Teams: A group of individuals working towards a shared goal.

In the book Scrum: The Art of Doing Twice the Work in Half the Time, Jeff Sutherland points out that there is a large variance in performance between teams as compared to between individuals. This could be because of the complex interactions between individuals in teams. Thus it makes sense from an organizational standpoint to optimize for human teams rather than individuals. In the recent past, many teams of humans have worked together to execute complex projects. Examples include startups of silicon valley such as Apple, Microsoft, Google and Facebook as well as modern military organizations such as the Navy Seals.

Jeff also points out that teams need a sense of purpose, autonomy, and extreme skill diversity to accomplish their tasks. In my experience, the greatest value arising out of a shared sense of purpose has been to motivate and align individuals. Furthermore, it’s better for a team to execute autonomously as much as possible as handoffs between teams create the potential for failure and blockers.

I think, there’s a sweet size for teams, usually between 4-8 people. To scale work output, splitting teams, and increasing their leverage are often better strategies than adding more people to a team. Of these, increasing their leverage is a powerful strategy. It involves increasing the capability of each individual as well as the impact of the projects they pick up.

I’ve often felt that there’s some trade-off between skill diversity and team size. To get enough people so that teams have the right skill set to accomplish a task often implies increasing team size. One way around it, is to increase the capabilities of each individual. This would involve resisting specialization and developing broader competence. This is one area where I believe technology can help.

Finally, on leadership, Jocko Willink points out in Extreme Ownership that there are no bad teams, only bad leaders. The ideal leadership acts as a forcing function to achieve victory. I can see the potential of leaders to increase the effectiveness of teams but I wonder if this is actually a price paid for large team sizes and whether smaller teams with novel processes can execute without the cost of one individual leading the group.

My idea of ideal teams would be small, focused groups of generally competent people working on challenging, impactful problems at scale. This is by no means a new idea. I’m more interested in how technology and organizational processes can help keep teams small. Perhaps I’ll have more ideas about this as I gain more experience.