Product development guiding principle: Think Big, Work Small

Jason Yip
2 min readSep 11, 2022


Guiding principle in effective product development culture.

Thanks to John Cutler for the pithiest wording I’ve seen so far to describe this phenomenon.

2x2 matrix of Think Big Think Small vs Work Big Work Small. Arrow pointing to Think Big Work Small with label “Do this one”
Thinking Small/Big vs Working Small/Big

The absolute worst approach is to Think Small and Work Big. No coherent bigger picture strategy. Large development effort with no release in sight.

Think Big, Work Big is the classic “waterfall” approach. In the best version, there is a coherent, bigger picture strategy but there is no incremental delivery nor experimentation. This generally produces lower quality, costs more, is slower, and is not that fun of an environment to work in.

Think Small, Work Small is a typical mistake for Agile novices. Teams work in small batches but there is no coherent, bigger picture strategy. Jeff Patton used the metaphor of a “bag of leaves” versus a “tree”. This tends to lead to teams iterating in circles without leading to any significant larger outcome.

The most effective approach is to Think Big, Work Small. There is a coherent, bigger picture strategy. Work is done incrementally, and iteratively. NOTE: Thinking Big does not mean defining all the details up-front but rather just enough breadth and depth to convey the overall context to allow autonomous teams to operate effectively.




Jason Yip

Senior Manager Product Engineering at Grainger. Extreme Programming, Agile, Lean guy. Ex-Spotify, ex-ThoughtWorks, ex-CruiseControl