Author and researcher Josh Kaufman writes in The Personal MBA
that “too much time spent in communication and coordination can kill a team’s effectiveness.”
Kaufman describes “communication overhead” as the proportion of time you spend communicating with members of your team instead of getting actual work done.
Communication is necessary to keep everyone on the same page. And the more people you have to work with, the more you have to communicate with them.
As the number of people on your team grows, communication overhead increases geometrically. Beyond a certain threshold, each additional team member decreases the capacity of the group to do anything other than communicate.
Large companies are slow because they suffer from communication overhead.
Kaufman reflects on his own experience working at P&G.
One of his projects involved creating a company-wide strategy on how to measure certain marketing tactics. Kaufman’s recommendations required input or approval from dozens of people across the company before anything could be implemented.
Naturally, people had different ideas, debated various approaches, and wanted a share of the credit without having to commit to too much work or expense.
As Kaufman puts it, he spent three months of full-time effort simply trying to create a working proposal.
“In the meantime, no actual work was being accomplished — 99 percent of my time was spent doing little more than communicating with other members of the group.”
Kaufman writes that the solution to communication overhead is straightforward but not easy: make your team as small as possible.
You’ll be leaving people out, but that’s the point.
Studies of effective teamwork usually recommend working in groups of three to eight people. You want your team to be “elite and surgical.”
If you’re wondering whether your team suffers from communication overhead, here are eight signs to look for:
1. Invisible decisions: No one knows how or where decisions are made. There’s no transparency in the decision-making process.
2. Unfinished business: Too many tasks are started and few are completed.
3. Coordination paralysis: Nothing can be done without checking with a large number of interconnected units.
4. Nothing new: There’s a general lack of initiative and few radical ideas or inventions.
5. Pseudo-problems: Minor issues are magnified out of proportion.
6. Embattled center: The center of the organization battles for consistency and control against local or regional units.
7. Negative deadlines: Deadlines for work become more important than the quality of the work itself.
8. Input domination: People react only to inputs – whatever is thrown at them instead of taking initiative.