We recently shared thoughts from Rich Karlgaard, author and publisher of Forbes magazine, on why smaller teams generally outperform larger ones. It’s a view shared by many top executives, including Amazon founder and CEO Jeff Bezos, who famously insists on a two-pizza rule; that is, a team should be no larger than can be fed by two pizzas.
But many companies have environments in which team size tends to spiral out of control, making the two-pizza rule tough to enforce. So how can you keep your teams lean and efficient? Here are 12 tips from Karlgaard:
Work your way to the smallest number, then subtract one. This advice has been borne out by numerous business leaders. The “minus one” philosophy forces remaining team members to be creative. Assemble your team with fewer than a dozen members, if possible. You can always add more later.
Go with your gut—even when someone isn’t the “obvious” choice. In 1989, FedEx knew that it needed to update its old, slow technology. Its unconventional strategy was to ask Judy Estrin, a young Silicon Valley technologist, to join its board. At 36, with no experience as a CEO or on a large company board, Estrin wasn’t an obvious choice. But she was, as FedEx CEO Fred Smith noted, “blindingly bright.” Don’t be afraid to model FedEx if you believe an “unconventional” choice would be best for your team.
Choose people who are passionate. These are the ones who will spend extra hours on a project, who will think about that problem or product on the weekends, in the shower, wherever they go. Without passion, your team is likely to be a gaggle of clock-punching automatons. You can generally recognize passionate people by what they do, not what they say. Consider the approach taken by Mike Sinyard, founder of Specialized Bicycles. Sinyard hires only employees who love biking and watches to see who does lunchtime group rides to separate the “talkers” from the “riders.” Is this fair? Why not? It’s a bike company!
Look for grit, too. Grit is the ability to overcome adversity. Look for individuals who have proven they can do so — those who don’t shy away from a challenge. Avoid those whose first move is to look around for someone to help them when they’re in a jam. Remember, a big part of what makes two-pizza teams tick is an intrepid, entrepreneurial spirit that isn’t daunted when the going gets rough.
Avoid needy prima donnas and self-aggrandizing MVPs. Yes, “team players” has become a business buzzword, but there’s a good reason for that. You do want to staff your team with individuals who are willing to share, serve and give credit where it is due. You can also borrow the strategy of Eric Edgecumbe, COO at Specialized Bicycles, who asks, “Did you play any team sports in high school or college? Tell me what you liked about being on a team and what you didn’t like about being on a team.” Answers to those questions can tell you a lot!
Aim for cognitive diversity. In other words, go beyond “shallow, legalistic” definitions of diversity. Cognitive diversity encompasses a broad range of variables — generational differences, educational and skill variation, and social and cultural elements including, of course, race and gender. Cognitively diverse teams will come up with ideas and tackle problems in a variety of ways. Some members will trust their guts; others will crunch numbers. Some are analytical and logical; others are creative and intuitive. They will all think, feel and see the world in unique ways, leading to the broadest range of ideas and solutions.
However, don’t emphasize your team’s differences. This can result in unhelpful pigeonholing. Instead, focus on finding common ground and providing what the group needs to move forward. For instance, all employees want a chance to be respected, to be challenged and to grow. We all need credible leaders: people who encourage us and listen to us. We all want to learn more and receive training that helps us do a better job and get to the next level.
Encourage tough conversations. Easily won consensus isn’t always the hallmark of effective two-pizza teams. Sometimes, arguments need to happen. Tension needs to be addressed. It may be messy, and there will likely be misunderstandings. But stay the course and urge people to speak up and have difficult conversations. In the end, their differing opinions and interests will sharpen the company and result in better products and services.
Give the gift of high expectations. Don’t be afraid to drive people, cajole them and push them to find that last one percent of team performance. This motivates them far more than vague or easily met goals. When a team leader has high expectations, he or she is paying the team members a compliment. And when those expectations are met, the feeling of success not only becomes normative, it begins to grow and multiply. A virtuous cycle begins, and you institute a natural deterrent against the inertia that dooms so many companies and careers to mediocrity.
Be very clear about goals and boundaries. Don’t leave room for doubt. Don’t be passive-aggressive. When team leaders are as clear as possible in setting boundaries, people actually feel freer to express thoughts or make mistakes than when boundaries are vague.
Lead with real-world optimism. Great team leaders simultaneously drive and reassure people. Base this reassurance on the genuine belief that good things come from working hard and following a system. This kind of real-world optimism is more than hope—it’s the ability to approach your task as an opportunity. Let your team know that if they stay positive but alert and a touch paranoid — just a touch — they’ll have a shot at achieving something bigger and better.
Keep a loose grip on the reins. Valuable team members will want some control over their own environments. If they have to run every detail by you, they’ll lose initiative. Provide support and mandate accountability, but leave the lion’s share of the decision-making with the people who will be eating those two pizzas. Don’t sacrifice productivity for the sake of bureaucracy.
About the author: Rich Karlgaard is the publisher of Forbes magazine, where he writes the Innovation Rules column. He has been a regular panelist on television’s Forbes on FOX since the show’s inception in 2001. He co-founded Upside magazine, Garage Technology Partners, and Silicon Valley’s premier public business forum, the 7,500-member Churchill Club. He is a past winner of Ernst & Young’s “Entrepreneur of the Year” award. His 2004 book, Life 2.0, was a Wall Street Journal business bestseller. His new book is The Soft Edge: Where Great Companies Find Lasting Success.