What Happens to a Team as it Grows

The problem with having an exceptionally well-run team (which you have, because you’ve been following our Team Tempo, right?) is that you're often "rewarded" with a bigger team—either more people are assigned to your existing team, or you’re promoted and have more direct reports. And slowly but surely, miscommunication returns, frustration rises, and deadlines are pushed.

It’s not you—as teams gain members, they also suffer more drawbacks:

  • They stress people out. Professor Jennifer Mueller studied 26 corporate design teams and discovered that people on larger teams suffered from "relational loss"— they didn’t know whom they could turn to for help, and didn’t know whom they could trust to support them.

  • They make people more inclined to slack off. Known as the Ringelmann Effect, people put forth less individual effort, expecting the rest of the team to compensate.

  • They make people less productive AND overconfident. Another study on team scaling discovered that not only do larger teams take more time to complete a task, they underestimate how long it will take them to do it.

According to organizational psychologist J. Richard Hackman, the problem with larger teams isn’t the number of people, but the links or relationships between them. You can calculate the number of links using the formula n(n-1)/2, where n equals the number of people. For instance, a team of four has six links, while a team of six has 15. In other words, managing relationships within a team gets very complex, very quickly.

At Amazon, they’ve developed the “Two Pizza Rule” to combat this— if the team can't be well-fed by two pizzas, they're too big. Depending on your organization and your level within it, though, you may or may not have a say in how many people are on your team. Luckily, there’s a simple solution to help manage these relationships: divide up the team for the meetings.

Let’s look at how this works with a typical Monday Planning Meeting. Small teams should meet first thing in the morning to discuss what they’re working on that week, and identify any blockers that might prevent them from accomplishing their goals. Once that meeting’s complete, one senior representative from each team should attend a "global" meeting, in which they share the top notes from the earlier meetings, as well as discuss what's on their individual plates. Agile introduced this approach over a decade ago, and it’s still the most practical solution.

A second, related problem is coordinating teams in multiple time zones. There’s no perfect solution; some of our clients have rotated who suffers ("this month, Asia has to stay up late"). If your team uses Slack, you can actually get a scrum bot that will facilitate some of the meeting questions asynchronously. For another approach, we just published how SoundCloud organizes their all-hands meetings, which take place across four time zones.


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