"In an age of swiftly moving technology, teams become more important, not less. That’s because humans don’t evolve at the rate of Moore’s Law. We’re the slowest-moving parts in any complex organization–the “gating factor,” in the parlance of engineers. Teams can make us smarter and faster. But only if we get our teams right.
Builders of the Egyptian pyramids understood teams. So has every military leader in recorded history. What’s astonishing is how recent the idea of teamwork is in business. Readers with a long memory, or an itch to read back through decades of management literature, will know that terms such as “teamwork” didn’t begin seeping into the organizational vernacular until the 1970s. Oddly late, don’t you think? Why these appeared in the 1970s is anyone’s guess. Maybe the turbulent economy or the fracturing of social cohesion–conditions that exist today– caused researchers and management theorists to look deeper into why some teams fail and others succeed.
When you look deeper into teams within companies, one factor stands out as a predictor of success: size. There’s a right size for every team, and it’s almost always smaller than you think. Jeff Bezos of Amazon likes to use the “two-pizza rule” for strategy and development teams. If it takes more than two pizzas to feed the team, the team is likely too big. Bezos didn’t invent the term; it seems to have first appeared at the Xerox Palo Alto Research Center (PARC) in the 1970s. Recall that Xerox PARC during the 1970s invented three of modern computing’s key pillars: the graphical user interface, printer languages and local area networking. This alone is a good reason to pay attention to the two-pizza rule.
The surface reason most often cited for using the two-pizza rule is that it keeps teams agile and fast–and it does. But there’s a deeper reason it works. When teams consist of a dozen people or fewer, each team member is more likely to care about the others, and members are far more likely to share information. They are also far more likely to come to the aid of another team member. If the mission is important enough, they’ll even sacrifice themselves. It’s no surprise that the basic unit of the U.S. Army’s special forces is the 12-person Operational Detachment Alpha. Soldiers will jump on a grenade to protect their fellow soldiers. The principle works in business, too. In a small team a marketing associate will stay up all night to sharpen another team member’s presentation. An engineer will get his hands dirty to ensure the product is perfect at launch.
Alas, this unity tends to fall apart as teams scale up. At 100 people you sort of care about your team members, but it’s not top of mind. More people than that, and team unity becomes a daunting challenge. This is why SAP’s co-CEO Jim Snabe looked at his company’s 20,000-employee software-development team and decided to break it into small units of 8 to 12 people. This is why FedEx’s founder, CEO and chairman, Fred Smith, runs his 300,000-employee global powerhouse out of a three-story building in a sleepy Memphis office park.
In the case of SAP and FedEx, scale is a wonderful thing. But scale can hurt focus. The best leaders keep their teams small and agile."