Manager's Diary: The Two-Pizza Rule

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IMGCAP(1)]As a new manager, I’m constantly on the lookout for useful management tips, so when Intuit CEO Brad Smith began detailing one of the secrets of the company’s success at its recent annual press event, I was all ears.

As Smith described it, Intuit frequently uses small teams of employees in a variety of ways to help boost innovation. The teams are kept deliberately small, from four to six people—no more, he noted, than can be fed by two pizzas.

He had me at pizza.

Any management practice that involves lunch has automatic credibility in my book, but the more I think about the idea of sizing up teams by pizza, the more I see in it. Building cohesive, efficient teams is always difficult, and one major issue is figuring out the right membership: Too few people, and they’ll be overloaded; too many, and they won’t be able to communicate or coordinate effectively.

It’s an excellent rule of thumb: If you have to order more than two pizzas, your team is probably too big. It’s less likely to bond, less likely to breed accountability, less likely to create effective lines of communication, and less likely to fit in a conference room. Conversely, if you can feed your team by just buying individual slices, you probably don’t need a team at all, and are just setting one up to make yourself feel important.

But that’s not all the Two-Pizza Rule offers:

• It’s quick. When you need to set up a team, simply order two pizzas, and keep bringing people in until the pizza is gone. Then lock the door and start assigning responsibilities.

• It’s a morale booster. Studies by the U.S. Army during World War II found that the main reason soldiers fought was so they wouldn’t let down their buddies—a phenomenon known as small-unit loyalty that only occurs in teams of the right size. The same military study also found that pizza boosted morale more than Chinese, Mexican, or sandwiches from that place across the street (though less than margaritas).

• It’s flexible. Note that Intuit’s Smith didn’t specify whether these were large or small pies. Given America’s current waistline, they’re most likely large, but you can always switch to small as part of your firm’s wellness program. Also, scaling up to two pizzas means far fewer arguments about toppings, and lets you accommodate the weirdos who freak out if a food they don’t like is anywhere on their pie, even the half they’re not going to eat.

• It offers insight into your staff. Who’s eating their third slice while everyone else is still on their first? Who folds? Who doesn’t eat their crust? Even as you read this, the people at Kolbe are probably developing an index that will let you turn metrics like these into actionable intelligence on your employees. Plus, the Two-Pizza Rule will identify those who don’t like pizza for later termination. Do you really want to work with people who don’t like pizza?

Now, obviously you’ll need to make sure that the people you invite to your pizza party have the skills to complete whatever task it is you’re building the team for. You’ll also want to make sure the team understands that there isn’t going to be pizza at every meeting, and that sometimes they’re going to have pay for their own lunch.

Coming next week: The Three-Martini Task Force.

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