Is There a Best Way to Structure Your Digital Development Team?

How you structure your digital development team is critical to success. It directly impacts your ability to scale and deliver digital products successfully. As such, leaders looking to improve their team structure rightfully ask, is there a best way to go about it?

There is, unfortunately, no one-size-fits-all formula for structuring digital development teams. You need to consider your own specifics and what works best for the kind of product you’re looking to develop. However, a theme we have seen implemented amongst successful development teams is this: small groups, when empowered to make autonomous decisions, work well together. Having multiple small teams is now the tried-and-tested practice across many successful tech companies.

We at 101 Ways are well versed in digital development and helping businesses analyse their team structures and tech foundations. In this article, we’ll be discussing helpful pointers in structuring digital development teams, as well as strategies for making the most out of that structure.

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The power of small teams

Successful tech companies tend to implement a simple rule when forming teams. For Amazon, all teams should always be kept small enough to be fed with two pizzas.1 The same is true for WhatsApp, which only had a 32-engineer team when Facebook bought it in 2014.2

Having smaller project teams that are encouraged to collaborate autonomously is far more efficient than having one large group with several decision-makers and complex workflows.

Consider the outcomes small teams can deliver:

  • Making problems small enough to manage: Decomposing them into smaller manageable chunks, making it easier for individuals to agree on the problem and solve it.
  • They empower creativity: Expanding the number of decision-makers to maximise input.
  • Building a team ethos: Creating camaraderie and engagement while avoiding silos and them-and-us positions.
  • Learning by doing: Skills can rub off between team members. Small teams tend to lend themselves to peer coaching and problem-solving.

Why is this better? There are some clues in already existing research. For example, when presenting the most efficient way to conduct a productive meeting, The Harvard Business Review put forward the 8-18-1800 rule as a helpful guideline — one that is equally applicable to structuring digital development teams.3 Here’s how that rule breaks down:

  • If you need to solve a problem or make a decision, have no more than 8 people.
  • If you need to brainstorm, you can go as high as 18 people.
  • If you need to have all hands on deck, go for 1,800.

Another fact to consider is Dunbar’s number, the concept that posits that people can comfortably maintain stable social relationships with no more than 150 individuals.4 Although the concept is by no means foolproof and can vary from person to person, it has seen success when practically implemented. The GORE-TEX company found that capping each of their factories at 150 employees — and simply building more factories whenever the company needed to expand rather than hiring more people on top of that 150 — had a positive impact on business productivity.5

Especially in tech, where the process of creating and developing digital products has to be agile, a workflow with too many dependencies just won’t do. This is precisely why many large organisations try to replicate the agility of start-ups by encouraging smaller teams to collaborate. By having smaller groups working well as a unit, the aim is for processes to work faster and more efficiently.

The data only supports this. A report by Gallup found that 42% of employees working at companies of ten people or fewer felt engaged in their work, unlike the 30% of employees who worked in larger companies.6

Suggested reading: For more information on team structure and how it can help you scale, check out our guide on Scaling and Accelerating Product Development.

Teams need to be self-reliant

Although it’s important to keep your development teams focused on problems that are relevant to your business, what really indicates a successful digital development team is their ability to make autonomous decisions and be self-sufficient. No matter how collectively skilled and experienced a team maybe, a group that can’t collaborate and work together with that expertise will have difficulty moving in the right direction. The key is to have a team you can effectively empower to make decisions on their own.

So when it comes to structuring your digital development team, look out for the following soft skills in tandem with the hard, technical skills:

  • Collaboration: To ensure that everyone is bringing the best out of each other.
  • Flexibility: So that your team are able to roll with any punches together.
  • Creativity: You need people that can think outside of the box so that there’s greater scope for effective solutions.

Keep in mind that soft and hard skills aren’t independent of each other. In fact, people that possess the above interpersonal skills and advanced technical expertise will be more productive in finding and discovering solutions to your problems from the source that can then be addressed by reassessing your technology. Turning to a reputable tech consultancy is the most foolproof way of finding people that excel in these departments.

Embracing leadership as a skill in tech

Empowering and realising the best structure for your team also comes down to providing an effective guiding force. Decisive and considerate leadership is the cornerstone of building successful development teams. Leaders are not necessarily the best technologist in the room — they are the people who can navigate the social, technological, and political business rapids to deliver outcomes the business needs.

Great tech leadership needs:

  • Communication skills: Up, down, and externally.
  • Business know-how: To know your business and know your customer.
  • Talent nurturing: So you can surround yourself with great people and know how to give them the necessary space to shine.
  • Enough tech knowledge to get by: Knowing when to take charge and when to leave it to the experts (see above.)

Suggested reading: If you want to delve into more detail, we’ve covered what we believe to be The Real Future of Technology Leadership.

Getting support can help you punch above your weight

So, to best structure your development team, you need to focus on:

  • The team size that makes sense to your organisation’s structure and needs.
  • Understanding your own team’s skills and expertise.
  • Empowering your team to be able to work well without supervision.
  • Performance of your team — and we mean outcomes, not lines of code.

But above all, focus on collaboration. Enabling teams of varying sizes, skillsets, and experiences to work together and merge those valuable factors is key to getting better results out of your business strategies.

Fortunately, you don’t have to do it all yourself — great tech teams are purposefully brought together, not born out of nothing. Our CEO, Zane Gambasin, said it best: “There are 101 ways to do anything. Sometimes, to find the best way, you need expert help.”

At 101 Ways, we have expert consultants who can provide training and mentorship for people who want to better their interpersonal skills as well as their technical skills. We also support you to identify the right people, strategies, and tech that will put you on the road to creating great development teams. If you think restructuring your digital development team (or any tech team, for that matter) is something you need guidance with, feel free to contact us. We’ll be happy to help.

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  1. The two-pizza rule and the secret of Amazon’s success | The Guardian
  2. Meet 15 Of The First WhatsApp Employees — Many Of Whom Are Set For Life | Business Insider
  3. How to Know If There Are Too Many People in Your Meeting | Harvard Business Review
  4. Dunbar’s number: Why we can only maintain 150 relationships | BBC Future
  5. Don’t Believe Facebook; You Only Have 150 Friends | NPR
  6. Why Smaller Teams Are Better Than Larger Ones | Forbes