Why Small Teams Win

In the early days of Amazon, Jeff Bezos came up with a rule: every team should be small enough that it can be fed with two pizzas.

The ‘Two Pizza Rule’ signalled that Bezos didn’t want more talking, more line reports and more communication. He wanted a decentralised, even disorganised company where creativity and independence prevailed over groupthink and the bureaucracy of management.

A smaller team spends less time managing timetables and keeping people up to date, and more time doing what needs to be done.

These small teams promote autonomy but also a better approach to collaboration. Having lots of small teams means they all need to be able to work together and to be able to access the common resources of the company, in order to achieve their larger goals.

The thinking has precedence in things like Brooks’ Law – which states that “adding manpower to a late project makes it later.” Getting bigger often means your communication overheads grow and doesn’t necessarily yield faster results. As Brooks said: “Nine women can’t make a baby in one month.”

Thinking small also avoids ‘social loafing’  – which is where people take less accountability for individual and team performance when doing work as part of a group.

It’s human nature that some of us may take advantage of a situation in which it’s harder to pinpoint responsibility—a situation created by the fact that too many people have a role in the team’s performance.

When nobody’s noticing what you are or aren’t doing, the easier it is to keep doing nothing.

As a leader of a Two Pizza Team, I can firmly say that the high degree of “identifiability” means there is no room for anyone to hide – including me. Underperformance becomes apparent in days or even hours, not over weeks or months.

The Value of Small Teams in Change and Transformation

In many organisations, small teams are undervalued. Like introverts, they can often be overlooked.

Yesterday I facilitated a session for the regulator of social housing in the UK – and its theme was that in an age of big change (and arguably, big failure) – small distributed teams might be an answer to how we balance productivity and innovation.

Buurtzorg, the Dutch model of neighbourhood care started with an initial team of four. The system that evolved deploys teams of up to 12 nurses, who are responsible for about 60 people within a particular area. There are now around 900 teams in the Netherlands. This system balances small team thinking also whilst operating within a much larger framework.  The framework is what provides the scalability, the autonomous team provides the personalisation.

RSH Session (3)

Buurtzorg was very much an inspiration for our model of neighbourhood coaching – which again provides a framework for semi-autonomous small teams to bring solutions together around a community. It puts people at the centre – not housing ‘professionals’.

Visual

The Corporate Rebels have written about the Minimum Viable Team. Start small, get experience, grow bigger only when necessary.  I agree with this but also think there’s crossover with the points Chris Bolton makes in his post on Minimum Viable Transformation.

Most transformation programmes are about BIG ideas (and BIG language), where there is little room for failure.

Most approaches to organisational design are about BIG teams (and BIG resources) – despite no evidence linking these to productivity or innovation.

  • Maybe it’s time to think differently about how we solve complex problems rather than continue the endless annual cycle of calls for more resources and emergency injections of cash.
  • Maybe it’s time for smaller, more organised and better-connected teams to take centre stage.
  • Maybe it’s time to think about what minimum viable teams and minimum viable transformation look like and apply them in practical settings.

At the end of the day, radical innovation only comes from diverse networks, never from big teams.

  1. Great post Paul, and thanks for the mention.
    A really pertinent topic which has sparked many things in my head.
    In no particular order:
    Social Loafing – yes, seen it in action and may even have done a bit of it once upon a time. It is a big team/big organisation thing.
    On the 2 Pizzas Rule. It reminds me a bit of Dunbar’s Number (150) and the other numbers he talks about 5 and 15.
    Apparently it’s all to do with the number of people we form strong social connections with.
    5 the immediate close ‘family’
    15 the wider social group and
    150 the ‘village’ or tribe.
    I’ve got a blog post buried deep on it , talking about GoreTex.
    Apparently they organise their production units around a max of 150 people, for lots of the reasons you mentioned.
    They aren’t too bad on innovation either.
    Final bit. I met students from Mondragon Team Academy on Friday. They are learning how to become innovators and entrepreneurs – as small teams.
    Loads to talk about.
    See you in June.
    Chris

    Reply

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