In his book “The Everything Store: Jeff Bezos and the Age of Amazon,“ Brad Stone writes about a counterintuitive view that Jeff Bezos, the founder of Amazon, has: communication is a sign of dysfunction because excessive communication indicates that people aren’t working together in a close, organic way.
The Two-pizza Rule
Bezos’s philosophy is that teams should strive to communicate less, not more. He believes that when teams are communicating effectively, they are working in a harmonious, organic manner that reduces the need for constant communication. This is because the team members understand their roles, the project’s goals, and each other’s work styles well enough to proceed with minimal discussion.
This idea was notably expressed during a management offsite in the late 1990s. A group of executives presented several techniques to improve communication across divisions separated by distance. Bezos’s suggestion was to try and figure out ways for teams to communicate less with each other, not more.
His approach to team structure and communication is also reflected in his concept of “two-pizza teams.” This idea suggests that teams should be small enough that two pizzas could feed the entire group. Smaller teams are more efficient, less prone to groupthink, and more likely to foster close, organic working relationships that reduce the need for excessive communication.
The Ideal Team Size
Jeff Bezos’ infamous two-pizza rule limits teams to 5–7 people, which can also be backed by research on ideal team sizes.
According to organizational behavior expert J. Richard Hackman, “The rule of thumb is no double digits. Big teams usually end up wasting everybody’s time.” Hackman found that coordination issues explode as team sizes exceed this threshold.
A study by Jennifer Mueller revealed that for tasks requiring coordination, teams of 4–6 people tended to be the most productive. Beyond nine members, returns diminished rapidly. Larger groups struggled with coordination costs and motivation losses.
This also aligns with the Ringelmann effect, which shows that individual effort decreases as team size increases. Each additional member increases total productivity but at a decreasing rate as social loafing sets in.
In addition, a study by anthropologist Robin Dunbar suggests that 5 is the ideal size for a close-knit, cohesive team. The human brain can comfortably maintain stable social relationships with about five people.
Ultimately, there is no magic number. Respected research converges around the idea that small, single-digit teams maximize cohesion, coordination, engagement, and productivity. Jeff Bezos landed on a brilliantly simple metric to capture that — the two pizzas.
Why Bigger Teams Underperform
There are several reasons why larger teams tend to underperform compared to smaller, more agile teams:
Social loafing refers to the tendency of people to put in less effort when working collectively in a large group. For example, at a crowded happy hour with dozens of coworkers, Doug stuck to the corners, chewing a few fries and letting others mingle. He didn’t feel his contribution mattered much with so many people around.
This matters because research confirms social loafing tends to emerge when teams grow bigger. People rationalize they can hide in a big crowd and coast a bit since their effort won’t stand out. Keeping teams capped at about five people maximizes accountability and effort.
With fewer members, every person’s contributions are more identifiable and impactful. Peer pressure kicks in on a small, tight-knit team as there’s no room for slackers.
As team size increases, the number of communication channels and links between members grows exponentially, hampering productivity. Imagine some corporation where a team of 15 people can spend half of their Monday meeting just trying to coordinate schedules for the next client presentation. Emails will be flying repeatedly, trying to pin down a time. More people means more calendars and availabilities to juggle, eating up precious time.
Studies show productivity typically declines when the number of people starts to grow. Limiting team size keeps coordination smooth and manageable. Discussions happen faster face-to-face, meetings stay on track, and less time gets wasted figuring out schedules.
Our brains can only comfortably maintain stable relationships with about 4–5 people at a time. Beyond that, we experience cognitive overload, and relationships become strained.
For instance, on a 12-person software team, Amy needed help to keep up with all the members. Frequent re-introductions were needed before meetings. She couldn’t remember who worked on which components. With larger teams, people feel disconnected from most members, bonds weaken, and interactions grow impersonal.
Research suggests five may be the ideal size for close team cohesion. Capping teams at about five members reduces cognitive load so people can forge tighter relationships and keep better track of roles. In smaller groups, people interact directly with each other frequently, so familiarity remains high.
Diffusion of Responsibility
In big teams, responsibilities become diffused, and the assignment of tasks gets unclear. People avoid stepping on toes, so critical work falls through the cracks.
For example, during a busy product launch, the 12-person marketing team kept deferring presentation ownership. Designers assumed developers would handle it. Developers thought marketing owned it. The press release never got written amidst the confusion over who was responsible.
On small teams, roles are more evident, so ownership is more straightforward to assign. People feel empowered to jump in proactively, knowing their specific contributions are essential.
Larger teams allow dominant “free-riders” who control discussion while others stay silent. Strong personalities and groupthink take over, discouraging dissent.
For instance, Jamie typically did most of the talking in client meetings for her 10-person consulting team. Everyone else played it safe, deferring to Jamie’s forceful ideas without debate.
Too many opinions get shelved on oversized teams. Groupthink and overconfidence can take hold without diverse input. In a small group, equal participation is required. There’s a greater debate of assumptions in a small setting where people feel safer speaking up and challenging ideas, enhancing creativity.
Small Teams Maintain Focus and Ownership
When you keep your teams small enough, some powerful dynamics kick in. Suddenly, it’s way easier to unite around a focused goal versus trying to appease competing agendas across a sprawling team. You feel closer, like a tight-knit family willing to do whatever it takes together. Responsibilities get clearer, too — there’s no confusion or finger-pointing when everyone is watching closely. You step up because your effort is front and center.
Small team size magnifies commitment, ownership, speed, accountability, and chemistry. Things just gel when you can truly connect with every single teammate.
Originally published on Medium.com