Monday, September 24, 2012

What Makes Teams Work?

What's the secret to a great team? Think small. Ideally, your team should have 7 to 9 people. If you have more than 15 or 20, you're dead: The connections between team members are too hard to make.

Two and a half years ago, AOL was feeling hamstrung at the technologies level. There was a bottleneck at the top. We decided to make that division team based, and created core teams that were empowered to make decisions about products.

It was the best thing that we could have done. The core teams spun off satellite teams (also made up of small groups of people) that focused on specific projects, with specific goals and expectations.

The management challenge is to understand that the people who report to you may get most of their direction from another person or from several other people: their team leaders. And people can be on more than one team, of course. It's the manager's job to think about whether this person is being stretched too thin, or whether that person needs some special training.

Size is the key. Have the smallest number of people possible on each team. Another rule: no delegates. You don't want people who have to take the team's ideas back to someone else to get authorization. You want the decision makers.

Teams work when they are created for the right reasons, and when they are created in the right way. The organization that I think does the best job of meeting these requirements is the U.S. Marine Corps. Most people think of the USMC as a command-and-control organization. But when they put a team together, it's in the right place for the right reasons. The corps is extremely disciplined about assessing whether it really needs a team for the task at hand. The notion that a team is always better is misleading, yet all too often, that's the path that managers choose.

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