? My big dream is to build a small office that is agile and flexible, with a small, hand-chosen collection of whip-smart brains and hugely talented hands around me. I want my company to have a small environmental footprint, but a huge footprint in the brains of my target audiences. Like most things in this Universe, the answer is complicated and simple all at once: small, yet big.