Why Big Teams Crash and Burn

At some point in their careers, most managers end up stewarding a team that can’t seem to come together and finish the project to which it’s assigned.   Usually, the answer to missed deadlines and other team-based struggles is to throw more people onto the team. After all, if there are more people capable of doing the work, it should be done faster, right?  Wrong.Why big teams crash and burn

Brooks’s Law

Back in the 1960s, Frederick Brooks was the head of programming at IBM, in charge of creating a new operating system for its mainframe computers. It was a huge project, and Brooks soon found himself confronting a big problem: The more programmers he put on a task, the slower they all seemed to work.  Finally, Brooks realized his problem wasn’t with his people or the task. It was something about the structure of his teams.  After some analysis, he came up with a rule, now known as “Brooks’s Law”: Adding manpower to a late project makes it later.

It’s the relationships, stupid

Brooks’s Law is all about relationships. Every team member, of course, has a relationship with the other members of the team.  In the simplest possible team – a two-person team – there’s just one relationship. But as you add team members, things get more complex. A three-person team has three relationships, while adding a fourth person doubles that number to six. This chart shows how quickly relationships can spread as a team gets bigger.


Team MembersRelationships


As you can see, the number of relationships increases much more quickly than the number of people on the team.  Brooks actually came up with a formula to calculate the number of relationships in any size team: R = n(n − 1) / 2, where R = number of relationships and  n = number of team members.  You don’t need to memorize that formula, but let’s look at what it means.

Effort turns inward

Each of these relationships takes time. So as a team grows larger, more and more of its energy goes to managing relationships. Before long, most of the team’s time is spent on the team itself, instead of on the task.   This is why big teams often crash and burn: Endless meetings. People working at cross purposes. Lousy communication. Duplication of effort. Finger pointing and blame as people try to figure out why they’re working so hard and still falling further behind.  It actually gets worse. Brooks came up with a corollary to his law: There is an incremental person who, when added to a project, makes it take more, not less time.

The bigger the worse

In other words, at some point a large team will actually accomplish less than a smaller team. Different teams reach that dead end at different points, depending on the people and the task at hand. And smart teams will figure out how to streamline some of the administrative tasks and postpone the inevitable. But eventually a team will get big enough that it will actually accomplish less than a smaller team.   So what’s the solution?
1) Keep your team small to begin with. Make it no larger than necessary to get the job done.
2) If you need to add people, break up the team into smaller units. Instead of having a team of 8 people, which brings with it 28 separate relationships, split it in half. Two groups of four yield 12 total relationships, which are much easier to manage.

Limitations of the Law

Now, Brooks’s Law doesn’t hold for every kind of team.   If you have, say, a crew of bricklayers putting up a building or a call center that’s fielding customer inquiries, the work will go faster if you add more people. That’s because these are jobs where people work more or less independently, so very little time is spent managing relationships.   But if you’re heading up a collaborative team working together on a project, remembering and heeding Brooks’s Law will stand you in very good stead indeed.

About Dave Clemens

Dave Clemens has spent years consulting with HR professionals, researching developing trends, tracking employment case law and reporting on what it all means to human resource professionals. His HR Café blog is read by 14,000+ subscribers three times each week. He is a senior writer for the Compliance & Management Rapid Learning Center online training site. He has worked for newspapers, news services, magazines and specialized business publications -- in print and on-line -- on four continents during his 40 years as a reporter and thought leader. He has served as deputy financial editor of the International Herald Tribune, based in Paris; editor and bureau chief for Bloomberg News, based in Tokyo and Singapore; and deputy bureau chief for the French news agency, Agence-France Presse. His work has also appeared in the magazine World Press Review, over the news and broadcast services of The Associated Press, and in several nationally recognized human resources, employment law and business newsletters. Connect with David via Twitter or Google+