Long Meetings, Large Teams and the Powerful Pro-Crack Lobby

April 27, 2008

seven of nine

Back in the 1980’s when I played music with Jeff Graham, we passed the highway time by making fun of anything we could think of. One of his favorite targets was a Missouri politician who took a strong anti-drug stance. “Mighty courageous,” Jeff would say, “takin’ on that powerful pro-crack lobby.”

Jeff’s words come to mind as I evaluate recent discussion from Matt at Signal vs Noise on ideal team size and ongoing conversations with colleagues on how many meetings are too many. Matt’s post drives home that there is broad historical agreement on nine to twelve as an ideal size for a team if getting something done is the intent. My only geek-obsessed contribution to his thoughtful analysis is to observe that this principle will continue to be relevant far into the future. Jeri Ryan’s Borg character on ‘Star Trek: Voyager’ was Seven of Nine, not Seventy-Three of Nine Hundred and Eighteen. And the Borg had collaboration tools that even 37Signals can’t match (yet).

Thing is, in many years on several Corporate American starships I’ve yet to be on a project team larger than that. So if the answer is obvious, why do we keep asking the question as though it were a controversial one? Not sure about crack, but on the other two I think it’s because ‘small teams, short meetings’ is the right answer to the wrong question about what makes us unproductive.

Even ten can be unwieldy for a project team. I prefer four or five when possible; there is no place to hide and it is crystal clear that the work won’t get done unless each person does their part. It never seems to be the project team that slows things down anyway. It is the endless flow of Borg drone ‘stakeholders’ who emerge from Giger-inspired corridors saying flatly “your project will be assimilated into our roadmap.”

The idealistic approach to fending them off is to authorize the project team to set phasers on kill. Nice for ‘Star Trek’ to get past that Prime Directive hokum, but impractical in the Collective that is Corporate America for many of us. If you work in a company of any size, one of the non-idealistic approaches I’ve seen work is use of a RACI chart.

There are variations and the chart is less important than the mental discipline in acting based on who is:

  • Responsible (does the work)
  • Accountable (one single owner of success or failure)
  • Consulted (has knowledge needed or is a stakeholder impacted enough by the project that their opinion must be considered)
  • Informed (needs to know what’s going on but is not consulted)

Confusion on the last two – not team size – is what most commonly bogs projects down in my experience.  People overestimate the degree to which any given project affects them and place themselves in the Consulted quadrant. Suddenly teams that you’ve never heard of are setting up meetings and requesting deliverables. The stakeholder creep begins. Without a clear definition of whose opinion can (and, more importantly, can’t) alter the project direction, Borg drones overwhelm the away team every time. When that happens you’re best off being beamed outta there.

Matt’s right that a small, effective team doesn’t need documents like a RACI chart. What he misses is this: the chart isn’t for them. It’s unimportant to identify who’s on the team. The key thing is to identify who isn’t.

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One Response to “Long Meetings, Large Teams and the Powerful Pro-Crack Lobby”


  1. […] I don’t intend to mock hubris here (it’s tempting, but The Onion is better at it). Nor am I saying that it’s OK for projects to languish in the pipeline or to have scope and timelines decided by consensus. Death by consensus is worse than executive fiat, as I’ve made clear before. […]


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