The importance of familiarity within a team

As We Are Mammoth moves into its fifth year of business, I’ve begun to value the importance of familiarity with members of my team more and more. I think it’s the single greatest advantage a small business, or small unit within a business, has over a larger one.

Many companies tout the now-overly-clich├ęd line, “people are our greatest asset.” It’s nauseating. Many of these companies are the same ones that identify employees with a badge number, give away gift cards as temporary life-lines to an employee’s quickly fading motivation, and consequently see huge turnover rates. No big deal.

Some companies, especially very large ones, can hire and hire again, replacing a part for another part, and keep the engine churning. They can continue to sign big contracts with other big companies and squeeze out all the youthful exuberance out of their new employees for a good year. Once they’ve rung ’em dry, it’s off to the market once again. More hires, more replacements, more of the same just-good-enough work to keep the ship afloat.

We often look at this corporate phenomena as a result of “big business.” It’s red-tape. It’s bureaucracy. It’s meetings. It’s indecision begetting indecision. Yet, all the while, they continue to tow the corporate line – people are their greatest asset.

Truth be told, in our small business, people aren’t our greatest asset. I tend to have an inflated ego about my own skill set. But, I know full well there are (many) better programmers, designers, thinkers, writers, and dishwashers out there than me. We have a talented group of individuals at WAM, but not one of us is the best at their job. Somebody out there is better.

What makes us good is the working relationships that form over time. The fact that I’ve slaved year after year with nearly the same group of like-minded workers means a lot. It’s a rare feat in business to keep the same group of 5-7 guys slaving away in a room for years. When you form that sense of familiarity within members of a team, you can take so many more things for granted.

I know how each team member works. We all work differently. Some of us like to work deliberately, cautiously thinking through each line of code. Others like to take big swings, leave a mess, and clean up afterward. Some of us need to work alone longer and fight through a problem solo, others need more collaboration up-front. Over time, each of us complements each other in a different way. We adapt to the people around us. Over time, we start to “gel” in the truest sense of the word.

At the same time, that familiarity lets us argue, debate, and compromise. There is no “feeling each other out” when you’ve been in the trenches with the same army for years. We can fight full-fledged for an idea we believe in without the debilitating worry of hurt feelings. Our meetings are active, engaging, and often heated. We get issues ironed out and come to a resolution. Compare that to the average corporate meeting – full of questions, non-commitments and an avoidance of confrontation.

And, that’s why, as a small business, we can do big things. We can hit sometimes-daunting timelines. We can decide to devote a significant portion of our team to work on our own products amidst a line of consulting work. We’re able to learn and implement new technologies while doing this work at the same time. Our collective familiarity turns a group of pretty good individuals into a singular, great team.

It’s why, when we hire a single new person on the team, we do it gingerly and with great care. Our hiring policy should read something like instructions to buying a new goldfish. We can’t just add a new fish, even the most brilliant one. We need to give them time to adapt:

Put the bag your fish came in inside the water in his new bowl/aquarium to let them adjust to the same temperature. After about 10 minutes, open the bag and let your goldfish swim into his new home. Give him some food, too.

That kind of familiarity is rarely achievable in big business. When turnover is the name of the game, people simply cannot be a company’s greatest asset. They can’t always take calculated risks or make big investments (financial or emotional) in new technology, new products, or new ways of thinking, because they’re simply not familiar enough with each other’s tendencies to get past the basics.

Don’t blame mediocrity solely on the bureaucracy of big business. It’s often just a lack of familiarity.