What’s the Dimwit Duration On Your Team?

One of the sad realities of life in a team is that decisions often become stupider as they filter their way from the decision maker to the place where they get implemented.  Over and over, I’ve seen something that started out as a rational and well-intentioned idea become twisted into something pointless or annoying or awful as it percolates its way through an organization.  If you are the one at the end of that process, it can be really hard to believe that it ever started out as even vaguely rational.  Why does this happen?

Decision “Telephone”

Well, one problem is that the person implementing the decision often doesn’t really understand the original idea.  You’ve probably played “telephone” as a kid – take a phrase and pass it by word of mouth down a line of people.  At the end, the result is revealed to much hilarity since it never even resembles how it started out.  Well, that’s what happens to decisions – their basic shape might make it down, if you are lucky, but the context and the rationale for it are often mangled beyond recognition.  This is just a fact of life about people – they are a very lossy channel for communication – and it isn’t fixable.

Decision Combinatorics 

The other problem is that a single decision will often end up getting applied in a lot of places to a lot of people, and the person who made it doesn’t always have a clue about them all.  And, multiple decisions, each of which may make a lot of sense in isolation, combine into a mess.  For example, “we won’t push out an update to our web site until we run our test passes on it.”  And, “our test passes will try out all the different browsers that people are commonly using.”  Result: the site is down for hours because you can’t push an update that is a tiny little tweak to a configuration setting.

Can Rationality Prevail?

You can try to counteract these problems by having rational people at the tip of the spear who apply the decision with flexibility and humor.  That way, something that becomes completely impractical is not rammed down the throats of the team.  It is very hard to create a culture at scale that works this way; it is just a lot easier to be rigid than to be thoughtful, and people are inclined to be lazy.  Also, someone is much less likely to get into trouble for applying a policy than for setting it aside, and many people are very risk averse.

By all means, try to do this .. but don’t be surprised if it fails a lot.

Enter the Dimwit Duration

The only real cure I’ve ever seen for the bad decisions that slip through is to minimize what I call the “dimwit duration”.  This is the period of time that the stupid implementation of a decision stands, before somebody with the power to undo it finds out and can fix it.  Now a lot of factors play into this:

  • How often the decision maker meets and talks to the people who implement their ideas
  • How much power and authority is pushed down the organization
  • How detail-oriented and open-minded the decision makers are about what’s really going on
  • How egregious the decision is and how many people are affected
  • Where the team falls on the culture spectrum between “ruthless candor” and “sir, yes sir”.

The size of the team also has a lot to do with it – it’s one of the many reasons that I like smaller teams, where the doers and the leaders bump into each other often and know each other well enough to be honest.  In many large organizations, they never really do meet, and bad decisions can persist forever.  People can fall into a sense of despair that sanity will prevail, and you get the kind of bureaucratic inertia that Kafka satirized so effectively, with everybody just marching along.

What’s the Dimwit Duration on your team, and what are you doing to shorten it?

100x – Primal Sweet Spot

I’ve always loved being part of teams that are around 100 people.  For years, this was the classic size of a product unit at Microsoft – if you were in one that ran well, it was great.  The team had enough people to really get something done – most of the medium sized products at the company used to be created and built by teams around this size.  Everyone pretty much knew everybody else.  And everyone knew how to get any decision landed – you could always go to the person running the product unit and they could make the call.  You ran into that person pretty often since everyone was physically pretty close together.  The second startup I was in grew to be about this size, and it felt really good in terms of getting things done.

I watched Microsoft evolve from these kinds of teams to much larger ones, and I saw how hard it was to make those larger teams move with the same kind of speed and conviction that product units used to have.  I was moved to do a little research, and was intrigued to find that 100 seems to be a sweet spot generally for primates.  Pre-industrial human tribes were (and are) often around this size.  In visiting Africa, I noticed that baboon tribes commonly have 50-100 individuals, and some poking around on the web confirmed that this is true of other tribal primates like chimpanzees.  Because clan-based primates are intensely status-conscious social creatures, we want to be and to feel connected to the social structure that we inhabit.  Without any technology for communicating further than voice can reach, the status structure of the organization is dependent on personal interaction.  Individuals want to know how they are connected to each other and to feel a sense of membership, and direct physical interaction is a key part of that feeling.  We like to think we have evolved unrecognizably from our origins, but there is a mountain of evidence showing how deeply those early evolutionary experiences continue to shape our behavior today.

Recently, I discovered that there has been some research that supports this idea – there is a concept called “Dunbar’s number” that shows the cognitive limit on the number of people that somebody can have a stable relationship with.  150 is a common number that people have proposed for it.

What it all boils down to for me is that I really like being part of a team this size.  This section talks about ways to make them run effectively.  Have you found this to be a sweet spot for you, too?

%d bloggers like this: