How Small Teams Make Big Ideas Happen: Lessons from the 99u Conference in NYC

Small teams know that putting ideas into action can be a big challenge. Time slips by as you respond to client emails, sit through meetings, and rework your calendar one more time. Suddenly Tuesday becomes Thursday and your to-do list is only expanding. So how do we work more than 40 hours every week but still feel like we’re not getting anything done?

At Apples & Arrows, our lean size allows us to scale up or down according to a client’s needs, but it also means that each of us in the core A&A crew wears a lot of hats. To really get stuff done, we know we need to take a look at our processes and tweak them when needed. In early May, our quest to better ‘get stuff done’ saw half of the A&A crew fly across the country to attend Behance’s 99u Conference in New York City. The conference takes its name from Thomas Edison’s quotation that genius is “1 percent inspiration and is 99% perspiration.” As in, your ideas are great, but what are you actually going to do? In branding and marketing industry, we tend to glorify the brainstorming session, forgetting that once the coffee cups are cleared away, someone has to get the ball rolling. You know, the printing, writing, emailing, and designing that bring the ideas to life.

In addition to learning that, for most of the attendees, meeting a Kansan was more shocking than meeting someone from Iceland or Australia, the three of us came home with a slew of ideas to reenergize the agency.

I’ve distilled some of my key takeaways into a few Do’s and Don’ts for small teams looking to make stuff happen:

1. Don’t multitask. As we know, working in a small team–or even being a team of one, as many of our clients are–causes us to fall into the multitasking trap. There are plenty of reasons not to do it, but it essentially boils down to this: it’s exhausting. Your brain can’t successfully be great at multiple tasks at the same time. Think about it: when your computer is running slowly, your first move is to close some applications. If you want to avoid that “how is it Friday and I have accomplished nothing?” feeling, take care of your tasks one by one. Close those tabs!

2. Do listen. In a small team setting, you may find yourself filling the role of HR. You don’t have a PhD in psych or the energy to solve every coworker’s problem, but you can simply listen. Listen intently, without jumping in to give advice. Let your coworker talk through the issue, and you may be surprised at how quickly she presents the solution to her own problem. And all you did was sit and listen. (This can be surprisingly difficult if you pride yourself on being a “problem solver” but remember, your coworker probably already knows what she needs to do to solve it herself.) This is just a smidgen of what I learned in my small group session with Michael Bungay Stanier.

3. Do keep track of your work. At Apples & Arrows, we don’t bill by the hour, rather we bill by project. But we do keep track of our work. This helps us see what we’ve accomplished and holds us accountable. To-do lists are deceiving: they sit there all nice and tidy, while underneath they hide hours of prep time and harbor items that will be pushed from one week’s list to the next.

4. Don’t wait for feedback. Small teams are notorious for putting internal development on the back burner. Write down your personal goals so that you are armed with the whole picture of your personal growth when you do end up having time to talk. Yuko Shimizu suggests writing a short essay about what your life will look like 5 years from now and using it to inform your day to day work. That’s one hell of a professional development plan.


*Don’t forget to pack a raincoat when running around NYC in the Spring

*Do try the delicious vegan fast food at Blossom du Jour

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