Baking Teams

I have a friend whose wife loves baking, and he was tasked with helping her out one of these evenings. He was keen to cut corners and get it over with as soon as possible, so he could go back to his code, videogame or whatever it was that caught his fancy at the time.

Instead of working fast in small batches – or slowly in big ones – he mixed all the eggs, flour and milk together. Too fast, while stirring too little. It formed clumps, and eventually a whole bowl of terrible-looking dough had to be thrown away.

It turns out, the secret is to mix wet and dry ingredients really carefully: if you know you’re going to add more than the mixture will take, you better sift the dry stuff first, hope for the best and then whisk and stir like mad. It’s a delicate balance if you’re dealing with a new recipe or unfamiliar tools. In fact, a change in altitude or air humidity could be enough to tip the odds in favour of mediocre cake.

As my friend told me this story, I suddenly realized the same thing works for teams, too: add too many people at once and, unless there’s room for everybody to absorb and share their points of view, you’re going to get knowledge and culture “clumps” that are really hard to dissolve. New domains, technologies and processes: more variables, making it really hard to predict whether you’ll get it right or not, and they all tip the scales towards mediocre outcomes.

But what if you had to? Or, instead: what if you decided that, given other constraints, it’d be desirable to add lots of people to a team in a very short time span? What would you do to keep it from “clumping”?