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12 Tips for Creating and Nurturing Efficient Small Teams

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By Rich Karlgaard

small_business_teamLooking to grow your business? Blow up your bureaucracy and replace it with teams of 8 to 12 people. This is not as radical as it sounds. Amazon founder and CEO Jeff Bezos calls it the “Two-Pizza Rule”—a team should be no larger than can be fed by two pizzas. In today’s fast-evolving business climate, two-pizza teams can be your organization’s best strategy for success. But how do you go about selecting and nurturing team members for maximum efficiency? Here are 12 tips:

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 the remaining team members to be creative. That’s where you start. Lean and hungry. Fewer than a dozen if you can manage. You can always add 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.” The point? Don’t be afraid to go out on a limb if you believe an “unconventional” choice would be best for your team. Who is your Judy Estrin?

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 really do want to staff your team with individuals who are willing to share, serve, and give credit where credit 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.” Individuals’ answers 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 very 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.

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