The At Least 2 Pizzas Rule
Jeff Bezos is credited with a long standing management principle out of Amazon called the “The Two Pizza Rule”. According to myth, it stemmed from a desire to keep teams small, nimble and totally focused on one challenge. Two pizza teams means that if you can’t feed the whole team with just two pizzas, then it’s too big. Depending on your appetite, this is a team size of 8-12 people. With me on the team, maybe it’s closer to 5.
The benefits of this policy at scale are significant. When a team grows past 12ish, it inevitably increases its scope by taking on more challenges to justify all the resources. This requires more work aligning the team, more conversations on what to prioritize, more relationships to manage – more inputs and more complexity. As I understand this idea, once you get up to this size, you should split the team into two or three teams and refocus each totally on one initiative. I have not worked at Amazon, but I have seen similar constraints like this implemented at scale and they work well. Organizational constraints that allow a company to preserve it’s original cultural DNA (in Amazon’s case, a commitment to small teams) without requiring a leadership team to constantly audit “what made us successful when we were small” is an underestimated growth tactic as companies ramp.
Recently I’ve had a number of conversations with former Amazon employees and I probed them to see if there is also flip-side to this postulate: that you should also have enough people on a team to eat two full pizzas (i.e. not so small that it can be fed by just one pizza). Unfortunately, it wasn’t something that was part of the lore. While at first I was disappointed by this, I later thought – maybe they’re digging in the wrong place. I actually think it’s the other side of this principle that carries equal, if not more weight, as you grow a company.
After just a few Gilbraltars down South of Market, you’ll find its pretty common in fast growing tech startups to hear people spout off about “how things are so big company now”, about the need to “stay small and scrappy”, on how we should “leave and start our own thing because I’m totally over all the corporate BS” and all that crap. However, as companies grow, the evils of teams that are too small are rarely discussed. There have been recently lauded musings on the “fetish for failure”, I think there is a similar crush on all things diminutive. Too much virtue can become a vice.
When teams are too small — say an organization where multiple managers have only 1-2 people reporting up to them — organizational weakness manifests in other ways. Too many people have to spend their time translating for their direct reports — what the leadership is thinking, what 1-2 people should be doing (which is much less than complicated than allocating work across 5+ people) as well as communicating up on what one or two people are doing. There is not enough of a critical mass to control the team’s own destiny (ht @z). Debates on the direction of the team lack diversity and likely the ability to sway the team’s leader. Most importantly, because most managers understand their primary focus should be on their people, they will spend way too much time with them, which inevitably leads to meddling and micro-management (ht Andy Grove, HOM).
The only caveat I’d say here (which many of the Amazon employees I spoke to mentioned) is when someone is setting out to build a team. Then it’s obviously unavoidable to have 1-2 directs for a period. In these instances, the singular purpose of the team should be to build the team. Once they’ve got a full stack together, they’ll then shift to their real focus.
As always, thoughts here are my own.