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 could 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 himself 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’.

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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.

What if Uber did health, housing and social care?

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If you’ve been to a conference in the past 12 months – you’ll almost certainly have seen the slide above, or a version of it.

Mentioning “disruptive innovation” adds a sprinkle of sophistication to otherwise ordinary presentations. It’s a sit up and take notice slide that says: ‘Better listen, or you could be history.”

However – it doesn’t always hit its intended target. A significant portion of the audience at a couple of events I’ve been to recently have looked at each other as if to say ‘that couldn’t happen to us’.

The reason for this seems to be the comfort blanket that can come with extended working in the public and social sectors.

The thinking can go like this.

  • We are different.
  • We deal with people who are highly complex with multiple needs and vulnerabilities.
  • No tech outfit could hope to understand the extent of the personalisation involved in our services.

It’s optimistic thinking – probably the same that was held by some taxi firms pre-Uber and hotels before Airbnb.

It’s going to take radical change a lot closer to home before many managers recognise how profoundly the rules of business have changed in the digital age.

Arguably though , it’s already happening. I’ve made a slide of my own that might be more relevant to the public sector.

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Far from fantasy – we are at the beginning of the end of one size fits all health, housing and social care monopolies.

Some examples:

Mercy is a hospital with no beds, no waiting rooms and no patients.There are nurses but they work virtually, providing care across 33 hospitals. The strategy is quickly expanding beyond hospitals and into the home. By keeping tabs on patients at home, Mercy can help keep people with chronic conditions out of the hospital.

Buurtzorg is a care system without managers, even though it has 9000 employees. To kill bureaucracy and overheads there are no call centres. Nurses take the calls. In self-managing teams of ten they plan patient visits and decide how long they spend there, depending on their judgement of the need.

Honor is home care without direct employees. Like Uber , the care professionals here are self employed and use an app that helps them find and keep track of job offers. Applicants undergo background checks and in-person interviews to screen them, with only 5% allowed onto the platform so far.  More flexible than traditional care – it allows people to book packages in just one hour increments, and aims to foster long-lasting relationships between caregiver and the customer.

What these systems and technologies do is to enable existing infrastructure to be used more efficiently. They are harnessing the power of the connected citizen rather than the analogue organisation. As Alastair Parvin has written – we are no longer stuck with the choice between the public sector and the private sector. The citizen sector now needs to be recognised as a viable, industrial force.

Is it impossible to imagine a local authority as just a digital platform with its services all outsourced?

Paul Blantern, Chief Exec of Northamptonshire County Council is almost there. The Council employed 12,000 people when he took over. Today they employ 6,000 and his vision is to reduce that to just 150. He was asked in this programme “Is there anything you wouldn’t outsource?”. His response – “No – it’s all about the outcome to the end user.” Essentially the ‘Council’ could reduce to zero as long as people feel the services are still good. [UPDATE MARCH 2018: This approach was ultimately disastrous]

Is it impossible to imagine other organisations , housing associations for example, being managed entirely differently? Rather than multiple companies we may see a singular platform where users themselves directly procure the services they need from the cloud. The next generation of housing manager could be an algorithm rather than a person.

It’s not just housing. Any sector that has multiple players performing similar services is ripe for disruption.

There’s no question about whether the Uber , AirBnb, Facebook and Alibaba of the public sector will emerge.

It’s simply a matter of when.

 

[Credit to  Mike Clark and Shirley Ayres for inspiration on the slide! Thanks both]

 

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