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Three’s Company: How to Dramatically Increase Productivity with Small Teams

Quick, say this figure out loud: 300000000000. Okay, now try it again, this time with the commas: 300,000,000,000.

Just as breaking large numbers into smaller groups makes them significantly more manageable, organizing your employees into small teams will do the same for your workforce.

In fact, if you don’t put commas in your staff by creating small teams—the more people you add to your payroll, the more confusion and chaos you’ll have, and the more overall productivity will suffer.

That’s how it was when we started the first-ever online commercial print company. All 35 of us worked hard at our assignments—mostly processing customer orders—but with very little synergy. The absence of group accountability motivated us to make ourselves look good, not our coworkers. Morale and customer satisfaction flagged. So we reengineered.

Ten years later, we have more than 180 employees, the majority operating as well-trained teams of three—the most effective number for the kind of work we do.

Even though we twice tripled our workforce, we now have a closer-knit culture, a stronger work ethic, a lighter-hearted atmosphere, and unprecedented customer satisfaction. As members of a small team, we help each other achieve daily goals. We understand each other’s contribution to our overall success. We make a difference and are motivated to do our best work. We know each other’s relative strengths and weaknesses, enhance our tactical allocation of manpower and expertise, and handle work faster and more efficiently.

At the same time, we root out mediocrity among ourselves. If someone in our group fails to perform, we notice immediately and bring it up. We rise to our full potential thanks to healthy peer pressure and team pride.

Rather than selfish backstabbing competition, we have friendly competition with other teams. When work is a game, we enjoy our jobs more, get more done, and are likely to stay at the company longer.

To create commas in your own workforce and your bottom line, follow these nine steps:
  1. Develop teams consisting of the smallest possible number of people who can still cover all the needed skills to get the job done exceptionally well. Try three people if you don’t know where to start.

  2. Form the team so that there is a mix of personality types, including one natural leader.

  3. Generate a list of responsibilities (not tasks) for each team member which, taken together, represent the whole job of the team. There should be a primary and secondary person designated for each responsibility so that no responsibility can languish long. Rotate team members weekly in these responsibility “slots” to provide variety.

  4. Pick two or three performance goals for the team to shoot for and supply each team with real-time feedback on those metrics. Also, let everyone see the performance levels of all company teams and individuals.

  5. Set individual performance standards and review with each person regularly. Take action with low performers.

  6. Create a team workspace that allows for easy conversation and enhanced awareness of what each member is doing.

  7. Automate everything that can be done well by a machine. Focus human time and attention where it can create the greatest value to the customer and company.

  8. Grant a large amount of autonomy in decision-making to the team. Use values and principles as guides and keep rules to a minimum.

  9. Encourage and follow-through with line-level suggestions for workflow improvements. And seek constant improvement.