I think small teams are an underemphasized key element of the Shape Up approach to project management.

Shape up is Basecamp’s unique approach to project management. The approach is succinctly described in their free online book.

Shape Up advocates for larger work scopes and less formal project management.

The assigned work is usually planned for a full 6-week cycle or for 2 weeks alongside other 2-week items in a 6-week cycle. All direction is provided at a high level in the pitch. No additional work decomposition or status meetings are imposed on the team (though status communicated through hill charts). The team manages their own work breakdown and coordination.

Shape Up mentions the team size is usually 1 designer an 1 or 2 developers. This is mentioned a few times, but not greatly emphasized. However, I think this is a significant element of the approach.

Even a 5-6 person team is too big for everyone to keep tabs on each others work. A 2-3 person team is small enough they don’t need any formal meetings or planning. Small enough they could mob the whole time and it wouldn’t be odd. Small enough that, even if they regularly break off for independent work, they’re likely to stay aligned through informal chatter. It’s a sweet spot where the team is energized by relatively constant alignment but not isolated.

A 2-3 person team is also big enough that you can account for different specialties the project may need.

It’s also important that these team can change up every 6 weeks. That’s long enough that the team has time to be steeped in the problem together and not lose that momentum. But, it’s short enough that you don’t have long-term knowledge siloing. The end also isn’t very far if the team comp isn’t working out or isn’t aligning well on the particular problem.

I’m accustomed to much shorter cycles, about 1 to 2 weeks. These shorter cycles, theoretically, leave less time for work to go off the tracks. These 1-2 weeks cycles are more designed for individual-sized tasks orchestrated by a manager. A very different assumption than Shape Up. Shape Up’s 6-week cycles feel uncomfortably long to me, but I can imagine how 1-2 weeks isn’t enough time for a small team to self-organize around a project and gain momentum. That 6-week cycle factors in more decision making reserved for the implementers, as well as an expectation that unfinished work is cancelled.

In short, I think the small teams address many difficult team dynamics. Protecting these small and independent teams could be a significant reason why 6-week cycles work better for Basecamp than shorter cycles.