ants at work

Have you heard about the “Two Pizza Rule?” It was introduced by Jeff Bezos in the early days of Amazon. The idea: every internal team should be small enough that it can be fed with just two pizzas. Beyond that, Bezos believed, the group would start to become less effective.

Pizza aside, there is research to back this up. The “Ringelmann Effect” suggests that the larger the group, the less individual effort is contributed by members of that group, with the impact becoming decidedly more significant as the team grows beyond five or six. 

My experience in leading groups supports this as well — not that clients are always happy with my efforts to constrain group size. The main argument against small groups is usually one of representation, i.e., the group needs to be larger in order to have input from a broad range of stakeholders. 

Representation is a critical element, of course, but it need not result in a ballooning of the number of participants. For example, in setting up a strategy development work group (often known as a Strategic Planning Committee), we look for participation by both Board and staff members. The Board members bring a longer-term perspective, whereas the staff members bring the knowledge and pragmatic insight of those dealing with the day-to-day issues. But so long as we have the right people (more on this below), we don’t need many of them.

There are other, more practical reasons for limiting the size of the group.Scheduling, for example, becomes much more challenging as the numbers grow. In a recent project of mine, where a 15-person strategic planning committee was put in place, we never had a single meeting in which all members were present! This meant:

  • The large group size and resulting imperfect attendance diminished representation
  • Leaders had to spend additional time updating absent members
  • The lack of a consistent group of participants had a demotivating effect on the group overall

Beyond size considerations, it is also important to incorporate diversity. Especially when considering strategic direction, it is essential to have a range of perspectives along characteristics that include race, gender, age, and other elements. It’s particularly useful to have a group that looks somewhat like your clients or customers, to the extent you are able.

Finally, when establishing a work group, I pay close attention to individual characteristics of potential team members. They must be…

  • Committed. Team members should be personally interested in and committed to the long-term health and direction of the organization.
  • Engaged. Team members should be willing — and able — to offer candid and direct input and be open to a process that will likely address some difficult questions.  
  • Representative. Team members must be respected and trusted by members of the organization and understand the perspectives of their fellow workers.
  • Agreeable. Team members must be able to disagree without being disagreeable and able to work with others towards building a consensus viewpoint.
  • Communicative. Team members must be willing and able to share progress with others in the organization and be ambassadors for consensus decisions that result from the process.

Overall, the culture of the organization — and the working group itself — must be one that encourages and accepts open and honest discussions. When these conditions are met, working groups can be very effective tools.


Working groups need to workIf they get too big, too homogenous, or too antagonistic, they cease to perform the function(s) for which they were established.

A bias towards small size, diverse opinions, and a willingness to engage productively will always serve your groups well.

P.S. For more on the question of group size, check out this interesting Wharton article.


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