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Why You Should Understaff Your Teams

September 6, 2016

You’ve played the first two games with three players. How about we give you Darin and you can have four and we’ll play with three?

No, I like playing on the team with 3.

I looked over at Nelson and smiled. Yeah, I liked playing on the understaffed team too. Nelson, Dev and I were the three. We were playing full court: the three of us against four players on the other team. We’d lost the first game 21-13. The second one was closer at 21-19. We play three games each morning. The other team was offering to give us one of their players for the third game. Nelson didn’t want him. And neither did I. 

Why would someone willingly play on an understaffed team? 

There’s a fascinating book about software development called “The Mythical Man-Month.” A man-month is the amount of work that one programmer can get done in a month. It’s an inexact measurement, but it’s sometimes the best that we can come up as project manager. “The Mythical Man Month” explains why adding people to a project to try to help it finish quicker, can sometimes make it take longer. 

That makes no sense, of course. If I need to collect 20 widgets and you offer to provide 5 widgets, I can complete 25% faster. But, if my project has 20 man months left, and I bring on five additional developers, won’t I finish quicker? No, because the man-month is a myth. The book’s basic premise is,

One woman can have a baby in 9 months, but 9 women cannot have a baby in one month.

“Too many cooks spoil the soup.”

Software development teams are different than basketball teams, but they are teams none the less. Throwing a bunch of extra developers into a project will result in a lot of turmoil as the new developers attempt to learn the code base, and integrate with the team. Plus, existing developers have to stop what they are doing and help the new guys learn. That ramp up time often, in fact nearly always, eats up any efficiencies you get from more people. 

Gideon was a Hebrew general during the conquest of Palastine by the Israelites. However, there was a problem when he went to attack the land of Midian.

Judges 7:2 And the Lord said unto Gideon, The people that are with thee are too many for me to give the Midianites into their hands, lest Israel vaunt themselves against me, saying, Mine own hand hath saved me.

Gideon had too many men. He had a lot too many.

Judges 7:3 Now therefore go to, proclaim in the ears of the people, saying, Whosoever is fearful and afraid, let him return and depart early from mount Gilead. And there returned of the people twenty and two thousand; and there remained ten thousand.

So, he cut his army down from 32,000 to a mere 10,000. But, that was still too many.

4 And the Lord said unto Gideon, The people are yet too many; bring them down unto the water, and I will try them for thee there: and it shall be, that of whom I say unto thee, This shall go with thee, the same shall go with thee; and of whomsoever I say unto thee, This shall not go with thee, the same shall not go.

5 So he brought down the people unto the water: and the Lord said unto Gideon, Every one that lappeth of the water with his tongue, as a dog lappeth, him shalt thou set by himself; likewise every one that boweth down upon his knees to drink.

I have to say that if I’d been with Gideon’s army, I wouldn’t have made the cut. Only the soldiers that lifted the water to their mouths were going to get to go fight the Midianites. 

6 And the number of them that lapped, putting their hand to their mouth, were three hundred men: but all the rest of the people bowed down upon their knees to drink water.

So, he had an army of 33,000. He could have wiped out his enemies easily. But, instead he took a team of just 300. Why would someone willing be on the understaffed team? (BTW, Gideon’s men routed a much larger army by attacking at night and pretending that they were the entire Israelite army.) 

I remember the first time my college roommate took me to a BYU women’s volleyball game. I didn’t want to go. He insisted it was exciting to watch. I’d played volleyball. The big lazy bouncing ball sailing high over the net until one side dropped it? No thanks. 

Finally, I agreed. I was amazed. Collegiate volleyball is much different than what you played in gym class. The serves are in the 80 mph range for women. Men can serve at up to 100 mph. But, it’s the spikes and digs that are most amazing. No big lazy lobbing back and forth for these women. There are six people on a volleyball team.. . .unless they are playing beach volleyball. Then, you have two on each team. That makes no sense. How can two people cover the same amount of court as six players? 

I enjoyed watching the Rio Olympics. I don’t have TV, but we stream the Olympis every four years. The beach volleyball was amazing to watch. How do two people manage to cover the same distance as six? It’s the same way that a smaller development team can outperform a bigger one, or how Gideon’s 300 were able to accomplish the same as his 33,000 would have. When there’s fewer people, each person very clearly knows their role and they know that they can move from one position to another without running into a teammate. The beach volleyball players knew exactly where their teammate was at all times. 

Remember that guy in gym class who was just a little bit better than the rest of the class at volleyball, but thought he was a lot better? He was all over the court, running into people as he single-handedly tried to get to every shot. I think that guy was the inspiration for beach volleyball. 

Louis L’Amore, the famous Western writer, typically wrote heroes that fought alone. Often, when asked if they wanted help, their response was,

No thanks. If I’m by myself, I don’t have to worry about anyone else. 

What he really means is that when you are the only one on your team, everyone else is an enemy. Your small team can be more efficient. It be more nimble. It can coordinate and communicate with team members easier . And, like Gideon’s army of 300, it holds bragging rights over the bigger teams. 

We started game three by jumping out to an early lead. One of our house rules is that the team with more people cannot run a fast break. Nelson ran like a gazelle. By being on the smaller team, he was free to streak down court on every position. We got a lot of fast break points. I’m not much of a scoring threat, but I love to play defense. On nearly every play, I ended up guarding two players. It’s a timing issue to know when to cut to the open man to try to pick off a pass. The final game was 21-15. We never trailed the entire game. As often happens, the understaffed team won. 

Who would want to be on an understaffed teams? Clearly someone who understands teams.

Rodney M Bliss is an author, columnist and IT Consultant. His blog updates every weekday at 7:00 AM Mountain Time. He lives in Pleasant Grove, UT with his lovely wife, thirteen children and grandchildren. 

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