Why Small Means Fast

It’s common knowledge that the main advantage of small organizations is their agility and speed. A friend of mine recently showed me a $20 pull up bar he bought for his room. He’s probably a lean 5’9″–a whole half foot taller than me. When the bar was setup, I hopped up and did a set of ten pull ups without breaking a sweat, amazing my friend because doing three was already a challenge for him. Obviously, my ease resulted from my small size–I needed considerably less strength to lift my body mass than my friend. Mechanically speaking, it requires less force (hence work and power) to accelerate my mass resulting in a natural speed advantage for smaller bodies. My friend needs to exert a lot more energy (and stronger muscles) to move than I do.

This applies similarly to organizations: the big guys have inertia while small guys have speed. Once big guys get going, they are hard to stop and withstand, but if you’re small, they are easy to evade and outrun and there are many opportunities you can take before they can. Perhaps small organizations can even shrewdly attain equal momentum (impact?) to juggernauts by sufficiently increasing their velocity (momentum = mass * velocity). Agility also falls out of these metaphors because changing directions is just a form of acceleration, which means small bodies can adjust their courses with a lot less energy than big ones.

Given these realities, it seems odd that large organizations would try to “stay small” or offer a “startup culture” because while this may be a useful recruiting tool, it does not play to the strengths of bigness. Massive things are not easily shaken, they tend to be stable and unstoppable. They have the ability to take on massive problems that require the strength of numbers. They have more support structures to carry goals through to the finish instead of getting stuck when a team member leaves. They do have to work harder to accelerate (changing direction or going faster) and build up greater strength to reach their goals, but they also have more influence: their small decisions have massive implications.

Startups, on the other hand, have a tendency to “talk big” about changing the world, which again is useful for recruiting and morale, but does not reflect the present reality and advantages of a small organization: the ability to quickly exploit opportunities as they come, doing more/getting more done with less (10 pull ups instead of 2), and more control or influence over the direction and momentum of the organization.

For individuals, this may sound like a choice between “big fish in a small pond” versus “small fish in a big pond”, but I’m talking about organizations here.

Call it naive, idealistic, blatantly obvious, foolish talk, but it seems like it’s better for big companies to act big and small companies to act small: play to the strengths of what you are and adapt your strategy as you “evolve”. This is a mistake I think my church made in the past: despite being small, we tried to use Rick Warren’s Purpose Driven Church methodologies, which resulted in an overbearing structure that we lacked the strength to sustain. Instead of acting big by applying big strategies, it would have been better to adopt any helpful principles, and maximize the advantages of our smallness by for example increasing the flatness of the organization and emphasizing relationships between the leadership and members.

Your organization might grow into an integrated behemoth or it might become a loose confederacy of organisms, but in any case, it seems wise to play to your strengths instead of acting like something you are not.