Small Teams Drive Big Change

Greater organisational agility comes from empowered teams that perform well in solving the challenges that really matter to the business. But those teams don’t need to be big. In our book on agile business we delve into the key role that small, multidisciplinary teams can play in generating a disproportionate amount of change and value in a digital transformation programme and beyond.

There is a temptation in large businesses to throw resource at problems in the assumption that more brains and bodies means better solutions. Internal politics results in people being included in the process who don’t really need to be there and don’t contribute much value. Representatives of functions that may only be needed at key points get included in the project team from the beginning and have to attend every update meeting. The result is 20+ people sat in a room trying to move a project forwards. Everything slows down.

The reality is that more is not better for team effectiveness. Harvard professor (and specialist in team dynamics) Richard Hackman has shown that one of the key challenges with large teams is in the growing burden of communication. Put simply, as group size increases the number of unique links between people also increases, but exponentially.

This exponential increase means that coordination and communication costs are soon growing at the expense of productivity.

Hackman defined four key features that are critical to create an effective team in an organisation:

  1. Common team tasks that work towards fulfilling a compelling vision
  2. Clear boundaries in terms of who is in the team, information flow, and alignment with other resources, priorities, policies and teams.
  3. Autonomy to work within these boundaries
  4. Stability

It’s therefore critical that we understand the difference between a real team and a looser ‘co-acting’ group, and how a (surprisingly common) lack of clarity, direction and autonomy impairs the ability to move fast.

Jeff Bezos, focused on retaining agility as Amazon scales, has famously described how teams in the company should get no larger than the number of people it takes to feed with two large pizzas (6–8 people). An effective small-multidisciplinary team is comprised of the people and skills areas needed to achieve key outcomes and no more (in the book we outline an effective way of managing dependencies across multiple small teams to ensure that the core team is kept small). This is important since it avoids not only communication problems, but also team scaling fallacy (the tendency for people to over-estimate team capability and underestimate task completion time as team size grows), and relational loss (the feeling that it is difficult to get support in large teams).

The multi-disciplinary composition of the team is important not only in achieving outputs, but in encouraging diversity. As Richard Hackman points out, homogeneity of team membership can often be a real problem in project teams since we tend to pick like-minded people to work with. Yet performance and creativity improves with greater diversity (including cognitive diversity, and having a substantive range in views about how the work should be structured and executed): ‘It is task-related conflict, not interpersonal harmony, that spurs team excellence’.

Digital technologies have transformed the dynamics of team contribution. Small, empowered teams can originate transformational ideas and successfully apply their capability to build and execute those ideas well. It’s time we re-imagined how we resource value creation in business.

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Originally published at Building The Agile Business.