Size of an Agile team

I am convinced that there is some validity in what Jeff Bezos, CEO of Amazon.com, shared in his simple gauge for team size – “The Two pizza rule” – Your team size is large, if you need to feed more than two pizzas.

Having been on teams of small and large sizes, I believe the size of a team is one among many attributes that must be factored in the Agile transformation of an organization. The number of members has a much stronger influence in building an Agile team and embracing the Agile methodology.  A large Agile team may expose recurring symptoms that challenge them in performing well. While any of these signs can occur even in a smaller team, it is likely to be predominant on a larger one.

Signs to look for:

Retrospective sessions – When a team of 15 or more members have suggestions for improvement, it is harder for the team to identify and agree upon action items within the duration of the sprint retrospective meeting.  As a result, the team may run out of time to discuss action items or could result in having lengthy retrospective meetings. Over time, team members may opt to have private discussions in smaller groups or may refrain from contributing, while a few others may dominate with their ideas. The most vocal team members would suppress the rest from contributing. A sequence of unproductive retrospective sessions would expose recurring issues and impact the team’s effectiveness.

Division of work – The sprint planning and daily stand-ups are the best indicators of work being distributed across team members. Based on the nature of the product backlog items, there may be a lack of contribution from every individual to an exhaustive coordination for completing sprint planning. The complexity increases when you factor distributed team members. Even if your product owner has a good handle in creating backlog items, he/she may feel the pressure to feed each member of the delivery team. An imbalance in the ratio of developers to testers can aggravate  the pain, at least until automation kicks in. In such a scenario, a large team may be attempting to develop more items in a given iteration, followed by verifying it in a later iteration, creating a mini-waterfall like approach.

Team development – A large team takes  longer duration to cross from Forming to Norming state.  Communication and collaboration in a large team presents several challenges such as adopting the Agile methodology, reaching consensus or even trusting each other. The duration increases significantly if your organization or your team is fairly new in applying Agile methodologies.

Consider splitting your team into smaller functional teams, if you are experiencing similar recurring signs. A smaller functional team is one that can complete products for release to end users. It should be no surprise that maintaining smaller teams along skills (Ex: developers in one team and testers in the other), would only increase dependencies and force more coordination. Do not hesitate to reach out to your stakeholders and the leaders of your organization to present the options for splitting your team. I have observed that an Agile team can function better if the team size is less than 10, including the Product Owner and the Scrum Master.

Splitting your team takes time. Until you can determine the right course of action, here are some interim options:

  1. Maintain clarity on roles and responsibility.
  2. Identify the top three or five places for improvements in your retrospective sessions.
  3. Time-box conversations and seek undivided attention during the sprint meetings.
  4. Set the stage during the retrospective meeting, so the team can stay focused on identifying places for improvements that are pertinent to the previous iteration.
  5. Reduce technical debt and re-factor code across each iteration.
  6. Apply pair-programming, so members have a common understanding of code-base/product.
  7. Coach the team to complete backlog items as a single development team without maintaining a distinction between development and testing.
  8. Identify areas where your team applies group thinking and instead challenge them for brain storming different options.
  9. Establish team building exercises that would help members to know each other better.
  10. Coach the team to collaborate in-person when possible and to establish professional rapport with each other.
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