In my last company, I used to hear people say “We need more people to handle this workload.”
Every group in the company considered in isolation could use more people, no matter what group they are in; at least that’s what most people think. But smart folks sometimes say, “We have too many people.”
Here’s what the research tells us: Until you reach about 7 people in a group, adding another person will likely make the group go faster [putn2011]. Specifically, starting from a 1 person group, at first, each time you add a person the value-produced per group goes up, However, something weird happens as you approach 7 individual contributors: The group productivity drops. I.e. An 8 person group produces less than a 7 person group. Why? Because the communication, coordination and mistake costs have overwhelmed the advantage of additional people.
To add one more complexity, the zero-sum game of corporate hiring means if your group hires more, my group must hire less. Smart software executives typically seek an optimal ratio of user experience designers, engineers, program managers, user experience managers, engineering managers, scrummaster, product managers, researchers, etc. to maximize corporate profitability. If your company has the right ratio, when a group is overwhelmed, you are actually over-stressing the whole system, producing technical debt, and should slow down.
In my current company, user experience is one of our most important brand values.
Recently, a colleague asked me to consider hiring more user experience designers for a product where software engineers develop new features very slowly. Given that insight, you might suspect the software carries a lot of technical debt, and you would be right. If we hire more user experience designers, it would likely generate more feature requests, then more pressure on the engineering team to produce features faster, then more shortcuts in coding, and then even more technical debt.
Technical debt leads to systemic slowdowns in productivity. Its accumulation is insidious and can be disastrous for a company. In the face of a highly competitive marketplace, technical debt scares me.
Here are some sophisticated alternatives to consider when a user experience group is overwhelmed:
- The ratio of user experience people to developers really might be too low. In this case, reduce the rate you hire engineers to increase the rate you hire user experience designers.
- Engineers might be producing features too fast; you should get more engineers to work on reducing technical debt to make the future brighter.
- Your user experience group might not be saying “No” to unimportant assignments. In some cases, product owners or engineers can do a reasonable job with a little guidance. In other cases, the project isn’t profitable enough to bother doing.
You can apply this sort of thinking to any situation where you think you need more people. Will more people make your group more productive? Even if the group is more productive, will the company be more productive? Take a step back and think about the relative ratios of different types of contributors. Maybe the company would benefit most from adding more people to a different group.
When someone asks you to state your team’s top impediment, here is what they are asking: “What is the biggest thing keeping my existing team from contributing most to corporate productivity?” Hopefully this post explains why “Not enough people” isn’t usually a good answer. Sometimes, in fact, the impediment is too many.
Doug Putnam, “Team Size Can Be the Key to a Successful Software Project,” Quantitative Software Management, IT Almanac, 2006.