How Microsoft Makes Large Teams Work Like Small Teams

  • Michael A. Cusumano
  • October 15, 1997

Common sense, industry experience, and some academic research all suggest that, when conducting any complex tasks, small teams of talented people are better than large teams of average or talented people. To develop new products quickly, for example, a recent textbook argues that small teams of no more than ten or so people are most effective.1 One reason may be that the fewer people on a team, the easier it is to have good communication and consistency of ideas among team members. Small teams also can simplify scheduling and work out interdependency difficulties.2

Another factor to consider in determining the optimal size for a particular team is individual team-member productivity. In software development, for example, talented programmers are known to be ten times or more as productive as the least talented members of a team.3 This is no doubt true for other types of research, engineering, and intellectual work, such as creative writing, that we cannot so easily routinize or mechanize. Getting the same amount of raw productivity from a team of ten talented people as opposed to 100 untalented people provides other benefits as well, such as simplifying communication and scheduling problems. The ten-person team would probably produce better results faster, even though managing prima donnas, such as “super-programmers,” can present other challenges (the problem of “too many chiefs and not enough Indians”).4

But, while small teams of talented people may be the most desirable way to develop new products, another issue that managers must consider is the inherent limits of small teams when facing very large products and short deadlines. Small teams even of “super-engineers” may still be unable to design, build, and test a complex product with many components quickly enough to be competitive. As a result, even a very selective firm may end up having to manage teams of hundreds of talented engineers. In the automobile industry, for example, companies require as much as 7 million engineering hours to develop one new product and routinely require 1 to 2 million engineering hours. Even at companies renowned for product development skills, such as Toyota, Honda, and Chrysler, these numbers translate into at least 500 and often more than 1,000 engineers working from three to five years on a single new car product.