Expect chaos

Ben Lindsay
May 24, 2022

I’ve been thinking, or rather rethinking, lately about the difference between thriving in a small company vs a big one.

When I talk about size what I’m really thinking about is headcount. There are exceptions to the rule, but in general I think more people = more politics, more process, more of what I see as drivel…

It’s not drivel.

Often times these things are needed for larger companies or structures of people to work well — I just don’t like them.

When smaller groups work together, there is more direct communication, more responsibility and workload, and generally a team that is forced to swing above their weight.

I’m pretty sure I’ve read something about output per person and how this goes down with increasing numbers, but I couldn’t find any nice charts to show this so maybe I’m talking crap.

But either way, there is a perceived difference in what is required to do well in a big company vs a small one.

I come from a small company background; having worked with a family business most of my life. I enjoyed this, so I have a clear bias in this direction.

For a long time, my ego would have me believe that big companies and government are where enthusiasm and initiative go to die.

I thought that people who worked, or wanted to work, in larger companies were hoping for an easier time. Optimising for breaks and time off over fulfilment in their jobs.[1]

This is obviously nonsense.

There are plenty of people that are ambitious historical over-achievers, who go to work and build a career they enjoy in large companies.

Why they do it still perplexes me but that’s not for now…

I’ve spent a little time during internships in big companies, and having had a little exposure to how they work through things like university, I think I have a rough idea of how they work.

As you add more people to a group, their roles and responsibilities become more narrow. They are specialised to a specific task or area. They might not even be the only person working on that task or area.

What they do is fairly tried and true. There are usually systems or procedures in place, a rubric to follow.

For example, I worked for a time as an engineer in a factory manufacturing airplane seats. I say engineer, but I did very little “engineering” work. I lived in spreadsheets and on the logistics of solving production problems.

This company embraced structure. The site I worked on had over 2,000 employees, but it also produces something to the tune of 20% of all of the airplane seats in the world.

Their structure and systems enable them to do this. LEAN manufacturing techniques are implemented everywhere and every damaged or incorrect component goes through a cost-benefit analysis to decide whether it is worth repairing.

Even my day was structured with set morning and afternoon WAR (Walk Around Review) meetings for each of the assembly units my team worked in.

To do well here, you had to know all of the acronyms, the systems and structure. You worked within the bounds of the system to find solutions to your problems.

When I compare this to working inside of my family’s business, it gives me a good tickle.

Polar opposites don’t do it justice.

For context, my dad has bought and sold used (and sometimes new) cars since he was 16. It’s what his father did, and what half of my family does — and it’s great fun. I still dabble a bit.

But cars, for all the love I have for them, are hectic things to deal with. Problems are inevitable, whether they be mechanical or tax related.

I’ve worked with my dad as a pair, and with up to maybe 5/6 other people at a time. At a peak, he would sell well over 100 cars in a month. I think it’s fair to say this is swinging above your weight class.

When I started working with him I would help with washing and valeting cars, and eventually I stuck my fingers into many things; selling, deliveries, finding/fitting spare parts, invoices etc.

Every day was a learning day, and I’m so grateful for that. I think it formed a lot of who I am today, as well as my opinions on a lot of things…for better or worse.

A team of this sized cannot afford to have people focusing on one area, or even a dedicated space for certain tasks. The game changes on a daily basis and you must adapt your playing style to suit.

You start to think in solutions and possibilities instead of leaning on systems.

You start to think.

Actually think of how to overcome an issue instead of trying to remember who you need to talk to or what standard operating procedure to follow.

This is a little harsh…and I’m not implying that people in big companies don’t think. They do, but they aren’t forced to in order to survive.

The reason I’m thinking/writing about this is because of a conversation I had about someone moving from a larger company into a startup, and how they had been “ruined” by their big company experience.

I don’t think they were ruined, but they were given a natural go to; leaning on systems. When you work in a startup or some small businesses, it can seem like the house is on fire and falling down around you.

It’s chaotic and no one really knows what they are doing. They are just trying to figure things out and solve problems on the fly.

I love this chaos, but when someone comes from a more structured environment it can take them a bit of time to adapt…or leave.

Again, I have a bias, but I think going the other way around (small to big company) is mostly easier. When you expect chaos, a new system or structure to follow is just like any other day.

If anything it just becomes a little boring or frustrating when the rug doesn’t move under your feet.

  1. Sometimes I think my thoughts on work can come across like it is the only thing that matters to me. This way of thinking is pretty toxic and romanticises work over other parts of our lives like our family, relationships, mental health, and children if you are so lucky. I’ve been guilty of pointing a lot of energy into my work, usually because I really enjoy what I’m working on. But I try to draw clear lines where I think they are needed to not erode the other aspects of my life. Please don’t take any of the above as an ode to the grind. Do what makes you happy :)
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