Using Small Autonomous Teams to Drive the Future of Enterprise

Small is the next big thing.

When working for a large organization, weeks can pass before leadership makes important decisions that affect you and your team. Meanwhile, you're on the hook to deliver products that don’t actually serve the customer—products you know you could improve, if given the opportunity.

After years of consulting for Fortune 1000 companies, Brady Brim-DeForest understands the drawbacks of working in giant, siloed environments. His book, Smaller is Better, shows you how to use the small, empowered teams model to radically recharge your workplace, make better products, and deliver a phenomenal customer experience. All with better employee engagement and retention!

Smaller is Better uses real-world examples of companies who have saved billions and shaved years off their development cycles through small teams. Discover how to form nimble, autonomous teams, optimize them for mission, and scale across your organization. Improve both innovation and delivery while amping up customer satisfaction. Best of all, learn ways to get full buy-in from company leaders—and how you can “start small” today, with or without C-suite support.

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Excerpt from Smaller is Better © Copyright 2024 Brady Brim-DeForest


Adam puts his head in his hands. It’s 7:00 p.m., and he is still at the office. His team has missed its sprint delivery goals. Again. And has been late with the release. Again.

He’s just been called into the VP’s office to defend the team’s performance. He knew going in that the software on the cars’ navigation consoles wasn’t great. How could it be, with the barrage of requirements and competing priorities they were handed?

The VP lets Adam off with a warning, telling him to fix the velocity problem or he’ll lose his job. Adam is frustrated. He wants to do good work. Everyone on his thirty-person team wants to do good work. Everyone is working full out, all the time, but the department struggles to accomplish even mediocre results. Worse, they know the actual work isn’t right for the organization or for its customers.

This can’t go on, Adam thinks. Something has to change.

Wishing He Could Do Great Work

Adam has worked for CarCo’s very large North American organization for ten years. He’s come up through the ranks, and he’s learned the right way to navigate the bureaucracy. He can socialize ideas and ask permission like a champ.

However, Adam is smart and ambitious enough to also want to do great work, to deliver a great experience for the customer. He’s seen his early career colleagues working at the Googles of the world. He went to work for this company instead because he believes in it, and he wants to be able to help the team do great things. He dreams of one day showing his friends software he is proud of, software he and his team have made with their own hands. Unfortunately, the more he tries, the more effort he puts into his department, the farther away that dream seems to move. He feels like his hands are tied.

Adam’s team is caught in a confusing web of ambiguous technical requirements and strict feature quotas that make every day feel like a slog. They’ve been working “crunch time” hours for two years now, and the whole team is demoralized. Three different people quit last month alone.

This week their in-dash navigation software has been compared unfavorably to their leading competitor’s. Their NPS scores are twenty points lower. More features have, if anything, actually hurt them in the marketplace.

Adam grabs his coat. He needs to take a drive around town and figure this out.

More Than Making Widgets

Adam’s experience working for a large organization is par for the course. Many enterprises are run like factories. They optimize for consistency, not quality of outcomes. In fact, most ISO quality management programs in large companies don’t measure objective quality at all; they measure how consistently the operations match the process they’ve committed to follow. If the process leads the organization off a cliff, but the process is consistent and on time, leadership in most large organizations will be happy (for a while). Consistency in enterprise is king.

Unfortunately, most enterprise work—like the work Adam’s software team does—isn’t making widgets. In knowledge work, consistency alone doesn’t provide a good experience for the customer. Consistency can, in fact, be a distraction.

Every project that Adam’s team works on is a one-off. Every feature requires a new approach to solve new problems. And while Adam did once successfully talk the VP out of rewarding his software engineers just for writing more code—think of the inefficient buggy nonsense the team would have produced then—they are still being measured on the number of features they produce. Not the quality of the features. Not how well the features integrate into the in-car experience. Just the number.

Worse, the VP has already communicated that, since AI tools will be integrated into the team’s workflow soon, he will expect the number of features produced to increase.

Every time Adam tries to make an impact on quality or make something great, their delivered features number slips and he’s penalized. Instead of smart people who can solve problems and deliver outcomes, the team is treated like a set of machines that make widgets according to the stakeholders’ requirements. The team is being held to account to deliver a plan that doesn’t actually serve the customer.

Fortunately, Adam is smart enough to know that he’s being rewarded for the wrong thing. Likely, so are you. Optimizing for consistency—even with cutting-edge tools—is, in fact, the polar opposite of innovation. It’s the opposite of what drives lasting success in the marketplace. Organizations that stay in the safe zone over the long term can and will get left behind by competitors.

