Quick! What’s Google’s biggest strategic issue?
Facebook? Wrong! Twitter? Wrong! The next big new thing? Wrong!
Google’s chief executive, Eric E. Schmidt, gets to the heart of the matter in a recent New York Times article: it’s the size of their teams. “There was a time when three people at Google could build a world-class product and deliver it, and it is gone. So I think it’s absolutely harder to get things out the door. That’s probably our biggest strategic issue.”
“From the beginning," writes Claire Cain Miller in the NYT article, "Google’s founders, Larry Page and Sergey Brin, have tried to prevent atrophy. That is one reason Google gives everyone time — called 20 percent time at the company — to work on their own projects. The company tries to limit groups of engineers working on projects to 10. But in reality, engineering groups quickly swell to 20 or even 40, several Google product managers said. And new products created during 20 percent time are less likely to get anywhere these days.” Robert Scoble reports that Google Wave, which failed, had more than 30 people on the team.
Why is Apple so good at innovation? There are many factors. It’s important that the company is managed by engineers who understand the work and have respect for the people doing the work. But a key differentiator is that they have been able to keep their teams small, according to Sachin Agarwal who worked at the company for 6 years, before leaving to start his own firm.
Similarly Jeff Sutherland, the genius behind the approach to Agile software development known as Scrum, always stresses that keeping teams small is key to good performance. “Seven, plus or minus two” is his rule of thumb. Double figures? You’re in trouble.
I’ve written in an earlier post about the problems of getting things done in the World Bank. When a small team of people was given responsibility for doing an emergency project, they could get the job done in six weeks. For “regular” projects, where the team received an enormous amount of “help” from various advisors, reviewers and supervising managers, the loan generally took about a year. All these advisors, reviewers and supervisors imagined that they were adding quality: in reality, what they were mainly doing was slowing down the process of delivering value to the clients of the organization.
Got a problem? Let's make the team smaller!
The instinctive reaction of a big company when it has a problem is to throw more resources at it. Give them more people! That’s the myth of the man-month: i.e. the idea that if you add more workers, you get more production. In knowledge work, it doesn’t work that way. For every person you add to a team, he said, iteration speed goes down. It was described by Fred Brooks in his classic book The Mythical Man-Month.
In reality, the key to solving a problem is often making the team smaller. Robert Scoble reports how Larry Ellison actually got efficiencies from teams. If a team wasn’t productive, he’d come every couple of weeks and say “let me help you out.” What did he do? He took away another person until the team started shipping and stopped having unproductive meetings.
In knowledge work, there’s no getting away from it: small is beautiful.
Read more on small teams in chapter 5 of The Leader's Guide to Radical Management: Reinventing the Workplace for the 21st Century (Jossey-Bass, 2010): "one of the best five books on management in 2010" (800-CEO-READ).