At Basecamp, three is a magic number.
Nearly all product work is done by teams of three people. A team of three is usually composed of two programmers and one designer. And if it’s not three, it’s two or one — not four or five. We don’t throw more people at problems, we chisel problems down until they can be tackled by three people, at most.
We rarely have meetings at Basecamp, but when we do, you’ll hardly ever find more than three people around a table. Same with conference calls or video chats. Any conversation with more than three people is typically a conversation with too many people.
What if there are five departments involved in a project or a decision? There aren’t. Too many dependencies. We don’t work on projects like that — intentionally.
What is it with three? Three is a wedge, and that’s why it works. Three has a sharp point. It’s an odd number so there are no ties. It’s powerful enough to make a dent, but also weak enough to not break what isn’t broken. Big teams make things worse all the time by applying too much force to things that only need to be lightly finessed.
The problem with four is that you almost always need to add a fifth to manage. The problem with five is that it’s two too many. And six, seven, or eight on a team will inevitably make simple things more complicated than they need to be. Just like work expands to fill the time available, work expands to fill the team available. Small, short projects become bigger, longer projects simply because all those people need something to do.
You can do big things with small teams, but it’s a whole hell of a lot harder to do small things with big teams. That’s a disadvantage of big teams! Small things are often all that’s necessary. The occasional big thing is great, but most improvements come as small incremental steps. Big teams can step right over those small moves.
Three keeps you honest. It tempers your ambition in all the right ways. It requires you to make tradeoffs, rather than keep adding things in. And most importantly, three reduces miscommunication and improves coordination. Three people can talk directly with one another without introducing hearsay. And it’s a heck of a lot easier to coordinate three people’s schedules than four or more.
We love three.