How do you choose the right size working groups?

According to Robert Sutton Co-author, Scaling up Excellence--One the best things you can do to respect the challenge of cognitive load and remove complexity is keep teams small and nimble.

There is a lot of evidence that as a team gets bigger than five, and the closer it gets to 10, things get bad — you end up spending more and more time on coordination chores and less and less time doing the actual work,” Sutton says. You also start having all these interpersonal problems because you’re trying to track the personalities and moods of 10 or 11 people. It’s like going to dinner and having a conversation with that many people all at the same time. Impossible.”

An example of this is when the Oracle USA sailing team started training for the America’s Cup, they expanded from five to 11 crew members, and it was a mess, Sutton says. “It was really interesting to watch this adjustment. All of these guys on the boat were mic'd up with headphones so they could talk to each other, but it gets loud out there. They're on a 72-foot boat going 50 miles an hour in 25-knot wind. You can hardly hear or focus on anything.”

Another example of this is the two-pizza rule that Amazon has made popular. The rule states that every internal team should be small enough that it can be fed with two pizzas. This way, a giant company can have the best of both worlds: The scale and power of a large corporation coupled with the agility and fluid communications of a small team.

Things only started coming together when they took earpieces and microphones away from half of the crew so there wasn’t so much cross-chatter and they could just follow the movement of the people working near them. In their case, ruthlessly eliminating complexity to maintain the small-team feel was the right strategy.

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