The Ideal Project Team Size? Two Pizzas Feed Them

This piece was originally written in 2007. It appears below, followed by further observations in the intervening five years:

What size of project team is optimal to deliver a new IT application, with quality, in the shortest length of time?

Based on empirical evidence, if the team needs more than two pizzas to satisfy its hunger, it’s probably too big.

(At least, that was what discovered.)

The principle here is that the team should be no larger than it needs to be.

So, rather than engage in a fruitless debate over the nature of projects — “ours are real business applications (never mind that Amazon’s are revenue-generating) and thus more complex than some little web thingy” — let’s look at what the “two pizza limit” is really saying:

Keep the core team small, and use competence when and as needed.

Most businesses put many individuals on project teams for extended periods of time (if not “for the duration”) on the rationale that their specific knowledge and skills might be needed.

A better practice is keeping the core team small — so that communications are fast, frequent and effective — and focusing carefully on what, precisely, is needed by “experts” so that they can be brought in, used for their expertise, and leave, free to contribute to some other team.

This is the true difference between the idea of the centre of excellence as a practice area in the mould of a consultancy and the centre of excellence merely as just another organizational unit.

Break the project into chunks.

This is not a call for “many small releases”, effective though that has been.

What it says is: architect and specify a solution, then turn that over to a team to create and implement it, then turn that over to a team to deploy, refine and optimize the resulting “product”.

Each team is small and focused, and it requires that the work of the preceding step actually be done before proceeding, instead of co-developing all steps more or less in tandem.

This also allows the organization to learn from its errors in a more effective manner: bad design skills, for instance, can now be isolated, and a true “scope freeze” once the design is done can more readily be implemented.

Avoid over-specifying the solution.

The tendency in IT today is to answer all requirements with “a package”.

While this can be effective in delivering complex functionality in a less-risky manner (on the surface), it often leads to two bad sets of decisions that affect projects: trying to use more features than the requirements actually require, and force-fitting requirements into the capabilities of the package.

Having just a very few core packages (to provide a data architecture with some degree of master data model consistency) and writing bespoke code that does specific functions tied to that data architecture is often faster, cheaper, and less risky than trying to merge packages into a coherent whole.

The resulting parts are also easier to replace later, as well — less depreciation overhead, less expense to do so.

Trying to do too much at once.

Requirements often become a “bit bucket” filled with everyone’s pet peeves, especially if requirements and specifications are co-developed.

Projects should begin because the business case is built from the requirements, and some deployment rules-of-thumb for costing.

Excess requirements can be squeezed out at this point, as they are less likely to produce value that adds to the benefit stream.

In addition, separation of the business problem and its outcome (requirements) from any of the technical aspects of delivering the result (specifications onward) allows problems in the problem definition to be probed when the only cost is a little more meeting time and some paper for record-keeping, rather than throwing away months of work with significant mid-project scope change.

Every step in the process of going from “let’s solve this problem” to “that works well, thank you” can be done by small, tightly-focused teams.

That is the true lesson of the two pizza rule — and it is as true when one is deploying a major package as it is for a small little application.

Further Observations 2007-2012:

It has become more clear than ever that organizations are burdening themselves with underemployed staff, rigid systems and long, expensive projects with minimal returns as a result of ignoring the “two pizza” rule.

One organization that set out to break the previous “big team” mould found that, after extensive work removing local modifications to their SAP application, they could carry out constant extensions of function through writing new modules for their SAP base using “two pizza” teams.

They now deliver — routinely — 10x the function to the business per year as two years ago, at 1/4 the cost.

Their rigour at doing “just enough” at any one time has kept projects short and focused — and built a business belief that “next release” is meaningful, and something they’ll see in a few months, not five years or more out.

What this means, in practice, is a reduction in SG&A associated with their investments relative to the environment they had before.

This makes marginal cases more appealing, satisfying more requirements.

This unit is also prepared to move into cloud-based (or “-as-a-service” offerings) when their corporation is prepared to do so, an example of solid architecting for the future.

Unfortunately, this type of thinking still remains more the exception than the rule — which implies that those who embrace it have created a tool for competitive advantage by doing so.


About passionateobserver

I am a passionate observer of our society, the economy, and politics. Mostly I don't like much of what I see, so I write as a concerned citizen. To the fray, I bring a background in the philosophy of history, a lifetime's reading, a work history in information technology management, consulting and education.
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