So what should we do instead?

There Is a Better Way

If you’re reading this book, you care about making good things. You care about succeeding, about delivering outcomes for your clients or customers—and if you lead a team, you care about your team’s happiness and success. Unfortunately, it’s very likely that you’re also frustrated. Progress feels impossible due to the weight of the large organization around you. You spend your time dealing with other people’s poor decisions, caught on a slow treadmill to mediocrity. This is the struggle of large organizations.

Fortunately, there is a way out. When we radically rethink the way we organize ourselves and the people we work with, real progress is possible. Yes, even in extremely large organizations; I’ve seen it countless times.

The enterprise can, in fact, move as nimbly as smaller companies. The enterprise can change its focus to what moves the needle. Furthermore, it can do so in a way that frees up leadership from the day-to-day decisions and empowers individuals to focus on outcomes rather than process. All of this together can radically accelerate organizational results.

To accomplish the outcomes, however, we have to adopt an entirely new framework. We have to embrace small—small autonomous teams, that is.

Smaller is better. Even—and especially—at scale.

A Sensible, Efficient Framework at Scale

I’ve been consulting with enterprise organizations for more than twenty years now, teaching them how to adopt small autonomous cross-functional teams in ways that deliver meaningful results.

The framework is proven, but it isn’t prescriptive. It doesn’t tell people how work should happen, or what tools to use. In fact, it’s the exact opposite; the framework is a system of ideals and practices designed to empower the most important person in the room—the individual contributor. By flipping the traditional hierarchy to move decision-making from the upper echelons of an organization to the front lines, it transforms leadership into a support structure for the people who have the most outsized impact on organizational outcomes.

Why move leadership out of the way? In very large organizations, even the smartest leadership group becomes a bottleneck; important decisions must wait days or weeks for leadership to be able to act on them. The system is not at all efficient at scale. In contrast, when we empower individual contributors to make the decisions that directly pertain to their jobs, decisions happen exponentially faster. Speed of decision making is key. They’re often also more effective, since the people making the decisions already have the front-line information they need to make the most impact.

Moreover, small autonomous teams are highly efficient for other reasons. Bureaucracy is like sand; walking across a beach takes far more effort than walking across an open field. Just like the friction of the sand wastes energy in the real world, when an enterprise asks top contributors to conform to large-scale bureaucratic rules, we also waste their energy on tasks that don’t ultimately give us what we want. By empowering contributors to make day-to-day decisions within a clear mission-based framework, however, we capture that extra momentum, transforming it into meaningful results instead.

Smaller teams (five to eight people) are a natural size for human collaboration. They are able to communicate efficiently, gaining the benefits of working with other people without the downsides inherent to larger groups. They are able to move on their mission efficiently and effectively, radically accelerating progress when compared to traditional enterprise structures that require topdown approval. Teams smaller than five often lack the ability for effective delivery; teams larger than eight can suffer from poor individual performance and lack of alignment. Counterintuitively, adding more team members doesn’t speed things up—it slows things down. Staying small means staying effective.

Communication also becomes significantly more complex with each new relationship you add. With more than eight team members, there simply isn’t enough time for a leader to manage one-onone communication effectively.

Small team structures may sound unrealistic for very large companies, but in fact, they are ideal for the enterprise. Unlike other structures, they scale beautifully; one team or a thousand teams don’t fundamentally operate differently, as long as each is given an appropriately sized mission. The basic structure—and the culture supporting it—allow for scaled, replicable success for even the largest organization.

The “teams” framework works every bit as well for remote and distributed teams as it does for those that are in person. (It turns out that autonomy is the ideal structure for teams both outside and inside the office.) The teams framework also functions beautifully in the new world of AI tools; as overall teams of contributors get smaller, moving to small autonomous team structures allows those people to make an outsized impact. If anything, the AI revolution makes the teams model more necessary. It will drive organizations, month by month, and year by year, towards smaller teams.

Returning to What Works

At some point in the past, every large organization did something well, something that got its customers excited. (That’s why it grew.) But what got the organization here won’t get it where it’s

going, reacting to the rapidly changing world. Decision-making in large organizations has become increasingly removed from the front lines. This has happened, in part, because the front lines have become ever more removed from the people who made all of the organizations’ early decisions.

