Wednesday, December 21, 2011

8 - the perfect innovation number

Every sport has a specific team size.  Basketball allows five players on the court at one time.  Baseball allows nine on the diamond.  American football and international football both allow eleven on a side.  It's a mystery how these numbers were arrived at, but they've become codified in the sports we play. 

Other initiatives and efforts have a "right" number.  Three wise men.  Three musketeers. Four horsemen of the apocalypse (just saying).  However, the old adage is that "too many cooks spoil the broth", and like many old adages it carries a ring of truth.  There's an appropriate team size or number for almost any effort, and we at OVO have decided that the magic number is eight.  As in, eight people.

In my experience innovation suffers from the Goldilocks phenomenon, not necessarily too hot or too cold, but either too few participants or too many.  In the first case, innovation seems challenging and requires a lot of work with little possibility of payoff, so only the hard core dedicated types show up.  In the latter case innovation seems like the approved strategic flavor of the month, so lots of people show up but don't, you know, expect to have to do anything. 

When you have a team that's too small, there are too many perspectives missing and too much work for the team to do effectively.  A small team rarely spans all of the business lines, business functions and insights necessary, so the team is constantly calling on other people and eventually makes itself a nuisance.  Conversely, when the team is too large it is unmanageable and easily distracted.  People who probably shouldn't be there, or people who are there to make sure they don't receive assignments simply get in the way of people who are actually trying to get things done.

But on the whole, smaller teams are more powerful than larger teams, for this reason:  only smaller teams can grapple with disruptive ideas.  Getting people to think disruptively means getting them to think outside their comfort zone and outside the products, services and strategies of the business.  If even one person can't or won't free themselves from those confines, then the team will be dragged back down by the doubter.  The larger the team, the more likely it is that you'll have a doubter.  And the power of one person who can't or refuses to get on board with a new perspective or scope is enough to drag down the rest of the team.

So, in most regards, five people is at the lower end of a viable innovation team, simply due to the workloads and the range of experience and perspectives.  Ten is probably at the upper end, due to the cost of the commitments and the increasing likelihood of people who simply won't get on board.  Eight is a nice, round number somewhere in-between, and the number we've found to be about the best for innovation.  Oh, you might say, that seems on the high side.  You're right, and we err on the high side in this case because many innovation teams consist of people who have other, important jobs, so they can't attend every meeting.  Working on a quorum philosophy we always keep working and expect absent members to catch up.  This philosophy works if you have 8 members and 2 can't come, but becomes difficult when you have five members and 2 can't come.

There is another aspect of the Goldilocks phenomenon mentioned above.  Team members can be too hot (too excited about their own ideas) or too cold (assigned to the team but with little desire to be on the team).  Smaller teams can be formed around volunteers - people who WANT to be there, while larger teams are formed from people who were TOLD to be there or people who want to be sure they are represented but don't actually plan to do any work.  Like Goldilocks and her choices, you don't want too hot or too cold, too large or too small, you want the team and the people to be "just right" for the effort.  That magic number for innovation is eight.
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posted by Jeffrey Phillips at 7:12 AM


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