Trim those teams: Why increased productivity is just a pizza (or two) away

IT managers often are faced with getting more and more done on an ever-shrinking budget. While hardware and software optimization is often at top-of-mind, also consider optimizing the structure of your teams.

I've been thinking a lot about productivity of late. IT managers are faced with a constant challenge: do more and more with less and less.

What makes IT so amazing is that most IT professionals have risen to the challenge. By incorporating virtualization and the rapid scalability of cloud architectures, IT managers and CXOs have managed to keep up with the incredible pace of innovation and the volume, variety, and velocity of data streaming into and out of their data centers.

There is, however, one place where rapid scaling is counterintuitive: people. As introduced almost 40 years ago in Fred Brooks' seminal treatise The Mythical Man-Month, we've come to know that as teams and groups get bigger and bigger, productivity goes down. The way Brooks described it was simple: if you add more people in the hopes of shortening delivery time, you won't.

A few minutes thought makes his reasoning obvious. More people means more personalities, more management, more need to reach consensus, more meetings, and so on. With the Internet and chat technologies like Slack, we've managed to combat some of the layering challenge that comes from large teams, but there's no doubt the more chefs you have in the kitchen, the worse the soup.

I think about that a lot, because I spend a tremendous amount of time in large meetings, often with 13-17 people or more on the phone. The dynamics are often predictable. There are a few of us who dominate the meeting, discussing the topic of interest. There are often an entire array of lieutenants, representatives, handlers, and support staff who all need to be involved, but are often silent for the whole meeting.

Work does get done, but I often think about the net organizational cost of having 13-17 people (usually across three or four organizations), all participating in a meeting that goes a lot like this:

That brings me to the central premise of this simple power tip: keep meetings and groups small. Amazon is famous for their concept of "two-pizza teams" and I think they have a point.

Yes, there can be a never-ending discussion about how many people two pizzas can feed, but etiquette (and my wife) remind me that two slices is enough for anyone. That slices-per-member ratio, factored into the typical 8-slice New York pizza, bring us to teams of about eight people or less.

In many ways, I think an eight-person team is a bit too large, but compared to some of the enormous meetings I've had in the past, living by the two-pizza rule may help you cut through unnecessary complications, management overhead, and adminsitrivia.

Keep this in mind: we once used to add more and more physical servers to get more and more done. The cost of that included power, floorspace, and even the added complexity of updating and managing licensing across all those machines. Today, we often rely more and more on a metered cloud environment, where we pay for just what we use, and can scale on demand.

Relate that to the size of your teams and groups. You don't always need to "loop everyone in" for every project or team. Build small, well-integrated teams of core participants, and if you ever need to bring in additional support, you always can.

We all know that over-provisioning hardware can be costly and wasteful. Over-provisioning our teams can be equally costly and equally wasteful. Keep it to two pizzas. That's more than enough.

By the way, I'm doing more updates on Twitter and Facebook than ever before. Be sure to follow me on Twitter at @DavidGewirtz and on Facebook at Facebook.com/DavidGewirtz.