Every organization that has gone bankrupt in the last hundred years failed because decisions and reality grew more and more distant from one another. However, bankruptcy isn’t inevitable; even large organizations can keep and have kept autonomy at the edges. Berkshire Hathaway is a great example. The company is a giant multi-hundred-billion-dollar empire, but it has a tiny central staff. It keeps as much of the decision-making on the edge as possible, and it has found wild success doing so.

If your organization has moved away from distributed decision-making, it’s time to go back to a framework that allows for it again. It’s time to embrace small autonomous teams.

Here’s what this book will show you how to:

  • be more successful delivering on your results
  • outpace the other directors or the other companies
  • deliver objectively valuable innovation
  • improve customer results
  • measurably improve your core metrics and KPIs

All you need is a little time, the ability to form one small team of five to eight people (I’ll show you how), and the willingness to experiment.

How This Book Came to Be

I’ve been consulting with leaders and organizations for the better part of twenty years. I’ve worked with Fortune 10 companies, small start-ups, mid-stage companies, nonprofits, federal agencies, and state governments. Most often, though, I work with enterprise organizations. The common denominator between all of my clients is that they have an appetite for improvement.

Most organizations come to my company, Formula.Monks, thinking that they need a specific outcome, such as innovation or cost cutting. They want to build new revenue streams, incorporate new technology tools, or launch new products. They know their teams aren’t working at a sustainable pace, and they want to find better ways to meet their goals.

I always take a close look at the business before making a final determination. However, in most cases, the reality is that the enterprise doesn’t need the outcome they think they need; they need a fundamental shift in their culture. They need to change the way they work before they can consistently achieve the outcomes they want.

Outcomes don’t happen by magic. Outcomes happen as a direct result of culture, processes, decision-making, and willingness to tolerate failure on the way to success. The best and most lasting way I know of to deliver meaningful outcomes to clients is to help them change all of these other things first. As one client said after a light-bulb moment, “Wait, you’re not making a thing for me; you’re actually changing how I make things!”

When the client fully understands what we are doing together for the first time, they realize it is the most valuable outcome I could possibly have delivered for them. That is not to say the process is easy.

Moving to a small autonomous team framework is a stark shift for the majority of organizations. The transformation feels risky and scary, and there are moments that feel deeply uncomfortable along the way. Yet, if the organization persists, and keeps its focus on the how, it will inevitably see the big results it wants.

What kind of results are possible? Here are a few I’ve seen personally:

  • Large manufacturing organizations like Caterpillar have been able to remove more than $1 billion of slack in their supply
  • Organizations like AT&T have gone from a three-year product-realization life cycle to shipping production software in less than three
  • Multiple Fortune 1000 companies have developed innovation programs that directly funnel client and customer feedback into the process of designing and iterating products—leading to high-quality innovation with a built-in
  • The United States Air Force has designed a model putting the mental health and wellness of pilots at the center of operational planning and
  • Large healthcare companies have built benefit plans shaped by the needs and input of their own employees, only to be able to sell those exact plans successfully to other large organizations as part of their health insurance offerings.

The small autonomous teams framework can help your organization realize similar dramatic results on your preferred priorities.

A Wider Impact

I wrote this book because, as a consultant, I’ve had to come to terms with the fact that the impact I can have on the world is limited by the number of hours my team and I have in a day or a year. Unfortunately, there’s a fixed number of clients I’ll be able to help one-on-one in my career.

I’d love to be able to help each and every potential client in the world transform their companies and realize all of the benefits of small autonomous teams. So many organizations would benefit tremendously by implementing the kinds of systems I’ve spent my career helping to implement, and I’d love to help them all. However, even with the incredible people I have working with me, there’s just not enough time to do that on a consulting basis. Instead, I’ve decided to share what I know broadly, in the hopes that this book will help as many people as possible to transform their organizations for the better.

I’d like to democratize the knowledge I’ve spent my career building. I feel that the benefits of doing so are far more important than any of the upsides of keeping it a trade secret. My hope is that if we all work together, if we empower organizations with the right tools and the “teams” framework, we can maximize human potential just a little. We can accelerate the contributions of the people responsible for building our civilization, making them more efficient, able to make better decisions, to enable change faster, and to do more good.

If everyone can implement the model in this book, it has the potential to make our lives better, to make our products better, and to make our work better. Work is just more satisfying when we can focus on meaningful outcomes rather than arbitrary metrics. It’s better when we know we’re making an impact, and can see the impact we make firsthand. I’d like my children to grow up to work in organizations where they can see just that kind of impact.

Of course, there is a selfish aspect to this mission as well— organizations that already work this way are far easier to consult with!

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